Fallout from China's Shortcut Culture

Article excerpt

China is facing a product-quality scandal once again, another in a seemingly endless string - though right now the blind dissident's great escape last week and the Bo Xilai family cataclysm are smothering all news of it.

Still, the new scandal and the Bo case derive from a single cultural cause.

A few days ago, the state announced that it has detained 54 suspects, shut down 80 "illegal production lines" and seized 77 million gelatin capsules used for prescription drugs, all of them heavily contaminated with chromium, a carcinogen. The pubic security ministry added that it is "paying top-level attention to the case of excess chromium in capsules for medical use."

How did this happen? For several years, the government has been pushing health-care companies to lower costs. So pharmaceutical manufacturers picked up a new strategy: They began using far cheaper industrial gelatin, normally used to make glue for shoes.

This comes barely a year after China's "leather milk" scandal. Chinese dairies, trying to make more money, diluted their milk with water. But then, they knew, the watery milk would not pass protein- content tests. So the dairies bought leather-waste byproducts from tanneries - high in protein but also carcinogenic - and dumped that into the milk.

Looking at these and so many other similar cases - like the milk spiked with chemicals that caused infants still in the crib to begin growing breasts - you might choose to accept a charitable explanation.

The United States didn't create the Consumer Product Safety Commission until 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency until 1970. The Food and Drug Administration is older, 1906, and came to be only after muckraking journalists pointed out widespread patent- medicine fraud.

"Gullible America" will "swallow huge quantities of alcohol, an appalling amount of opiates and narcotics, a wide assortment of varied drugs ranging from powerful and dangerous heart depressants to insidious liver stimulants; and, in excess of all other ingredients, undiluted fraud," Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote in Collier's magazine in 1905. By then, of course, America was more than 125 years old.

China is an ancient nation, but it has grown to be an industrial power in only one generation. And it hasn't yet set up an effective regulatory structure to police its manufacturers.

That certainly plays a part. But there's another, institutional problem:

China is a nation of cheaters!

No, it's not my intention to besmirch 1. …