Lessons of China's product-safety scandals

The frailty of its social contract is the deeper message of this summer's bad news.

Americans are again upset about China, this time thanks to a spate of product safety and food contamination cases, the revelation of slave labor conditions at a rural north China brickworks, and the execution of the head of the State Food and Drug Administration for health-threatening corruption.

American diagnoses are familiar: "Wild West capitalism," "spiritual vacuum," "local protectionism," absence of the rule of law, the ill effects of one-party rule.

The larger conundrum evoked by current developments, however, is the frailty of the social compact in modern China.

As with every society, China today is heir to its past, and the seeds of its current challenges germinated last century.

By the 1920s the fledgling Republic of China was stumbling badly. Regional warlordism split the country. Foreign powers exercised privileges exacted over eight decades from a helpless China. Exploitation of the powerless ran unchecked. Famine, epidemics, and social violence stalked the land.

China's plight was a source of profound concern for Sun Yat-sen, the man credited with leading the 1911 revolution that ended 2,000 years of dynastic imperial rule. In 1924, just before his death, Dr. Sun wrote a powerful diagnosis of China's ills and a recipe for the nation's salvation:

"...[W]e should therefore be advancing in the front rank with the nations of Europe and America. But the Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have national spirit. Therefore even though we have 400 million people gathered together in one China, in reality they are just a heap of loose sand. Today we are the poorest and weakest nation in the world, and occupy the lowest position in international affairs.… If we wish to avert this catastrophe, we must espouse nationalism and bring this national spirit to the salvation of the country."

Sun's alarm sounded a central theme in China's tumultuous modern history: the need to bind together a vast, poor, and fragmented population into an organized polity, founded on a new consciousness of a nation-centered identity.

Twenty-five years later, Sun's Chinese Nationalist Party heirs were driven from the Chinese mainland by Mao Zedong's Communists. With the ruthless but effective organizational discipline of the Communist Party, its intense mythmaking ideology, and its monopoly of force, social and political consolidation finally seemed to be at hand. The possibility of forming a new Chinese social compact beckoned.

The foreign gunboats, swashbucklers, and proselytizers were gone. Regional armies and local militias were eliminated. China's catastrophic opium epidemic was ending. Village exploiters were stripped of their power.

To Mao, as to millenniums of imperial predecessors, it was a given that the strength of the nation was inseparable from popular values. To imbue China's masses with a new national belief system, the communist propaganda apparatus turned to political indoctrination and social mobilization.

The rhetoric, imagery, and even China's convulsive political campaigns (such as the Great Leap Forward) emphasized self-sacrifice for the good of the nation, "Serving the People," and the individual's commitment to shared moral-political codes.

In the late 1970s, after the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution, China's surviving political leadership turned to "reform." Deng Xiaoping's regime began to open the floodgates to market economics at home and to China's immersion in the global economic mainstream.

All along, the Communist Party has remained supreme and vigilant against organized challenge. The Leninist structures that provided the organizational template for national consolidation after 1949 still operate. The 70-million-member party affirms that without its economic and social leadership, China's blazing economic advance could not have happened.

China's current economic progress and global clout would surely please Sun. But the conundrum of the social compact remains. Nothing in contemporary Chinese ideology validates selling fake, nutritionless "baby formula" to families whose children starved. Nothing in the canon of officially promulgated popular values would endorse the production of useless or lethal counterfeit medicines.

The executed official who took bribes to approve unqualified pharmaceuticals, was not thinking about "Serving the People," or Sun's "heap of loose sand." Nor were the brick kiln owners of Shanxi Province. Nor are the local officials and party cadres in myriad places around China, who evict farmers from the land in order to reap windfall real estate development profits.

Behind the 21st-century features of these revelations, the older dilemma still lurks: How can China establish the normative social consensus needed to rein in entrenched habits of social predation?

For millenniums, China's traditional order was loosely but durably knitted together by pervasive codes of individual, societal, and governmental conduct. China's 19th- and 20th-century upheavals turned much of that to ashes. Today's call by China's leaders for a "Harmonious Society" and the denunciations of official corruption are a response to this persistent dilemma.

Ironically, the achievement of Sun's vision of a China respected in the world has arisen less from an engineered "national spirit" than from the lightening of ideological intrusion into the economic lives of China's talented and energetic people. China's national pride increases noticeably with its economic progress. But the other side of the old spirit problem – the dilemma of civic spirit – persists. That is the deeper message of this summer's reports of product safety problems and bitter social misfortunes.

Robert Kapp, a China business consultant, served as president of the US-China Business Council and taught Chinese history at Rice University and the University of Washington.

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