China’s supreme court is encouraging judges across the country to issue heavier sentences, including the death penalty, for people convicted in food safety scandals.
The Supreme People’s Court said in a notice posted on its website Friday that courts should impose longer jail sentences and larger fines on people found guilty of violating food safety regulations. It said death sentences should be given in cases where people died. (AP)
What’s going on here? Several possibilities, but I’m thinking that some folks in Beijing are started to get mighty nervous about the continuous parade of food safety scandals that are seemingly populating the front pages of the newspapers on at least a weekly, if not a daily, basis. Name a major food type, and I bet we’ve had a problem with it in the past three years.
When people can’t trust their food supply, particularly at a time when food prices have risen to uncomfortable levels, folks tend to get cranky.
And the government has responded. New food safety laws and regulations, local initiatives in cities nationwide, a never-ending stream of hopeful rhetoric — you name it. And yet, the fun continues. That’s a governance problem that has to be dealt with as expeditiously as possible.
Within this context, this latest bit of sunshine from the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has a slight whiff of desperation about it, although maybe my sense of smell is out of whack. (Note that I’m against the death penalty, so I’m biased on this issue.)
To be fair, the new food safety regulatory structure is going to take some time to get up and running. This kind of thing doesn’t happen overnight. But when the bad news comes at you every day, there is a tendency to think that the government is not doing enough. When kids are dying from poisoned food, folks are not going to be all that forgiving.
So if nothing seems to be working overnight, and confidence in the regulatory system has taken a hit, what to do? Apparently the answer is to appear tough by “throwing the book” at these defendants.
In addition to bolstering public confidence, there is also a second motivating factor in “striking hard” against these food company executives; it’s all about deterrence. Much to my chagrin, since I often make fun of Westerners who throw around Chinese sayings, this is best summed up by the old chestnut “Killing the chicken to scare the monkeys.” Sorry, had to do it.
So is the SPC’s move here more about public perception or deterrence? I’m thinking more the former than the latter. I’m pretty sure that food exec monkeys out there already know what the possible penalties are for poisoning the Chinese people, and yet they keep doing it. Deterrence, by killing the odd chicken now and again, will only get you so far.
On the other hand, the SPC’s sentencing advice is potentially effective PR-wise in two ways. First, the government looks tough and serious in telling judges how to proceed. Second, when and if a few capital cases come to fruition (i.e. executions are carried out), the government has additional opportunities to look like bad asses.
Makes sense, at least politically.