A billion Red Chinese can be wrong

by Brian Clarey

I’ve never been to China, never gazed upon any of the 4,000 miles of Great Wall, never dipped a toe in the Yangtze, never walked among the 6,000 or so terra cotta warriors at the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang and never bought a whore in Shanghai.

But I always thought I’d like to visit one day. It’s an ancient civilization they’ve got over there, with a history that encompasses advances in art and medicine, deep philosophical thought, centuries-long dynastic feuds and the invention of writing.

In the old days (or at least in episodes of “Deadwood”) they call Chinese immigrants “celestials,” which instills an otherworldly wisdom in the people of that land, and it’s easy to buy into that when you study its tranquil geography and ethereal architecture, or read Confucius, or even eat a fortune cookie.

But I’m starting to think China is pretty wacky.

The tanks rolling over Tiananmen Square or the whole one child policy give you a pretty good idea of China’s stance on human rights. But it wasn’t until last week that I realized that the lives of China’s government officials are regarded just as cheaply as those of the disenfranchised masses.

Zheng Xiaoyu was the first ever commissioner of China’s food and drug regulating body since the administration began in 1998. He lasted until 2005, when he was removed from his post and the this year, according to a New York Times article, “detained in February in a government investigation of the agency.”

During his tenure Xiaoyu approved about 170,000 licenses for the production of drugs – not the fun kind – and, according to the Chinese government, accepted about $850,000 in bribes.

This was right before they handed down his sentence, which was death.

Yeah, I know – they’re gonna hang this guy for corruption. Astounding.

Not that there haven’t been serious repercussions from flaws in China’s food and drug regulatory practices. The pet food scandal is old news, but the facts bear some reiteration: China’s pet food producers have for years added melamine to their products, a chemical produced from coal that mimics protein in quality-control testing but which has no actual nutritional value and is illegal in US food products. Its presence in pet food, livestock feed and fish food that was imported to the US caused animal quarantines, thousands of pet deaths and the largest product recall in US history – 60 million packages of pet food and counting.

It should be noted, as well, that direct causation between melamine and the pet deaths has yet to be drawn. But there’s plenty more nastiness coming out of China that makes the old “me put peepee in your Coke” quatrain seem tame.

Toothpaste and cough syrup made in China and shipped to Latin America were found to contain diethylene glycol, found in anti-freeze and used to plasticize vinyl. Panama alone reported more than 100 deaths.

The Times article reports incidents of Chinese cuttlefish soaked in ink to improve their color and eels given birth-control to alter their shape and length.

A Washington Post investigative piece that ran last month listed imported catfish “laced with illegal antibiotics” and mushrooms grown with illegal pesticides among China’s atrocities.

There have even been reports cropping up about a counterfeit soy sauce made with human hair, but that one might be bullshit.

But if you’re looking for facts, go no further than the FDA website which lists 258 rejections of Chinese foodstuffs in April 2007, including “filthy” bean curd cubes and dried fruit, catfish carrying salmonella, frozen shrimp laced with toxic antibacterial agent nitrofuran, mascara with unapproved hair dye in it and scores of instances of mislabeled products that contain unlisted (and generally unsafe) ingredients, have no traceable company information on the package or do not correlate to the package contents at all. And this is culled just from the estimated 1 percent of all imports that the FDA actually inspects.

Okay… yuck.

The Chinese government has pledged to do something about their gross lack of standards, starting with a tightening of regulations and ending, I guess, with the execution of this poor bastard Zheng Xiaoyu.

And that’s a bit much, don’t you think?

I mean, sure, the guy’s utterly corrupt and his greed has cast an international ripple of death, disease and sadness that cannot be erased. But the guy only took like $850,000 in bribes over seven years, which is on par with an insubstantial Halliburton contract.

Maybe it’s pointless to compare the two. We don’t impose death sentences on elected officials in the United States, even if they were to, by dereliction, corruption and greed, endanger the lives of not only their own people but those in other countries as well.

Death sentences for government officials in China are not always carried out, but surely this kind of castigation carries some kind of stigma. How do you say “Dead man walking” in Mandarin?

Either way, if I do make it out to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing (doubtful, at best), I don’t think I’m gonna eat any sausage.

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