Tuesday, September 23, 2008

China’s milk scandal has been blown out of proportion

By China Watcher

The serious repercussions of China’s tainted milk scandal is limited to mainland China and to a certain extent Hong Kong where there were two reported cases of infants suffering from kidney stones.

Western new agencies like AFP, Reuters, CNN, BBC and the likes have a field day reporting that the WORLD is distressed from the spillover over the lack of or poor administration of the food laws and safety guards in China. The governments in Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia have announced a ban on Chinese dairy products.

What is most surprising is, Malaysia who has NEVER allowed any milk and dairy products from China (with an existing ban), has conveniently joined the bandwagon in announcing a ban (on top of another ban). Why ban when it is not even allowed in the first place? Isn’t this a case of over-reacting? I could truly understand if it happened in Singapore because of its “Kiasi or Kiasu” mentality or if translated means “scared to die” or “afraid to lose out”.

The trend to ban China’s milk and milk products has now reached 12 countries especially in Asia and Africa. So, it is not the whole WORLD which is involved but it is limited to certain Asian and African countries. Fortunately, China’s dairy products have not made it to the shores of the US and European countries, otherwise, you can bet the hue and cry from the Western media and its politicians are even more distasteful and ugly.

The people who suffered most from the failure of the China’s Food Quality and Inspection Unit to strictly monitor the dairy production industry are the Chinese people. These people will have my deepest sympathy. Almost 52,000 children have fallen ill and 4 infant fatalities were reported. More children falling sick are expected in the couple of weeks as warned by the Chinese authorities. It is quite normal for the numbers to increase as the tainted milk products is quite widespread and milk, both liquid and powdered, is a very important food for younger people. Chinese societies have today evolved into one which is dependent on cow’s milk compared to the situation 30 years ago, when most Chinese families relied on breastfeeding to feed their young as most of them are too poor to afford milk products.

Hans Troedsson, the China’s representative from the World Health Organization, puts it in the right perspective when he commented that China has a huge population of 1.3 billion people and the figures announced may be staggering but when compared to its population, even a million people affected is no big deal (only 0.07%). The WHO is now in China to discuss with the Chinese officials on how to strengthen the food monitoring and reporting systems.

Chinese investigators have placed the blame on raw milk suppliers, in the hope of making more profit, may have diluted their milk to increase the volume and then add melamine to artificially boost the protein content. If you analyze the life threatening effects of melamine, the victims consist of those who have consumed the contaminated product in large quantities over a prolong period of time like infants or kids who drink it almost daily.

I am not trying to justify the act of adding melamine in food products as the medium to long term harmful effects of the chemical are real but if you consume food that contains only a small portion of it as ingredient and that the food itself constitutes only a small percentage of the total amount of food ingested, it is actually not life threatening.

I personally believe that the pace of China’s economic development is way too fast for the authorities to effectively supervise. On an indirect basis, the Chinese cultural belief and philosophy “of getting rich is good” has led to the birth of unethical and selfish businessmen who will disregard social responsibility in their quest to become rich. Hence, the food safety mechanisms need to be continually revised to anticipate the actions of these groups of unscrupulous businessmen.

The entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese is to achieve prosperity and wealth in the shortest time possible, and to use the most convenient and least costly path even to the extent of giving bribes, receiving kickbacks and cutting “corners” at the expense of quality. Since the opening up of China in the early 80s, China’s approving systems and structures are littered with corruption allegations of which the authorities have, time and again, mentioned their desire to bring it to an acceptable level. But do they have the political will to do so? Or if there is, are the provincial authorities supportive or working closely with the central government on the same matter? Or are the various Ministries working in tandem to wipe out or reduce this particular society’s menace?

I also have to praise the Chinese government for quickly accepting responsibilities for the worse food safety scare this century by forcing the Head of the Chinese quality watchdog to resign and the sacking of the top party official, the mayor and 4 officials from the north Chinese city of Shijiazhuang, where Sanlu is based, for deliberate delays or attempts to cover up the matter to the higher authorities. Additionally, the State media also reported that eighteen employees and milk collection owners have been arrested in connection with the case, including the sacked head of Sanlu Group, and dozens have been detained for questioning. Accepting responsibilities and the willingness to revamp the reporting mechanisms with prompt and accurate reports are good attributes of a people’s government promoting transparency.

I have no doubt that the Chinese authorities will be able to reform and devise a practical and effective food and safety monitoring and reporting mechanism to restore public confidence in the production of Chinese foods and to avoid a repetition of another food scandal at a time when the country can ill-afford.

To revive Chinese people confidence in Chinese food and foodstuff is crucial as it will ensure the survival of the local food industries in the country. China has a large population and the industry players cannot afford to loose this growing lucrative domestic market which will also help to ease the outflow of funds if foodstuffs are to be imported wholesale.

Exporting the goods is secondary as it may take a while before foreign parties and governments are willing to buy Chinese foodstuffs after the battered reputation from this tainted milk scandal.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The modern myth about China and its people

By China Watcher

A month ago, I chanced upon the conversations coming from an adjacent table concerning the Beijing Olympics and the ongoing economic developments in China. 5 out of 10 persons having their dinner at the table were Westerners. A petite lady with Chinese features told the Westerners confidently that China has come a long way since Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 70s and there are lots of encouraging social developments in Chinese societies since then. She suggested a group trip to China for a holiday. One skeptical and hypocritical Westerner retorted loudly that she will only venture to the country if there are no more human rights violations, religious suppression, corruption and pollution.

