Food Safety and Consumer Democracy: A Phenomenon on the Rise in China

Food Safety and Consumer Democracy: A Phenomenon on the Rise in China
Mar 24, 2011 By

Food Safety and Consumer Democracy: A Phenomenon on the Rise in China

Food safety in China has often received negative publicity in the international media, with a lot of hype about illegal poisonous additives mixed in with food, to name but one common scare. There should be another viewpoint to examine food safety in China and it can be amply exemplified with the recent scandal surrounding the meat giant Shuanghui. There are three important elements that set China apart with respect to the issue of food safety. The first element belongs to the cultural realm, the second to the civilization realm and the third belongs to the realm of China’s integration into the modern global economy. 

For the first element, one must consider the huge importance that Chinese civilization puts on vitality and healthy living. In fact, one of the deities in the Chinese pantheon is the god of Longevity. Chinese medicines and supplements stretch back a few millennia with an emphasis on extending human life span and constantly improving it while treating various ailments. At the same time, all of Chinese medicine is basically herbal and natural. Arguably, there is no other human civilization that has put equally as much emphasis on vitality as the Chinese. There does not seem to be any higher value for the Chinese than healthy living and long life; whereas in other civilizations higher importance is often laid upon religious piety and personal sacrifice for the sake of various other purposes.

For the second element, in a similar way that the old dynastic system worked, the Chinese government, with its various branches, deeply believes that it was entrusted with the “mandate of heaven” to rule. The “mandate of heaven” is a uniquely Chinese concept that refers to righteous functioning of governance and fulfilling the prime duty of serving the people and protecting their well being. This is the “raison d’être” of Chinese politics and governance. Holding on to power is justified in a mechanical, functional way, which must be constantly exemplified and demonstrated.

For the third element, China has joined the modern global economy at a relatively late stage of globalization. But it joined it with such an enormous force that it is changing it all together. In this process, Chinese consumers are likely to become the “shakers and movers” in the global economy for the long stretch ahead. The sheer numbers of Chinese consumers (a fifth of humanity) is one thing, but what is tended to be overlooked is the general technological sophistication of these consumers.

News travels very fast in China. The Chinese are masters of electronic communication that transcends all boundaries. China has joined the WTO in 2001 and very quickly ascended to the spot of the world largest internet users. With their full blown, rapid entrance into the global economy, the technological means were there for the Chinese to develop a veracious appetite for information and news. Riding this appetite, consumers’ awareness also grew to extreme heightened sensitivities and sophistication. Since in China, political discussions are generally considered to be a taboo, especially those that are openly critical of the government, public sentiments are channeled to heightened consumer sensitivity. There are frank and open discussions generated daily and hourly in the thousands of forums that are opened to the Chinese “netizens” and in some cases they are ahead of the official news. Such online discussion forums are so popular that the official news must follow suit. 

The combination of traditional Chinese culture and civilization, together with technology and contemporary environment of critical consumer behaviour certainly creates a new reality. It is this reality which constantly exposes corporate malpractice in China. Food scares are the most common in such large scale and rapid dissipation of information. Revelations are very quickly turning into mass circulated discussions that are rising like tidal waves, sweeping the discussion forums, involving millions of netizens reading and commenting simultaneously. The scandals that ensue, with the official media exposure, often unseat the strongest and mightiest of China’s corporations. CEO’s are jailed, stock prices plummet and in some cases whole companies go under. The scandal that followed the revelation of the melamine tainted milk powder is a case in point that brought down China’s largest dairy maker – Sanlu.

The last scandal was the revelation on March 15 that one of China’s three largest meat producers, Shuanghui, is injecting artificial hormones in to pigs. The purpose of this is to create leaner meat which would fetch higher prices. This should be a standard procedure in other countries’ meat industry, but in China, it turned out that Shuanghui was ignoring safety regulations in such injections. The government inspection authority that published the results accused Shuanghui of bringing the level of hormones in the meat to levels far above the risk threshold. 

