Scandals hint at reality behind China’s ‘miracle’

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
July 5, 2007
SHANGHAI: This has been the season of scandal in China, from the revelation that hundreds of people, including kidnapped children, had been held as virtual slaves to work in the primitive brick factories of Shanxi Province, to the rolling food and product safety scandal, in which toys made for export were found to be painted with lead, and toothpaste and cough medicines laced with industrial poisons.
Go back a little further and you come across a municipal finance scandal in the country’s richest city, Shanghai, in which the city’s powerful Communist Party secretary was diverting pension funds for his own use and that of his friends, who for years treated their positions in Shanghai as a license to print money.
Fast forward to recent days, when there have been allegations that the Chinese government has used its muscle to force the World Bank to delete portions of a report about the human costs of rampant pollution in this country, which the bank estimated may be killing as many as 750,000 Chinese every year.
The warning that Chinese officials reportedly gave to the World Bank was that to release such details could affect social stability, which in today’s China amounts to something akin to a paramount ill.
The government’s message to the public is to get on with your lives. This isn’t such a big deal, Beijing’s spokesmen have protested in recent days on the question of the safety of China’s food exports, in what has become a sort of stock response in situations like these.
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Such answers are, in fact, a fairly reliable indicator that all is not right, and one suspects that in all of these cases, what is known is the very tip of the iceberg. And the signs are growing that the Chinese public deserves a lot more credit for being able to grasp this.
In the broadest sense, what the deluge of scandals suggests is that reality is catching up with the old and familiar story line of the “Chinese miracle.” Indeed, this country has been deluding itself and much of the world with the notion that healthy and lasting prosperity can be built on a foundation of counterfeiting, of exploitation and of fraud.
To keep company with the constant rejoinders about preserving stability, the prevailing creed would seem to have only one other thought: that to make money, in the immortal words of Deng Xiaoping, “is glorious.”
As governing philosophies go, “Shhh, quiet, we’re busy making money,” is not a very inspiring one, and it leaves a country and its people without any moral or ethical compass, beyond crudities like “might makes right,” or “the ends justify the means,” or “I got here first.”
That a kind of prosperity has come to China is undeniable. What this country has achieved in lifting huge numbers of people out of absolute poverty in the space of a generation is a monumental accomplishment.
But by its very nature, the wealth of this new, compass-free China raises questions about its own staying power. Even by the government’s indirect acknowledgement, Shanghai’s recently imprisoned party secretary, Chen Liangyu, is not a unique case. Rather, he is merely one of the most flagrant examples of public officials at all levels of government here wielding power for personal gain.
Meanwhile, there are other costs. China’s environment is being ravaged at a pace that many experts both here and outside of the country say is unsustainable, even in the medium term. A change of course proves all but impossible, though, because it is argued that to protect the environment is to slow growth, and to do that is to endanger stability.
Finally, a system that is so clearly based on influence peddling and on power networks, where accountability is elusive and where the individual stands little chance of legal redress, is a system that breeds instability and scandal and an erosion of trust.
Today, go into a cheap restaurant and when you pay your bill, the cashier will inspect the currency closely. It recalls scenes of people biting a nickel in Westerns, and although it has become almost a cliché to liken today’s China to the Wild West, the analogy is apt.
Outside of one’s closest personal relationships, almost nothing can be safely trusted: not the goods on the shelves or the food in the market or the medicines at the drugstore. A woman interviewed at a Shanghai supermarket the other day captured this feeling when she scoffed at the concerns of foreigners about Chinese food exports. “It’s the quality of our food here that’s not good,” she said. “The quality of our exports is O.K.”
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