Corrupt catering leaves bad taste in China’s mouth

John Garnaut, Beijing, The Age, Australia, August 16, 2008-

ON AUGUST 1, a rising star of the Chinese bureaucracy, Wu Jianping, received the doorknock that every powerful and rich Chinese official fears. It was the Communist Party’s Discipline and Inspection Commission, asking if the food safety chief could reconcile his meagre official salary with his portfolio of Beijing properties and bank accounts.

The next day, the 43-year-old’s body was found at the bottom of a Beijing high-rise. Caijing magazine said it was suicide. A spokesman from Mr Wu’s department said it was an accident.

Either way, his death shines light on the contradictions between China’s hugely profitable market economy, its aspirations for the rule of law and its age-old habits of nepotism and absolute administrative power. It also raises a question for senior leaders who want reform: can they root out corruption in the Communist Party without killing the tree?

China’s quality inspection administration is no stranger to the excesses of administrative power. When Mr Wu fell to his death, his food safety division of China’s quality inspection administration was responsible for ensuring the Beijing Olympics were not mired in scandals about contaminated food. This world of Olympic food safety is a neat microcosm of the problems besetting the whole quality inspection bureau and Chinese bureaucracy more broadly.

From last month, Beijing’s leading chefs and hoteliers were ordered to buy their fresh and processed foods exclusively from a Government-approved list of 64 suppliers.

“The bacon from the designated bacon supplier was so fatty that you had to burn it black to make it edible,” says an executive chef at one of Beijing’s 46 five-star hotels. “And it was nearly twice the price.”

The eggs were undersized, the milk (from an Olympic sponsor) was said to be tasteless and the price of red chillies was 1200% above the outside market price.

In recent weeks the rules have been relaxed after a barrage of complaints by state-owned luxury hotels. But the relief has come too late for some. One of Beijing’s finest hotels was fined for using unauthorised noodles in a decorative table display.

Beijing lawyer Zhang Xianfeng says Government agencies have no legal right to “play the role of a promoting salesman for its chosen companies”.

He says playing corporate favourites brings the risk of corruption, hurts competing companies and consumers, and “eventually it harms the Government itself”.

On Thursday, the Southern stable of newspapers and magazines published an opinion piece about Mr Wu’s death on its website, southcn.com. Contributor Yang Tao wrote that Mr Wu might have chosen suicide as a way to keep the ill-gotten gains in the family. But he also raised another possible motive.

“The suicide of Wu Jianping may have another purpose, the so-called ‘she shen cheng ren’ (righteous self-sacrifice). After committing suicide you prevent the flames from burning higher up, protecting the corrupt officials behind.”

Beijing imposed a newspaper blackout, but the propaganda police have not yet shut down hundreds of websites running the story. It seems Mr Wu’s death has fuelled the fire rather than extinguished it.

The day Mr Wu received his death-knock, Beijing lawyer Zhou Ze launched the first case under China’s anti-monopoly laws. His target was an internet platform called the Product Identification Authentication Tracking System. Mr Zhou’s case claims there is no legal basis for a Government agency to force producers to sign up to the PIATS platform.

PIATS is ostensibly a bar-coding service enabling consumers to trace the origins of any Chinese product. Its innocuous name belies the power behind it. PIATS appears to be owned by China Credit Information Technology Co, which is run by Chen Xiaoyingm, daughter-in-law of a former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission.

The company’s controlling shareholder is a financial behemoth called CITIC, which also has connections. CITIC’s officially retired chairman, Wang Jun, is the son of Wang Zhen, one of the “eight immortals” of the 1949 revolution.

China’s top quality inspection bureau, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, has a 30% stake. So it has an opaque financial interest in PIATS while requiring almost every producer to pay 600 yuan ($A100) for the privilege of being listed on it.

“How much money does that add up to? It’s uncountable. Unimaginable,” says Mr Zhou. “There are 400,000 Chinese producers in the food sector alone.”

- Original: The Age