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Lessons of China's product-safety scandals

The frailty of its social contract is the deeper message of this summer's bad news.

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Americans are again upset about China, this time thanks to a spate of product safety and food contamination cases, the revelation of slave labor conditions at a rural north China brickworks, and the execution of the head of the State Food and Drug Administration for health-threatening corruption.

American diagnoses are familiar: "Wild West capitalism," "spiritual vacuum," "local protectionism," absence of the rule of law, the ill effects of one-party rule.

The larger conundrum evoked by current developments, however, is the frailty of the social compact in modern China.

As with every society, China today is heir to its past, and the seeds of its current challenges germinated last century.

By the 1920s the fledgling Republic of China was stumbling badly. Regional warlordism split the country. Foreign powers exercised privileges exacted over eight decades from a helpless China. Exploitation of the powerless ran unchecked. Famine, epidemics, and social violence stalked the land.

China's plight was a source of profound concern for Sun Yat-sen, the man credited with leading the 1911 revolution that ended 2,000 years of dynastic imperial rule. In 1924, just before his death, Dr. Sun wrote a powerful diagnosis of China's ills and a recipe for the nation's salvation:

"...[W]e should therefore be advancing in the front rank with the nations of Europe and America. But the Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have national spirit. Therefore even though we have 400 million people gathered together in one China, in reality they are just a heap of loose sand. Today we are the poorest and weakest nation in the world, and occupy the lowest position in international affairs.… If we wish to avert this catastrophe, we must espouse nationalism and bring this national spirit to the salvation of the country."

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