China has launched a four-month "war" on tainted food, drugs and exports, state media reported on Friday, as beleaguered officials embraced time-tested campaign tactics to clean up the country’s battered image.
Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi told officials that the campaign, to run to the end of the year, would focus on problem products that have corroded domestic and foreign consumers’ confidence in the "made in China" label.
"This is a special battle to protect the health and personal interests of the public and to protect the reputation of Chinese goods and the national image," Wu said, according to the government Web site (www.gov.cn).
She called the campaign a "stern political task" — a reminder that officials’ careers may be on the line.
The world’s largest toymaker, Mattel, recalled more than 18 million Chinese-made toys in mid-August because of hazards from small magnets that can cause injury if swallowed, just two weeks after it recalled 1.5 million toys due to fears over lead paint.
Wal-Mart said it was asking suppliers to resubmit testing documentation for the toys it sells after Mattel’s move.
Other Chinese export scares have hit toothpaste, animal food ingredients, tires, eels and seafood, and deadly chemicals that found their way into cough medicine, killing patients in Panama.
Shaken by the scares, China has fought back with new rules, factory shutdowns, constant news conferences and now an old-style campaign to shake up officials often more focused on economic growth targets.
Wu blamed lax inspection and enforcement and failure of officials in rival agencies to cooperate. She vowed to whip them into line with a list of eight tasks and 20 specific goals.
"Clearly, this is an autocratic, top-down approach using campaigning methods," said Mao Shoulong, an expert on public policy at the People’s University of China.
"In China, this campaigning method still has a role to play in addressing relatively simple problems, because when grassroots officials see the premier or vice premier taking up an issue, focusing on it, they know they also have to sit up and pay attention."
Since 1949, the ruling Communist Party has often resorted to short-term storming campaigns to deal with enemies, pests and policy bottlenecks, though the frequency and intensity of these efforts have died down in past decades.
"The execution of Zheng Xiaoyu was also part of that campaigning approach to get officials’ attention," said Mao, referring to the former head of the national food and drug safety watchdog, who was executed in July for taking bribes.
As part of the latest campaign, the government named 60 "food safety model counties" to show how things should be done.
In the latest health scare, the Shanghai Daily reported on Friday that city officials had seized more than a tonne of kelp soaked in a toxic chemical to keep it looking fresh. They also found fake wine and vinegar.
Wu announced targets to clean up pig slaughtering, restaurants and canteens, pesticide use, food additives and the country’s vital exports. "In some businesses the management level is low, production conditions are poor, quality levels and standards are low, and reliability is weak," she said.
Local officials may not share Wu’s determination to move so fast, said the China Daily.
"Building an omnipresent monitoring and guarantee mechanism will prove a challenging mission for a four-month campaign," the paper said.