Breakin’ the law in China

BREAKIN’ THE LAW IN CHINA …. Responding to domestic and international panic over food safety in China, regulators in Beijing announced on Tuesday that they had closed 180 food-processing plants in the past six months for breaking food-safety laws.

That sounds tough. But it’s a small fraction of the 23,000 total violations the watchdog agency says it found. And that’s a small fraction of the estimated 750,000 total food-processing facilities in China, where other problems may exist and inspections are few and far between.

China has laws on food-safety. There’s a good argument they should be stricter.

But the first problem is how to enforce the laws already on the books. Stricter laws won’t have much impact without better enforcement. Although Beijing can take dramatic punitive measures, its powers of routine oversight and enforcement are typically overestimated in the West. Almost all recent headlines from China, those that affect American consumers and whip up concern on this side of the Pacific — pet-food scares, toy recalls, food-safety shut-downs — are, at root, instances of regulation breakdown: laws ignored, misapplied, or bribed away.

Here’s another example: In China this spring, less than 25 percent of those required to submit personal-income statements for tax purposes actually did. By preliminary figures, four out of five are tax evaders. It’s possible to argue that, in some instances, Beijing may not be motivated to enforce its own laws (perhaps intellectual property). But massive tax-evasion can’t be in the interest of the central government. Nor can recalled exports totaling billions in lost revenue. There’s a capacity problem, folks.

I was in China this spring reporting on what the gap between laws and reality means for the environment. For China’s air and water, and ours too. For global warming. More soon in the Monthly.