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Why Food Safety Fails in China: The Politics of Scale*

  • John Kojiro Yasuda (a1)

This article examines food safety failures in China to cast light on how scale has deeply affected its regulatory politics. Contrary to studies that view China's food safety challenges as primarily resulting from corruption, local obstructionism or weak state capacity, I argue that China's massive production system, unwieldy bureaucracy, and geographic size pose regulators with a more fundamental policy challenge. As they attempt to build an integrated national regulatory regime, regulators must make difficult trade-offs in cost, policy design and applicability that emphasize the interests of certain stakeholders over others, resulting in a contentious “politics of scale.” The article assesses four failed scale management initiatives: food safety coordination bodies, campaigns, model production zones, and regulatory segmentation. As China transitions to scientifically assessed, risk-based forms of regulation, its pervasive food safety problem suggests the adaptive limits of China's unitary regulatory structure to manage scale and its ensuing politics effectively in a complex multilevel context.

通过调查中国的食品安全问题, 这篇文章意在阐明规模对监管政治产生了怎样的深远影响。之前的研究强调中国所面临的食品安全挑战主要源于腐败、地方政府的蓄意阻挠、或者缺乏国家能力。与以往的研究不同, 我认为中国庞大的生产系统、臃肿的官僚体系、以及巨大的地理规模给监管机构造成了更根本的政策挑战。监管机构在建立国家综合监管体制的过程中, 必须在政策成本、设计和实用性之间做出艰难的选择。而这将置一部分利害关系人的利益于他人之上, 从而导致具有冲突性的 “规模政治”。本文评估了四个不成功的规模管理举措: 食品安全协调机构, 食品安全运动, 示范生产区试验以及监管权细分改革。随着中国的监管体制正逐步转型至基于风险的科学评估系统, 泛滥的食品安全问题说明中国单一制的监管结构在如何适应有效的规模管理、处理多层级体系中复杂的政治关系这两方面存在着局限性。

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The author is grateful for comments on earlier drafts from Kevin Chen, Jacques Delisle, Avery Goldstein, Kevin O'Brien, Neysun Mahboubi, Hualin Song, Rachel Stern, Lynn White and Yuhua Wang. I am also thankful for input from the members of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Contemporary China's Friday Forum Series. IFPRI Beijing and ICARD at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences provided crucial institutional support during fieldwork, and introduced me to the vast majority of the individuals interviewed in this article. This research was funded by grants from the Fulbright-Hays and the National Science Foundation.

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The China Quarterly
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