TOPICS : Lessons of China’s product-safety scandals

Americans are again upset about China, this time thanks to a spate of product safety and food contamination cases, the revelation of slave labour 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 China. Exploitation of the powerless ran unchecked. Famine, epidemics, and social violence stalked the land. China’s plight was 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 Dr. Sun wrote a powerful diagnosis of China’s ills and a recipe for 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 and occupy the lowest position in international affairs… If we wish to avert this catastrophe, we must espouse nationalism and bring national spirit to the salvation of the country.”

In the late 1970s, after the Cultural Revolution, China’s political leadership turned to “reform.” Deng Xiaoping’s regime began to open to market economics at home and to China’s immersion in the global economic mainstream. All along, the Communist Party has remained vigilant against organised challenge. The Leninist structures that provided the organisational template for national consolidation after 1949 still operate. The party affirms that without its economic and social leadership, China’s blazing economic advance could not have happened. But the dilemma still lurks: How can China establish

normative social consensus needed to rein in entrenched habits of social predation? For millenniums, China’s order was loosely but durably knit together by codes of individual, societal, and governmental conduct. Ironically, the achievement of China has arisen less from an engineered “national spirit” than from ideological intrusion into the economic lives of Chinese 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. — The Christian Science Monitor