Friday, September 14, 2007

A "Perfect Storm" of Hazards from China?

The day before China's Health Minister made the embarrassing statement that being conscientious about the safety of foods and manufactured products could, itself, be a "sickness," Victoria Ho issued a report on CNET about a survey of malware conducted by the antivirus company Sophos. Here is the basic substance of her report:

According to a report released Monday by antivirus company Sophos, China--including Hong Kong--hosted 44.8 percent of the world's infected sites in August. The U.S. ranked a distant second, hosting 20.8 percent of sites that contain malicious code.

The number of infected Web pages has also grown. Sophos said it detected an average of 5,000 new infected pages each day in the month of August.

The company warned that simply staying clear of sites hosted in the top three countries of China, the U.S. and Russia is not an effective method of avoiding malware.

"Hackers are hijacking Web sites around the world to make them point to malware on sites based in China, the U.S. and Russia," Carole Theriault, Sophos senior security consultant, said in a statement.

Sophos also warned about a sharp rise in spam pointing people to these infected sites. Malicious senders, in an attempt to bypass attachment virus scanners, are using messages that direct people to Web sites with malicious code. Computers get infected when people click on the links in the e-mail message.

"Most malware writers...are using spam and the Web to infect users," Theriault said. "Criminals are hard at work trying to slip past filters at the corporate gateway."

Today we have a Reuters report, filed from Beijing, which indicates that these physical and virtual dangers may be combining into a sort of "virtual storm" of hazards within the scene provided by the annual Moon Festival, celebrated by the consumption of the special sweet moon-cake pastries. In the physical world there are the findings of the food safety bureau in Guangdong to the effect that, in the words of the Reuters story, "only 85 percent of 80 batches of mooncake filling tested met quality standards." In this context the conclusion of the report inspired as little confidence as the recent official statement from the Health Minister. Here is more of today's Reuters text:

Despite finding excessive traces of intestinal bacteria, preservatives and high acidity levels, the authority said consumers could "rest assured" -- 98.1 percent of the finished product on supermarket shelves met standards.

However, almost as an addition of insult to injury, the "contamination" of the Festival itself has also taken over the virtual world:

China has warned Internet users to be wary of downloading virus-infected mooncake greeting cards ahead of the traditional Mid-Autumn Festival after a wave of Internet worms hit hard-drives last year.

Is this just one of those coincidences that usually account for actual perfect-storm situations; or is it the latest set of symptoms of a more systemic malady? Having tried to situate this story in a context-setting "scene," that scene should also account for today's China Daily report (whose results are available through Al Jazeera English) of the widening income gap in China. In this report the gap being examined is between rural and urban Chinese. However, it is likely that the gap is further enhanced by those rural Chinese who are so financially strapped that the succumb to the lure of urban prosperity, only to find that they have traded one state of poverty for another (which may be even greater). As we begin the aggregate all of these symptoms and acknowledge the magnitude of the collection (not to mention its unpleasant consequences), that recent rant against capitalism from Osama bin Laden should induce a chilling resonance.

However, this should not be taken as a call for either rant or revolution. After all, the last attempt to revolt against capitalism now as a sort of tired been-there-done-that feel to it, probably because all that came out of it was a replacement of the Ruling Classes of capitalists with the Ruling Classes of opportunistic ideologues. Rather, we should recognize that we are in a situation that demands what I have called "crisis-driven strategic planning." This means that we need not only to invoke what I have cited as the Neustadt-May fundamental questions of crisis management but also but also to think critically about the very nature of rationality that we apply to addressing those questions. This is no easy matter; and I have previously invoked Andy Grove's observation that it requires a lot of "intellectual ergs" (observing also that such a commitment requires a matching commitment of personal will). To return to the nautical metaphor, we are like Odysseus, in that we cannot avoid a course that leads us to both the Scylla of capitalism and the Charybdis of self-serving ideology; so we have no choice but to negotiate a path that avoids both hazards. To opt out of the choice is to elect to succumb to at least one of the hazards (if not both of them).

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