[xtypo_dropcap]G[/xtypo_dropcap]rowing vegetables to become more self-sufficient has become popular in China recently, but the newcomer growers have not been farmers. Instead, they have been wealthy people and those with social status—the kind of people that own villas. Advertising billboards such as “buy a house and get free farm land” have appeared in Chongqing, Changsha, Shenyang, Wuhan, Zhuhai and more. Real estate agents have taken inspiration from the phenomenon of “vegetable self-supply bases,” which in the past two years has been spreading widely across China.
Who has helped to popularize and promulgate these vegetable self-supply bases? Local institutions with economic strength, such as provincial government departments, large state-owned enterprises, financial institutions, as well as some philanthropic private enterprises and publicly listed companies. They spend large sums to rent land parcels of various sizes in the suburbs, transforming them into self-supply food bases.
One would be mistaken to think that these institutions do this to encourage their staff go to the suburbs to plant vegetables as a casual weekend form of recreation. An article entitled “Some institutions and state-owned enterprises are operating vegetable self-supply bases out of worry for food safety” was published on People’s Daily Online. It made it clear that Chinese people are deeply worried about food safety, as contaminated and poisonous food is rampant in China today. In fact, government organizations and state-owned enterprises are using public funds to secure food safety for their own sectors.
In recent years, Chinese people have fought hard but ineffectively against poor food safety standards. There are simply too many tainted foods, from raw food products to cooking oil and food utensils. Waste oil, toxic chopsticks, and toxic lunch boxes can still be cleaned up, but there are three sources of poisoning which are most difficult to handle.
The first is that the farmers adopt “high tech” methods in growing crops. There is widespread application of pesticides and fertilizers in the conventional agricultural industry, and antibiotics and hormones are widely used in raising livestock. Fresh water and coastal aquatic products have been contaminated. I had even heard when I was living in China that farmers grow crops or raise livestock for their own consumption, separately from the products they sell, to keep from poisoning themselves.
The second source comes from food processing. To cut costs, companies use large quantities of food additives and chemicals. The addition of melamine to milk powder to give the appearance of enhanced protein content is just one example.
The third source is rooted in China’s seriously polluted environment. According to an analysis by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, the area of farmland polluted by cadmium, arsenic, chromium and lead has reached 20 million hectares (approximately 49 million acres)—about one-fifth of China’s total. Food poisoned by heavy metal is estimated at 12 million tons each year. (These foods are all consumed, with a small portion even exported.)
The rampant flooding of tainted food in the market is a result of manufacturers completely disregarding ethical responsibilities, the government abandoning its role as regulator, and an absence of trust in the market.
The high degree of corruption in the government deserves particular condemnation. Because supervision departments compete among themselves to use their power to seek profit, they have turned safety inspection into a fight for profit and distribution of benefits, having eventually reached such a pitiful state of incompetency that “several departments cannot even manage a pig, and dozens of departments cannot even manage food on a dining table,” as it’s said. Faced with a flood of toxic food, the regime’s inept quality and safety watchdog has to resort to lies to deceive people, claiming that “China has a higher than 90 percent food qualification rate.”
Government institutions that have spent a large amount of money to operate vegetable self-supply bases got their inspiration from the “special food supply bases for State Council and State organizations.” After the Sanlu contaminated milk powder incident was exposed in 2008, a message was found on the website of a company within China, which said that in April 2005 the Special Food Supply Center for State Council and State Organizations was officially established.
In an authorization ceremony of special food provisions for government organizations held in Jinan City, Shandong Province on Aug. 18 of the same year, its director Zhu Yonglan disclosed that the center not only selects, evaluates and authorizes the production of designated special products for veteran cadres of 94 ministries and commissions, but also provides high quality organic food products to government officials from its supply bases that span over 13 provinces. The supply bases received support from the State Council Logistics Base, Central Security Bureau farms, and the Armed Police Frontier Logistics Base.
After this message was circulated widely via the Internet, some Chinese citizens began to realize that the food their central government leaders eat came from different sources than their own. Is it no wonder then, that those leaders are not worried about food safety, and are not paying attention to its supervision? As this message was obviously too detrimental to the “glorious image” of the Party and the government, the company website that carried the message deleted it soon afterwards. The Chinese regime also came out to “refute the rumor.” On Sept. 25, 2008, an official from the State Council, in an interview with China News Service online, said that the State Council Veteran Cadre Activities Center does not have the so-called “special food supply center,” and that the online information was purely a fabricated rumor.
However, as provincial governments, large, state-owned companies and financial institutions continued to establish “vegetable self-supply bases,” it became apparent that the “rumor denial” scheme had not been effective. Instead, people came to reason that it is better to be safe than sorry, so some work units followed suit to try and protect food safety for their own staff.
Since government is supported by the taxpayers, its first responsibility should be to provide proper public services for the citizenry. Establishing a safe and reliable living environment for all should be the fundamental responsibility of government. The food safety issue in China involves the government, the market, and the manufacturers.
While Rome was not built in a day, what the regime should do is improve its supervision mechanism, strengthen accountability, and reconstruct the relationship between the market and the enterprise, rather than using its economic strength to confiscate land for planting vegetables, or raising livestock to guarantee food safety for government officials alone.
This sort of preferential treatment of promoting food safety for the select few is not just shirking responsibility: it is more like a bone-penetrating political cancer.
He Qinglian is a prominent Chinese author and economist. Currently based in the U.S., she authored China's Pitfalls, which concerns corruption in the economic reform of the 1990s, and The Fog of Censorship: Media Control in China, which addresses the manipulation and restriction of the press in China. She regularly writes on contemporary Chinese social and economic issues.
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