Public and Private Encounters
Edited by Tetty Havinga, Frans van Waarden and Donal Casey
Chapter 6: The political economy of Chinese food safety regulation: Distributing adulterated milk powder in mainland China and Taiwan
This chapter focuses on the implementation of food safety regimes, arguably at least as important as the formal rules and regulations that most countries now have in place. We ask why political leaders sometimes fail to enforce food safety regulations and which political and economic incentives have sometimes encouraged them to turn a blind eye to food safety problems. We focus on a single episode (the adulteration and distribution of milk powder tainted with melamine on mainland China and in Taiwan in 2008) and argue that the distribution of the tainted product had similar political consequences in both places (leaders resigned or were fired), but that the participants and process of coming to this outcome differed markedly, reflecting the importance of regime type. In authoritarian mainland China the food safety regime has been set on top of an incentive system for the promotion of local leaders that rewards economic growth and virtually ignores many other issues of importance to citizens, including food safety. These consequences were devastating. In democratic Taiwan competitive party politics and a robust and influential civil society turned what leaders perceived to be a technical issue into a political one. In both systems politicians had established highly fragmented food safety institutional arrangements that gave local officials considerable discretion.
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