A well-known TV host in Shanghai, Liu Yiwei, has written a rather plaintive essay asking why China’s inspectors for products like infant formula don’t do their jobs as rigorously as the nation’s film censors.
Tainted infant formula in China, as you may have recently read, has sickened 53,000 infants in recent weeks, caused four deaths, and triggered the virtual collapse of the nation’s dairy industry. State media are showing images of Premier Wen Jiabao apologizing profusely for the safety lapse, saying it won’t happen again.
Here’s what Liu wrote in Shanghai’s News Morning, according to a translation picked up from the always information China Digital Times:
“I’m sure the scandal would not have happened if government officials inspected baby formula as strictly as they inspect films.
Not a single film in China has been given an “inspection-free” status. Film directors are treated equally regardless of whether they are internationally renowned or if they’re just starting their career. Even films from top-notch directors are trimmed, revised, or pulled from distribution completely if there are any problems.
Censoring a film starts with inspecting its script. The government prohibits any changes to be made to the original script and inspects each step of the film’s production. Do officials do similar things with dairy products? Do they check our milk supply? A film would be revised again and again until it satisfies the censors. As for milk powder, there is an inspection-free policy which allows unqualified products to be sold directly to consumers. By contrast, there is a strict film recall system. Take the film “Apple” as an example, it was pulled from all movie theaters across the country as soon as officials detected something wrong with it, and subsequently the company that produced the film had its license revoked. However, the dairy product company Sanlu still holds a production license even after the damage it’s caused.
Also, the impact of unqualified films is limited. The total ticket office revenue for all films in China was about 4.5 billion RMB in 2007. A film couldn’t have a large negative impact on society even if it had some problems. It wouldn’t hurt people in the audience or take their lives. Why can’t officials inspect baby formula as strictly as they censor films?
Now back to Premier Wen. Here’s what he said over the weekend, according to a South China Morning Post article:
"As the head of the government, I feel extremely guilty ... I sincerely apologise to all of you," Mr Wen said while addressing dozens of Beijing residents in a community centre, in footage shown by CCTV.
"What we are doing now is to ensure that nothing like this will ever happen again, and we are not only talking about milk. We will never let the same situation repeat with any kind of food product," he said.
It is a very different attitude on safety of consumer goods to that demonstrated during last year’s global scare about Chinese products. Back then, the head of the Chinese watchdog agency, Li Changjiang, said much of the blame for worries about Chinese products were because foreign businessmen and journalists were bent on sabotaging China’s economy.
"Some foreign media, especially those based in the United States, have wantonly reported on so called unsafe Chinese products," Li said last year. "They are turning white to black."
At another point, Li blamed foreign companies for toy recalls that he said were a plot of hurt China.
"Demonizing Chinese products, or talking of the Chinese product threat, I think, is simply a new form of trade protectionism," he said.
Now, my question is this: How can Premier Wen pledge in all sincerity that there will be no future problems on food safety if the government still censors information when food problems arise? Hardly any Chinese know that the current milk formula scandal blew up because New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark blew the whistle publicly.
Many questions still need to be answered before the Chinese public feels reassured that government officials will genuinely put the safety of people utmost, even above the potential embarrassment they may suffer when their efforts fall short. Seems to me that vigorous consumer protection organizations, and a domestic media able to point out shortcomings freely, would go a long way toward rebuilding confidence.