As Austin notes below, the Mayor and (more importantly) Deputy Communist Party Secretary of Shijiazhuang, the center of the storm over the tainted baby powder has been fired. The Chairwoman of the main company embroiled in the scandal, Sanlu, has also been relieved of her posts and is widely expected to be arrested soon. In other words, the authorities are reacting with a swiftness and decisiveness that we have commented recently appears to be very much the central government’s new prime policy when dealing with issues of this nature, a big change from the secrecy and protectiveness that characterized past reactions. But each time this happens it leaves me with a nagging thought: what about the Sichuan earthquake and the schools that collapsed because of corruption and shoddy construction? The government acknowledged that poor construction lay at the root of the problem earlier this month (see here). But so far not a single official or businessman has been detained or questioned, at least to my knowledge. Instead, police have forcibly broken up protests by grieving parents and sometimes forced parents to accept compensation and promise not to raise the issue any further.
What’s the difference? I think it’s pretty simple. In each of the recent cases where we’ve seen decisive action (milk powder, the Shanxi mudslide, the Weng’an incident), Beijing was able to zero in on a few individuals (police chiefs, party chiefs, governors) and make an example of them. It wasn’t about the system was the message:The system was working because the guilty parties were being punished. The so-called tofu schools are completely about the system. With a thousand collapsed buildings, the central government would have to indict half the bureaucrats (ie, senior Party cadres) in the affected parts of Sichuan. And that in turn would be a vivid (and long term, assuming the investigations and prosecutions took a while) reminder to ordinary Chinese of just how deeply corrupt the system is and how embedded in the muck the Party is at the county and township level. What are the odds of that happening? Vanishingly small.