Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Media, Online Community, Governments Respond to the Poisoned Chinese Dumplings Incident

The Japanese media are having a field day with the pesticide-laced Chinese dumplings. No wonder; it’s a great story. Food-related malfeasance is always a big draw, and this one has an added fillip: unlike the 2007 string of false labeling cases, this one had casualties, albeit nonfatal. It’s also about imports, thus quickening the pulse of the politics of food security. And of course there’s the China angle, which enlivens the debate on any issue, given our near-obsession with our giant neighbor in ascendance.

Three of the four major dailies are, broadly speaking, pro-China. They are obviously not going to go out of their way to portray China in an unfavorable light. In fact, they show a Chinese government that is working hard to respond positively, a government struggling to maintain control over a rapidly growing but still quite poor nation of 1.3 billion people, a nation where consumer-safety so often takes a backseat to growth and profits issues, a nation so large that domestic developments often have significant regional and global ramifications.

Sankei, the most conservative of the four, is somewhat harsher on the Chinese. The extensive online coverage -increased substantially since it replaced Mainichi as the MSN mainstream media partner - portrays a reluctant, defensive Chinese government and a media that seeks to put as much of the blame as possible on the Japanese side, as well as a suspicious, even hostile, online public hurling accusations. Of course a visit to the Japanese mega-message board 2 Channeru shows that we can give as good, at least in part*. The pro-China, pro-coalition government Yomiuri gives us a report that covers both sides of this online shouting match. (Not that anyone can understand firsthand what the other side is saying.)

The Japanese government is reacting with considerable restraint. We are cooperating, it tells us at every juncture - our health and criminal bureaucracies from both sides are working with each other; the Chinese are coming to explain, we are going over to conduct a survey… If there is a conspiracy, it must be a conspiracy of the two governments, to calm the waters.

The reasons for this g-to-g collaboration are not hard to figure out. The Chinese leadership does not want to pick a fight with Japan, for Bad Japan, Bad is a domestic trope that is hard to suppress and easy to get out of hand. The last thing that it wants is yet another popular rallying point that could help the erosion of the political stability that President Hu and his party comrades desperately seek to maintain. There are commercial considerations as well. Food exports to Japan are an important part of their economic push. Every scare, whether it’s bird flu, or carcinogenic eels, or poisoned dumplings carries a reputation risk that increasingly goes beyond that particular market segment. That is bad for local economies, bad for political stability.

On the Japanese side, the Fukuda administration also has good reasons to do its best to seal off the contaminated area, to show that things are under control with the minimum fuss. Hu Jintao, the Chinese President, is likely to visit Japan “when the cherry flowers blossom”, which would put the event proximate to the March 31/April 1 turn of the Japanese fiscal year, when the gasoline tax surcharge happens to be expiring this time around**. The liberal, China-friendly Prime Minister would like nothing better than to stage a successful summit, if only to boost his public standing at what promises to be a crucial juncture in the Diet proceedings. Getting the dumplings incident under control is a must, lest it become an unwanted distraction in its quest for the Holy Grail: a defensible deal on the East China Sea gas fields***.

* The Chinese appear to be more prone to outlandish conspiracy theories, even while pure rage and scorn rule on both sides, Chinese and Japanese. Awareness of pervasive manipulation by an authoritarian regime is fertile soil for seeds of conspiracy, real and imagined. Hostility rooted in recent history - real, imagined, and re-imagined - is the fertilizer.

** Not to mention the desirability of passing the budget and budget-related legislative bills before the new fiscal year begins. For what it’s worth, note that the pro-China, DPJ leadership is not going to use this issue other than to castigate the Japanese government for lax enforcement.

*** It is important to remember that Japan has commercial interests at stake as well. Japanese trading companies, retailers, and agribusinesses are increasingly reliant on low-cost input from China. They have made substantial investments of their time and money to bring China into their product chains. This must have entered into the calculations of the Japanese government in forming its response. However, such considerations must have been secondary at best. For the Japanese government, stability means first and foremost getting the situation under control. A closed, authoritarian regime and an open, majority-rule regime have different priorities.

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