skip to content

Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically grounded approaches to enduring geopolitical problems
China factory

15 May 2020

Starting the conversation…

John Yasuda, Assistant Professor of Chinese Politics, Indiana University

If, indeed, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic can be traced to the animal-to-human transmission of a pathogen at a seafood wholesale market in Wuhan, questions will inevitably turn to the overall biosecurity vulnerabilities of China’s food supply chains, particularly as they relate to zoonotic spillovers, microbial contamination, and food adulteration. It is important to note that no food supply is “zero risk,” but China’s lengthy, complex supply chains present a number of challenges for inspection and prevention of biosecurity-related incidents. There are still over 200 million farming households in China, working on less than 0.6 hectares of land, and with varying capacities to ensure animal health and safety. These farms often supply a network of local traders which then feed into provincial, regional, and then national distribution centers, like Shouguang Agricultural Products Logistics Center. Supply chains of this sort are notoriously challenging because each hand-off represents a potential entry point for a biohazard. Moreover, given the interconnectedness of the system local hazards can quickly cascade into national-level crises.

Biosecurity hazards do not respect geographical borders

The development of modern, vertically integrated supply chains, involving large producers, can mitigate biohazard risks, and the central government has clearly sought to move production in this direction. Over the last two decades, over 100,000 dragonhead enterprises – large scale agribusinesses – have been established. When production is confined to state-of-the-art agricultural production bases, biosecurity risks are typically reduced. But, when dragonheads depend on other suppliers, and internal quality assurance schemes are shaky, industrializing agriculture also industrializes risk. Research highlights how QA personnel struggle to manage their suppliers: contracts are broken, compliance with SPS measures are uneven, and production records are spotty.

Regulation at the local levels is often significantly strained. In one county in Sichuan, a team of 20 animal husbandry personnel were responsible for thousands of pig farms. Farm inspections require travelling on motorbike to far-flung corners of villages, and farmers can expect visits from regulators once a year. On-the-ground regulatory agencies lack funding, personnel, and time to adequately monitor emerging problems. The Asia Development Bank, World Health Organization, and other IOs have launched a number of technical assistance programs to improve local regulatory enforcement in China, not least because biosecurity hazards do not respect geographical borders.

The food production and distribution system remains a work-in-progress, and the central government has dedicated substantial resources to improving traceability and inspections and has addressed major gaps in its policies. But given the system’s scale, it will take time for these changes to be broadly felt. Unfortunately, I suspect that biosecurity incidences will continue to pose problems for the regime for the medium-to-long term.


Margaret M. Pearson, Dr. Horace V. and Wilma E. Harrison Distinguished Professor, University of Maryland

The sorts of risks found in China’s food supply, and efforts to improve that system, have been well described by Prof. Yasuda, both here and in his scholarship. Many of the risks are not unique to China. Food borne illness problems involving e coli and salmonella, for example, have received major attention in recent years. Strains on China’s food regulators due to their small number are repeated elsewhere, including in the U.S. The weaknesses of China’s complex and lengthy food supply chain do have some root in a poor tradition of self-regulation, in addition to more general conditions of relative poverty. Despite comparable challenges, China’s system for dealing with food security and other social safety concerns is recognized inside China to be underdeveloped.

Public opinion about these failures has been harsh. Perhaps most well-known is public reaction to the 2008 powdered baby formula scandal, in which a major producer added melamine to increase the perceived protein content. Consumption of adulterated formula led to the hospitalization of tens of thousands of small children, and a number of deaths. The episode did long-lasting damage to public trust. For years, young families sought to import powdered baby formula rather than rely on domestic versions. A series of scandals in food and the cognate pharmaceutical industries has also corroded trust. In 2017, a large vaccine manufacturer was made to recall a quarter million ineffective doses of vaccine for diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus (DPT), followed by evidence that the same firm had falsified data on the effectiveness of its rabies vaccine. News of the vaccine scandals spread rapidly on social media, which increasingly is the main vehicle for information about consumer dangers.

Efforts to forge public trust have not been successful, despite the use of stringent punitive tools of the party. Developing an effective regulatory system remains a work in progress; the weaknesses in the regulatory system reveal stubborn problems. One is left to wonder whether expansion of the party’s punitive tools as has occurred in recent years, to a large degree as a substitute for rule of law, are adequate to addressing serious challenges to public health.