Why China Might be Playing the Blame Game

China Law Blog referred me over to a superb post by Will at ImageThief that explains that China’s entire PR strategy around the recent food and drug export tainting scandals has been abysmal – or worse.

Will points out that AQSIQ and other government organs blaming Panamanian traders, the USDA, foreign reporters, former drug chief Zheng Xiaoyu, and each other – basically doing everything but take responsibility.

To outside eyes, that’s bad, if not pathetic. Here is the government of one of the most powerful nations on earth abjectly refusing to take responsibility for something that, conceivably, it could have had a hand in preventing.

Whenever I see inexplicable situations in China, rather than lash out or go postal, I stop imbibing caffeine and sit back for a moment to reflect on some of the reasons this could be happening.

I think the spate of denials and blamestorming that is going on are probably driven by some deeper issues.

  • First, it is entirely possible that Zheng Xiaoyou’s recent death sentence for his dereliction of duty is having the perverse effect of scaring the living hell out of everybody in the food and drug inspection business, and thus causing them to play the blame game out of sheer fear for their own lives, facing the possibility that they may be next, rather than having them come clean with any issues they are already finding.
  • Second, there is the very real possibility that out in the provinces there is some horribly deep rot in the inspection system. As good as things might be on top, it is entirely possible to imagine that a number of individual government inspectors have been turned, that the concerned bureaus know or suspect that, and they’re worried it will wind up on their plates.
  • Third, let’s remember for a moment the enforcement challenges China faces on everything from traffic laws to intellectual property protection. It is quite easy to see how local political pressure to go easy on hometown enterprises could make real enforcement impossible, even for the most intrepid and honest inspector. Even in this case, the blame for failing to enforce would land on the enforcer.

Independently, any one of these would be sufficient to explain the knee-jerk posterior-covering going on. If the problem is a combination of these factors, serious action is required.

What has to happen to stop all of this is an enlightened approach at the highest levels of the Chinese government. Somebody very senior has to say “I’m not out for somebody’s head – I’m out to solve this problem. People will be evaluated in this process by the vigor with which they help us find and implement workable solutions.”

That’s a de facto amnesty, but the serious pain this situation is set to cause to some critical export sectors in China justifies it.

Once we’ve made it through this crisis, though, China needs to dig deep into its inspection systems to find out how to avoid this in the future. 99% safe is not anywhere near enough when lives are at stake.