Why Food Safety Fails in China: The Politics of Scale

John Yasada, Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for the Study of Contemporary China
Commentator: Song Hualin, Professor, Nankai University Law School; Visiting Scholar, Yale China Law Center
| CSCC Conference Room, Fisher-Bennett 345

This article examines China’s food safety failures to cast light on how scale has deeply affected its regulatory politics.  Contrary to studies that highlight China’s food safety challenges 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 a standardized 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 effectively manage scale and its ensuing politics in a complex multilevel context.