Wen says sorry; is it enough?

The China Post news staff

Not too long ago, the biggest treats to the People’s Republic of China were external.

But as the Soviet empire imploded and America’s status as the world’s sole superpower slipped away, China today finds itself faced with few true external existential threats. Today, the threats to the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are almost all domestic.

Unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang are one problem. But even more daunting are environmental and social issues. Massive inequality and disparities in wealth have left many poor Chinese wondering where the promises of the communist revolution have gone.

Last week, CNN reported that the World Bank’s senior economist in Beijing Louis Kuijs, believes that China’s growth may soon begin to stall as orders from Europe and America are canceled or reduced. The World Bank believes that 2009 estimates for growth will “need to be revised downwards.” According to the Xinhua News Agency, a downward trend is already evident. China’s GDP for the first nine months of this year was 2.3% lower than the same period in 2007. Chinese vice minister of commerce Gao Huicheng is warning that the nation could be in for a rough ride. “The financial turbulence may have a relatively big impact on China’s exports. We need to be on high alert,” Gao told the public at a recent export fair.

With all these internal pressures, China’s leaders are already walking a tightrope. But history may someday record that the straw that broke the camel’s back was a chemical called melamine, a substance used in the manufacturing of plastics, fertilizer, paint and adhesives. In a bid to artificially increase protein counts, melamine has been added to almost everything that calls for milk in its recipe, including bread, chocolate and infant formula.

Last week China’s avuncular premier Wen Jiabao made an admission of governmental culpability in the scandal. The official People’s Daily newspaper quoted Premier Wen as saying the Chinese government had been “lax in supervision and management.” This extremely rare acceptance of guilt underscores how seriously the Chinese leadership is taking the melamine scandal and how much potential the issue has to get out of hand.

Taiwan’s legislators are demanding an apology and compensation and other nations could make similar demands. It remains to be seen how far Premier Wen’s “sorry” will go. Could an international apology and compensation be the next move in a plan to help stop the bleeding? It’s also too early to know if Premier Wen’s apology will mean China will consider domestic compensation for sick and dead children. But it does seem that China is beginning to understand how deeply the nation’s reputation has fallen.

Thus far, the CPP is responding to the toxic food crisis by adding controls and ordering 24-hour a day inspections. But it’s clear that China today stands at the crossroads. China’s government must get serious about safety and responsibility or face being shunned by international consumers and perhaps even lose “the mandate of heaven” to rule domestically.