Can China Tame The Chinese Poison Train?

Both The Washington Post and The New York Times have done a magnificent job examining the complex nature of the Chinese Poison Train, but the Times finally cut to the chase and asked the million-dollar question: can China tame the Chinese Poison Train? The solution requires China to reform an ailing regulatory regime.

As many as 17 bureaucracies have overlapping responsibilities in just the food and drug sphere, and they jealously guard their power. The Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture, the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, and the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine have all vied for monitoring roles.

The reason: They wanted to collect license fees and fines to supplement their measly budgets. No less significantly, inspectors and their bosses could collect bribes in exchange for favors.

“It came down to turf warfare between departments,” said Roger Skinner, a retired British regulator who advised the Chinese government on improving food safety on behalf of the World Health Organization. “If they can’t enforce, they will lose revenue.”

Realizing they had created a muddle of competing bureaucracies, top leaders in 2003 formed the State Food and Drug Administration, named after its American counterpart, that on paper had “super-ministerial authority” to coordinate all the others that monitored the politically sensitive food and drug sphere.

Americans had to wait over half a century after the publication of “The Jungle” before our own FDA gained the power to regulate pharmaceuticals. Unhindered by a robust democracy, China has the ability to quickly and radically overhaul its own agencies. The government is even taking the state-run media off its normally tight leash to promote reform.

The state-run media has been given unusual latitude to expose shoddy goods. One of the most popular shows on China Central Television, “Weekly Quality Report,” investigates accidents, poisonings and cheap fakes. Recent topics include defective motorcycle helmets, a faux rabies vaccine, faulty tires and toxic food additives.

If only that pot of sunshine came as an English podcast. At the end of the day, we’re confident that the Chinese will reform their bureaucracy for the sake of satisfying American companies. What do you think? Tell us in the comments.

Can China Reform Itself? [NYT]
(AP Photo/Color China Photo)