Friday, March 07, 2008

Note on the Poisoned Chinese Dumplings: Two Societies, Two Politics

The poisoned Chinese dumplings imported from China are already having a serious effect on Chinese food exports to Japan. According to a report in the hardcopy Yomiuri, fresh vegetables from China in the first three weeks of February are down 39.7% year-on-year from 34,329 tons to 27,704 tons. For third week alone, it was down 60.8%. January had seen a 10% fall, so this appears to be an accelerating trend. The Statistics are available here, but they're hellishly difficult to manipulate, so I didn't bother to check. Still, the effects are obvious if you go into any Japanese supermarket. I suspect that imports are now being limited for uses where Chinese origins can be concealed (highly processed products, fast food chains, etc.) Even there, Japanese businesses are beginning to limit such imports from China to their subsidiaries.

Initially, as the Japanese authorities went into action and contacted their Chinese counterparts, the Chinese side took a cautious, cooperative approach and even admitted to the likelihood that the pesticides were of Chinese origin. However, after a series of announcements from Japanese authorities that received wide attention and pointed to China as the probable source of contamination, Chinese authorities went into aggressive denial and claimed that the contamination must have occurred in Japan. This is instructive of how Chinese authorities handle these and other similar health and safety issues that keep cropping up and attracting unwanted attention.

It is said that the Chinese take losing face very seriously. Indeed, it is at least plausible to think that their authorities would have continued in a far more cooperative vein if their Japanese counterparts had been willing to work outside the glare of the Japanese media. Japan is, of course, an open society in a way that is qualitatively different (independence of the media, lack of censorship, independent court system, etc.) from China. Moreover, the recent epidemic of branding and labeling fraud by domestic businesses has put the food industry and the regulatory authorities in the spotlight. Thus, full and immediate disclosure has become a public communications must in Japan.

At the other end, the producer in question as a highly successful business must surely be very well-connected with the local authorities. This would mean that the food safety and health authorities in Beijing may have difficulties imposing their priorities on the producer under the best of circumstances, particularly when no domestic harm is being alleged.

Complicating all this for China, of course, is that Japan is the other party. History and China’s authoritarian social control priorities have nurtured a deep-seated resentment and suspicion in the minds of its citizens towards Japan. The conspiratorial mindset of an authoritarian society has compounded this underlying popular antagonism, making the Chinese mind fertile grounds where conflict arises to believe the worst of Japan or, failing that, wish the worst for it. Indeed, sporadic though the reports may be, the picture is clear: deep-seated hostilities among the masses have been unleashed yet again in response to Japanese accusations.

To sum up, the Chinese are acting as any self-respecting authoritarian regime that must nevertheless contend with local power structures and a national populace that harbors deeply anti-Japanese sentiments would.

The developments on the Japanese end are also instructive. After the initial, very public announcements putting the blame squarely on the Chinese side, the Japanese authorities, the Prime Minister in particular, are now playing it down, most likely in anticipation of a successful Hu Jintao visit "during the cherry blossoms season" (now apparently pushed back to May because of "scheduling issues"). The severely weakened Fukuda administration needs every bit of political capital it can harvest, and diplomatic summitry is an easy, if not always cheap, fix. Thus, it wants to avoid ill-will that might jeopardize this bilateral event, as well as Chinese presence at the multi-nation, environment side show at the Hokkaidō Summit in July, where it hopes to attract the heads of state or government from the other major emitters of greenhouse gases. Of the media, Sankei alone appears to be aggressively hitting at what it sees as continued Chinese stonewalling. The rest of the mainstream media are broadly pro-China, and their reporting appears to reflect this.

Finally, take note that this case bears watching in the context of this and other cases, where China visibly struggles to reconcile its relationship with the global economy, which increasingly demands a measure of openness, and the maintenance of its authoritarian regime, which rests on manipulative societal and political controls.

Something has got to give.

No comments: