Thursday, July 12, 2007

Hypotheses about the "China Free" Movement

This morning over breakfast (appropriately enough) I heard an interesting item on NPR's Morning Edition, summarized on their Web site as follows:

Food for Health International, a supplements maker, started labeling its "9 a Day-Plus" capsules as China Free. The company says most vitamins and supplements come from China. But it wants to set itself apart.

This story then set the context for the following report, which Al Jazeera English compiled from their wire sources:

Fake steamed buns made from up to 60 per cent waste paper and cardboard have become the latest food to join a growing list of health scares in China.

The bogus buns were exposed in a report carried on China's state-run television network CCTV.

The CCTV reporters found vendors chopped up waste cardboard and mixed it with fatty meat to produce the buns, known as "bao zi", in a Beijing backstreet factory.

It would seem that the chickens of that formula of prosperity-through-globalization are coming home to roost; and suddenly the world is taking a harsh look at both the chickens and how they are being processed. The Chinese are discovering that this is a problem too big to be resolved through exercising capital punishment. So, once again, we are confronted with the how-did-we-get-into-this-mess question; and I would like to explore two hypotheses, both of which are based in consequences of globalization.

The more direct hypothesis is that globalization has created an expansion of market volume, very much in the manner that evangelists such as Tom Friedman said it would. Unfortunately, even with its vast population, China is not keeping up with that expanded volume. The result is desperate measures being taken to deal with a widening gulf between demand and supply. The situation is further complicated by the coupling of the escalation of price with the escalation of demand; and the escalation of price then "trickles down" to all the elements of the supply chain. Thus, even a humble bun bakery is confronted with the problem of putting out more buns while cutting costs of production. If this means replacing expensive flour with cheap cardboard, then that is just how the game of contemporary economics is played, even when the product, itself, is not going into a global market.

There is another hypothesis however that has more to do with the globalization worldview than with market behaviors. This is the hypothesis that all these stories about suspect ingredients going into a production chain may not be particularly new. Anyone who has been a world traveler knows all the don't-drink-the-water jokes; and those who are more experienced know how to check out whether it is a joke or whether it is a serious warning. When I visited Cambodia about fifteen years ago, I remember being advised to drink only from sealed cans. Anything bottled was suspect, because the bottles could be refilled and recapped. The fact is that we really do not know very much (if anything) about normative practices in the production of edible products (or, for that matter, tires) in China. For all I know, there is an entry about cardboard-based buns in Lonely Planet. Thus, the hypothesis is that, through globalization, normative domestic practices have now come to global attention. If this is the case, then changing the norms is unlikely to be solved by executing a bureaucrat responsible for the oversight of food and drug production. To invoke the adjective that Condi Rice (shudder!) used when she had to testify about Abu Ghraib, the problem is "systemic."

Actually, both of these hypotheses involve systemic problems with the very systems that have emerged from the visions of globalization. Once again, a narrative of prosperity has turned into a narrative of fatal consequences faster than you can say "that's the way it is." Where will this new narrative lead? It can only lead to further consequences (of course), raising the question of whether are not there are any policy-makers or decision-makers with enough strength of will to think about those consequences, however unpleasant they may be.

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