I could not help but quietly laughed at the poor lack of knowledge and how misguided are the general Western perceptions about China and its people. Most of them only obtained their information from the narrow lens of the irresponsible Western media and the strong influential opinions of the neo-conservatives in their daily lives, both at the office and at home. China bashing has become a “favorite past-time” among the Western media in order to sell their journals, papers and periodicals to take advantage of the situation when its residents are still trying to grasp a foreign culture in which there are significant differences in language, customs and societal standards. This has somehow led to the birth and development of a western mainstream thinking that everything about China is “bad and evil”. At the extreme end, this continuous reinforced thinking eventually led to the formation of a closed mind on China and its people like the Westerner’s reactions which I have brought up in the above example.

I would say openly that the majority of the Westerners who initially formed a poor mental image of the country were taken aback by the strides of progress in Chinese societies and the modern architectural facade located in the coastal eastern cities, the moment they set foot in China. Most impressive of all from the accounts of their traveling diaries was the extent of the people’s hospitality and the modern facilities quite unlike what their earlier presumptions were. Four US cyclists of the US Olympics contingent had to apologize for wearing masks upon landing at the Chinese capital due largely to their ignorance caused by the many misinformed or exaggerated articles by the media back home. Pollution was another issue which was played up by the press. Is there a perception and reality gap over here? Obviously the answer is yes.

Do the Western people know that the Han Chinese in the rural areas can have a second child if the first is a girl? Do the Westerners also know that the Chinese minorities like the Tibetans and Uighurs are excluded under the one-child policy?

China practices “controlled religious freedom” even though the Communist rulers are atheists. The present Chinese government had significantly loosened its control on religious activities when compared with the situation 30 years ago. The Chinese government has also annually allocated funds to build new churches, temples, mosques and for maintenance of existing structures. Westerners need to know that there are sufficient places of worship for religious followers but due to the inert fear of religion being used politically, the central government want to have a say in the managing of the activities. I do believe if the Tibetans or Muslims are not outwardly political in their motives, there are certainly rooms for more flexibility in the preaching of one’s own belief. One good example is the Hui’s Muslims.

It is also clear that there are still gaps in the standard of religious freedom as interpreted by the West and the Chinese government. Given time when Chinese societies become more mature and knowledgeable with a sizeable middle class, the gaps could be narrowed with the demand for changes coming from its people. The West took more than 500 years to attain the current level of religious acceptance in their societies. Even in the present developed societies in US and Europe, I have heard of complaints from Muslims migrants who felt that their religious rights were being infringed when there are surveillance regulations enacted by the mainly Christian based governments and the presence of selective discriminations in the name of security which they had to endure in their adopted home country.

It is a known fact, that there is economic disparity between the coastal cities and the inner provinces as reflected in the widening income gap between the rich city dwellers and poor rural farmers. Economic reform is a continuous process and we do note some encouraging development inland where the villages are finally able to enjoy part of the success of China’s impressive economic growth over the past 20 years. Growth in the urban centers will take place first and then it will spread gradually to the smaller towns, counties, villages and communes. The literacy rate of China in the rural area is slowly improving and at least, I can boldly proclaim that the crime rate in still relatively low as against its population size of 1.35 billion.

China is known worldwide as a producer of cheap and low quality goods and all that will change in a matter of time if we take the economic model of Japan, South Korea or even Taiwan as a yardstick for the elevation of technological progress and development.

Though China's political system is still largely one-party rule, the economic system is undeniably capitalist with a high degree of government intervention similar to most Asian countries.

China is a huge, mysterious and complex country with a diverse population and it is important not to rely solely from third parties perspective but to view the country personally to gather information necessary to make a sound, fair and reasonable judgment

Thursday, September 4, 2008

China must seriously prosecute those involved in tainted “gyoza” dumplings

By China Watcher

A senior Chinese investigator briefed Japanese officials, four days after the closure of the Olympic Games, that there is a strong possibility that the dumplings could have been tainted at the factory in Tianyang Food in Hubei, after four Chinese had fallen ill from eating the company’s dumplings.

I am of the view that if the outcome of the investigation is such that if the methamidophos, an organophosphorous pesticide, was intentionally mixed into the “gyoza” at the company's factory then the person or persons involved must be severely prosecuted.

In December 2007, 10 persons from Hyogo and Chiba prefectures in Japan, complained of diarrhea and vomiting after eating Tianyang Food's gyoza. The poisoning cases created a diplomatic spat between the governments of both countries which eventually led to massive investigations from both ends.

Four Chinese people in June 2008 fell ill after eating the dumplings products that Tianyang Food had recalled following the poisoning cases in Japan, indicating the controls were weak and that there are signs that the harmful chemicals were present before it is exported to Japan.

The Chinese investigators have re-opened investigations and begun questioning temporary workers at the food manufacturer including those who have left the company. Production records, attendance registers, security cameras footage and data on chemicals used at the factory, as well as antiseptics from the company were carted away by the authorities.

Some sources doubt that the Chinese authorities are not serious in pursuing the cases because of suspected involvement of persons linked to the Hubei provincial government. If this is the case, it is all the more important and essential that the central government should step in to provide assurance to the Chinese people that they are committed and serious in overcoming corrupted activities especially those involving people who are entrusted to govern at the provincial level and their related parties as well.

China, being a world’s manufacturer of electronics and now, a diversified processed food exporter must provide assurance to its global consumers that they intend to move up the production chain to produce high value added quality products by handling this high publicity case in an appropriate and convincing manner.

Quality production set-up (with no compromise on safety and health values) and stringent food controls are important pre-requites towards being a reliable world’s food producer.