Don’t you hate it when you strongly agree with someone’s general point yet feel they’ve blemished it by including something so patently disagreeable or unhelpful you just have to say something? I’m sure many of my readers can identify with that sentiment, when reading my posts.
Chinese Corruption Is Hazardous to Your Health
Local officials often prioritize economic gain at the expense of public health
Agree very much so.
At the end of March, a Chinese newspaper reported that four children died and many more fell ill in Shanxi province after receiving vaccines that were not properly stored. The heat-sensitive vaccines had been taken out of air-conditioned rooms because government labels — required to show that the vaccines had been bought from official suppliers at inflated prices — would not adhere to cold vials. The result? An untold number of children are now vulnerable to polio and other diseases.
Instead of investigating the matter, local health officials denied the story as “basically untrue,” threatened outraged parents and prevented them from seeking help from higher authorities. The whistleblower, an employee of the Shanxi Center for Disease Control and Prevention, was demoted.
This was one of the recent China scandals I didn’t follow. On the face of it, my understanding of the mix of ignorance, corruption, and selfish irresponsibility prevalent in various aspects of China doesn’t lead me to question this summary retelling of this scandal. What makes me a little uneasy about the justice Joe does to the above incident, however, is the injustice he does to another scandal he invokes below that I’m far more versed in.
Covering up corruption and official mismanagement in health care is a common response among Chinese officials. That’s despite government promises that lessons were learned in 2008, when producers of baby formula discovered it was cheaper to poison infants than sell authentic formula. Thousands of babies became sick from ingesting milk tainted with melamine — an industrial product more commonly used to make plastics.
Like the tainted vaccines, the melamine scandal is a story about local officials sacrificing the health of Chinese citizens to make a profit. Factories that produced the tainted milk were able to slide through the regulation pipeline by partnering with local government officials. And when children became sick, the local government’s response was to threaten and arrest parents rather than offer help to the sick children.
I strongly agree with the overall criticism of how Chinese officials commonly respond to corruption and mismanagement: covering it up, trying to silence the victims and whistle-blowers. To put it bluntly, those are dick moves.
What I’m finding hard to let go is the suggestion that “producers of baby formula discovered it was cheaper to poison infants than sell authentic formula.” Argued semantically, this phrase can be justified, even under artistic license. However, I still feel the insinuated imagery that these producers were intentionally out to “poison” babies is at least a wee bit unfair. Why?
Because “poison” is being used as an active verb here.
Right, look, the parts of the milk powder supply chain that knowingly diluted the milk with melamine surely did so in order to selfishly squeeze more money out for themselves. I’m just saying I’m pretty certain the vast majority of them were operating under the presumption that what they were doing was indeed cheating the customer but it “wasn’t going to really hurt them”. Famous last words.
Regardless, there’s a difference between negligence and intent. The milk producers discovered it was cheaper to “dilute” their product than sell pure product. They didn’t discover it was cheaper to “poison” babies. We can argue that some of these people should’ve known better and we can damn those who did but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It isn’t as if none of us haven’t done similar things before, making compromises in the face of certain realities, misjudging the amount we can “get away with” and how much others can tolerate our indiscretions.
I’m not defending what those guilty did. I’m not justifying the consequences of their actions. I surely don’t want this stuff to keep happening. However, I just think this is unnecessary vilification, one that encourages people to jump to judgments of individual human morality without a reasonable appreciation of the context surrounding why some people in China are motivated or compelled do these things.
This month the Chinese government announced a new set of health-care priorities. These goals include strengthening the rural health insurance system and raising production standards for pharmaceuticals. But the government’s health-care wish list ignores the corruption, greed and mismanagement that are key barriers to providing essential medical care. These issues are clearly illustrated in what will likely be the next big scandal, brewing on an even larger scale.
Okay, indulge my nitpicking here. How can something be “clearly illustrated” (past tense) in something that hasn’t yet happened? It’s an emotive sentence — I agree — but just a little wonky.
Industrial pollution is causing heavy-metal poisoning in almost every corner of the country. Local government officials in the cities where the poisoning occurs deny and cover up the health consequences rather than providing help for thousands of adults and children suffering from lead poisoning. In one village, local officials prevented a bus carrying parents seeking medical help from reaching the hospital in a nearby town.
Totally more dick moves.
Perhaps most troubling are consistent accounts that hospitals have been paid to withhold or give false results for children who are tested for lead poisoning. Many of these children have serious neurological and developmental problems, but treatment and sustained medical care have been practically nonexistent.
Dick Moves +1.
Medical care for victims of industrial pollution is guaranteed under the Chinese constitution, yet victims’ care has apparently taken a backseat to the protection of local officials with a financial stake in the polluting factories. In Fengxiang, Shaanxi province, where thousands of children have lead poisoning, local officials demonstrated their priorities by allowing the polluting factory to re-open, with no change in its operations.
The Chinese government has laws on the books designed to tackle corruption and protect the health of the Chinese population, but these laws lack an enforcement mechanism to ensure accountability. It’s no surprise then that local officials prioritize economic gain at the expense of public health. Penalizing corruption and rewarding local officials for improvements in public health should be recognized as a critical part of legal and health-care reform.
Yes, agree. But I don’t understand why Joe would prescribe penalizing corruption as something that should be recognized as part of reform at the end of a paragraph he starts by acknowledging that the government already has laws designed to tackle corruption. He knows the problem lies in enforcement but instead of threshing that out, he goes for restating the mutually-agreed-upon goal.
In a globalized world, the effects of cover-ups by corrupt officials are felt far from China’s borders. Melamine-tainted dairy products from China were found in countries all over the world. In February, three Chinese babies headed to the U.S. for adoption were rushed to the hospital with extremely high levels of lead in their blood. From fake cough syrup killing children in Panama to toys coated in lead harming children in the U.S., the cases exposed by the free media outside China suggest that we all face hidden risks.
Read: “Everyone beware! This could happen to you!”
It is the Chinese people, however, who bear the brunt of the harm to their health from corruption. Before the government embarks on ambitious health-care reform, it needs to address these basic priorities. Chinese officials must understand that their job is to protect health, not profits.
Read: “But of course, this isn’t just about us, but about their own good too!” I’m being mean of course. No one faces more risk and suffers from the corruption and questionable practices of China’s manufacturers and regulatory apparatus as much as the domestic Chinese people do.
Joe’s overall point in his opinion piece here is simply that too much shit is happening in China that is affecting too many people in too many unacceptable ways and “goddammit, something needs to be done about it!” Totally agree. He identifies Chinese government officials as being responsible for allowing, perpetuating, and covering-up these problems due to financial conflicts of interests. Very true. His writing of this opinion piece isn’t about revolutionizing anything or even really suggesting how to solve anything. It’s just meant to create more awareness that will lead to more demand for “something to be done about it”. I can agree with that entirely.
But what if I told you, Joe, that it is the job of Chinese officials to also protect profits? Then what?
I think in addressing that question, we’ll get beyond merely gaping at the problems and superficial causes. Maybe we can get to the slightly more meaningful underlying issues, the conflicts of interest, that are far harder to give answers to and far harder to prescribe solutions for. Hell, sometimes the answer is to just ask more questions.