Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Proof of the Bun

Al Jazeera English has an interesting follow-up to the story they compiled from their wire sources last week about steamed buns sold on the streets in China that were "made from up to 60 per cent waste paper and cardboard." Here is the latest version of the story:

A China journalist has been arrested for fabricating a report about street vendors who used chemical-soaked cardboard to fill meat buns, state media says.

The Beijing municipal government said investigations had found that the Beijing Television freelance reporter had fabricated the story for higher audience ratings, the China Daily reported.

The report by the journalist, surnamed Zi, had come amid a spate of real food scares and added to local and international concerns about made-in-China products.

The story, allegedly shot with a hidden camera, was broadcast on Beijing Television and relayed nationwide by China Central Television last week and created a buzz on the internet, with netizens flooding chatrooms with comments expressing shock and disgust.

Zi's footage appeared to show a makeshift kitchen where people made bao zi, or traditional steamed buns, stuffed with 60 per cent cardboard that had been softened by a bath of caustic soda and topped up with fatty pork and flavouring.

"It's all cheating," the municipal government said, adding that after the report, officials inspected bun sellers across the city, but found no such problem.

The Beijing Youth Daily said that in mid-June, Zi brought meat, flour, cardboard and other ingredients to a downtown Beijing neighbourhood and had four people make the buns for him while he filmed the process.

This is one of those cases where both sides of the story are feasible. Many people of my generation remember when the BBC broadcast a documentary of the "spaghetti tree harvest," supposedly shot in northern Italy. Then, about ten years ago, there was the Spanish Gaudi "documentary," purporting to show footage of the man himself, which was so convincing that another documentary producer incorporated it as source material. These days you can fake anything, and the process does not require a heavy investment in support technology.

On the other hand, as I tried to explain in my reaction to the original report, even if this particular account was fictitious, it still revealed a layer of truth about how little we think about what we consume and the consequences of such negligence. This is the light in which we should review the Chinese government reaction to the hoax (if it was a hoax). Perhaps a case history more appropriate than spaghetti trees and Gaudi impersonation would be the mass panic brought on by the way in which Orson Welles presented a radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds. Whether or not, as some version have it, there were listeners who preferred suicide to confronting evil Martians, we should remember that no legal action was taken against Welles or CBS. The primary reason is probably that the broadcast was actually explicit (early and often) about being fiction and therefore could not be held accountable for listeners who got so caught up in the drama that they ignored the disclaimers. The Chinese report, on the other hand, was not so explicit; but it would appear that the general reaction was one of "intensified buzz," rather than the sort of mass panic associated with the Welles broadcast.

This is going to be a hard case for the Chinese judiciary system to tackle. They have already imposed capital punishment as a penalty for negligent oversight. Meanwhile, China is now in the world spotlight for those oversight problems:

Yohei Kono, the speaker of Japan's lower house of parliament, who was in Beijing for trade talks, told [Chinese Premier] Wen he hoped China "ensure food safety as soon as possible so that we feel safe about buying Chinese products", according to Kazuo Koga, Kono's secretary.

The United States, of course, has its own way of reacting to China without saying that it is reacting to China:

Meanwhile, the US president ordered top aides on Wednesday to review the safety of imports into the US amid public concerns over goods from China.

"The American people expect their government to work tirelessly to make sure consumer products are safe," George Bush said after signing an order creating a task force to assess US safeguards and report back in 60 days.

Bush appointed Michael Leavitt, the health secretary, to lead the panel, which will work to "review the procedures in place … to make sure that our food supply remains the safest in the world".

Bush did not name any countries of concern and Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, said: "This is not a slap at China."

US and Chinese officials are to hold talks in Beijing starting on July 31 to improve food safety mechanisms.

However, all of this dances evasively around the hypotheses I tried to explore, which is that any problems with oversight of production (of anything) may be only a symptom of negligent oversight of the whole globalization process. This is due, at least in part, to the failure to have a framework that defines the responsibility for oversight. However, that failure arises from a laissez-faire philosophy, which basically argues that, if you are getting rich, you can damn the consequences. Well, what happens when the consequences end up damning both the suppliers and the customers?

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