 Food Safety and Consumer Democracy: A Phenomenon on the Rise in China

 Food Safety and Consumer Democracy: A Phenomenon on the Rise in China

The news spread like bush-fire. Within one day, all of Shuanghui’s meat distribution channels across China were ordered shut down. The market response was swift and merciless, as Shuanghui’s stocks took a nose dive, dropping 10% in a matter of hours. The mega-retailers across China, such as Carrefour, RT-Mart, Tesco, Lianhua and others hurriedly took off Shuanghui’s meat off the shelves and replaced them with other brands. Now indictments against those directly responsible are sure to follow and the future of the brand is uncertain.

Food Safety and Consumer Democracy: A Phenomenon on the Rise in China
Speech bubble reads: “Sniff it, don’t be a ‘loveable healthy pig’, in any case people don’t like you…”

These examples are a mark of what has become a phenomenon in the pursuit of food safety in China in recent years. It is a representation of a trend, in which government authorities are appropriately performing their duties, exposing corporate corner-cutting and risky additives to food to hike profits. Then, the public follow suit in an uproar that spreads across various mass media. In many cases, such mass consumer reaction might be seen as hysterical, but it certainly creates an effective deterrent to corporate greed in the food industry. Government legislation has contributed to such deterrent by raising the stakes in the form of stiff mandatory penalties – the minimum sentence in illegal additives to food was set to three years in prison, while in extreme cases of knowledgeable poisoning of food, capital sentence can also be implemented. The message driven to food producers and distributors in China is loud, clear and effective. The results are also clear and effective. Food quality is steadily improving, especially in what used to be the often lawless mass food manufacturing and processing.

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Keywords: Chinese consumers food safety Chinese consumer democracy food scandals China food safety China


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The Gov sells cheap labour to MNE. In the same time communication develops rapidly and news travel quickly. Majority of young educated students (without those totally brainwashed by their parents) use special software to go through the Great Fair Wall and read "forbidden" news. Low wages increase corruption because increasingly people want a better life and better goods and honest labour in China takes you nowhere. Sexual revolution, one child policy (totally humanly unnatural measure to population problem,), MNE corruptive practices, greed, our governments naiveness and stupidity, profound incompetence and lack of care, exponential increase of the gap between poor and rich, with negligible middle class, political atavism, cultural backwardness, massive human rights violation and minority cultures genocide etc., this zoo will be hard to contain. In fact it is opening branches around the world :)

May 10, 2012 19:05 Report Abuse



I think civil cases are handled to avoid the litigous culture of ambulance chasers that we see in America. This culture has ruined small businesses over very small infractions, mostly accidental.
It has also made medicine more expensive. I forget the exact figure, but it costs doctors in the region of $10 insurance fee, for every patient consultation.

As for Mandate of heaven. The old European culture was that ruling was 'The divine right of kings'. I am sure that in other parts of the world this attitude still exists.

Mar 26, 2011 01:41 Report Abuse


Jonathan Syngeon Smythe

I read in todays Shanghai Daily that Pizza Hut were ordered to pay out 4000 yuen for serving a young kid pieces of metal with his soda. (turns out it was a spoon that got caught in the blender - he swallowed some of it). The parents had tried to sue for 70,000 yuen. The company were about to pay out 50,000 and then suddenly dropped the offer and went to court. They then got off incredibly lightly from the judge - interesting insight into how civil cases are handled here in the courts.

Mar 25, 2011 06:30 Report Abuse



The importance of health and vitality is not uniquely Chinese. For goodness' sakes, all peoples strive to live long and healthy. And prosperous, which is something Chinese go for too. Live long, healthy and prosperous. This is the goal of not only the Chinese but of all people and civilizations.
"Mandate of heaven" is not uniquely Chinese either. The mandate of heaven to rule was given to all mankind from the very beginning. Perhaps in Chinese civilization it is stated more explicitly, as the emperor was likened to a son of God, but right from the very beginning of human civilization, God gave the first man and woman to be his regents here on earth.

Mar 25, 2011 01:23 Report Abuse



It is a start but unfortunatley corruption remains the strongest vice. As health inspecters and quality control officials are not particularly well paid a company needs only to slip them a few thousand and the malpractice continues...

Mar 24, 2011 23:38 Report Abuse