Dead Swine-Gate: Anatomy of a Chinese Scandal

Why 20,000 pig corpses turned up in a Chinese river, and what it says about the country as a whole.
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(Reuters)

As March spills into April, the "dead animals in Chinese rivers" toll seems to have stabilized: recent reports indicate that the over 16,000 dead pigs have been joined by 1,000 dead ducks and, rather ominously, 13 dead black swans. The discovery of so many carcasses has elicited no small amount of public concern in China, as well as mockery elsewhere -- even Jay Leno got into the act.

So, how the hell did this happen? Here are a few ideas:

1. There are a lot of pigs in China. A lot of people, too. But, seriously, a lot of pigs.

China has more people than any other country in the world, and even those with only a passing knowledge of Chinese cuisine are aware of the central role that pork plays. Unsurprisingly, as a result, there are a lot of pigs in China -- around 700 million, according to a MarketWatch estimate. By contrast, the United States, a country with around a quarter of China's population, has a mere 70 million porkers; and we Americans love our bacon. So it perhaps isn't too surprising that the country with a dead pig crisis is also the same one that consumes half of the world's pork. However, in China you also have....

2. ...a highly fragmented agricultural sector.

As in other developing countries, a lot of Chinese people work in agriculture -- roughly 37 percent of the population, in fact, in comparison to 0.7 percent in the United States and 1.4 percent in the United Kingdom. Many of these farmers work on tiny parcels of land rather than on large commercial farms and correspondingly raise a small number of livestock.

This fragmentation has a number of consequences. For one, the sheer number of farms makes government regulation extremely difficult owing to enormous differences in seed quality, pesticide use, and water sources. This, according to economic analyst Rich Brubaker, "creates pressure on distributors and consolidators to separate the different quality levels," giving the unscrupulous and desperate a prime opportunity to shirk on quality control.

Secondly, the small size of the farms means that there just isn't a lot of room to bury dead pigs -- especially if a lot of pigs all die at the same time from an illness. The Chinese government actually compensates large-scale farmers for their dead pigs, but this only applies to those farmers who have more than 50 on their farm, leaving out the many millions of small-scale players in the market. Therefore, a farmer with fewer than 50 pigs faces a choice when confronted with a carcass: either give the pig up to the government for processing (and get nothing for their trouble) or sell the carcass to a "dealer" who would "fix" the meat and slip it into the food supply. Understandably, many farmers chose the latter option, and that worked fine until ...

3. ... China cracked down on illegal pig meat.

Responding to political pressure to avoid food supply scandals, local authorities in Jiaxing recently cracked down on these "dead pig merchants", tossing three of them in jail for life for selling dead and/or diseased pigs to market. As a result, small-scale farmers in the area lost their one outlet for financial compensation, turning a once-lucrative dead pig into a deadweight loss. At this point, then, the fast-flowing river nearby looked like a pretty attractive solution to an annoying (and smelly) dead pig problem. 

Can the government make sure this sort of thing doesn't happen again? The agriculture sector is consolidating, as millions of Chinese leave the countryside for the cities each year. Bigger farms will create economies of scale and standardization -- leading to cheaper, more reliable pork for Chinese consumers -- and will perverse incentives to dump dead livestock in the river. The dead pig problem is then, like teenage acne, just another awkward byproduct of China's rapid growth spurt.

Then again, there are legitimate concerns that China's political system makes it more susceptible to these types of incidents than other countries. When news of the dead pig fiasco broke, the Communist Party immediately declared that Shanghai's water supply was safe and later, in a characteristically paranoid attempt at information control, quashed a planned protest. This behavior follows a clear pattern in China in the case of environmental catastrophe, and is one of the single leading causes of anti-government sentiment in the country.

A second problem is inefficiency. China's government has a reputation in the West for being streamlined and effective, able to implement complex policies without any of the gridlock that characterizes American and European politics. However, this competence masks the fact that, like any enormous bureaucracy, the Communist Party is riddled with inefficiencies. According to a report in the South China Morning Post, "the Ministry of Agriculture oversees the raising of hogs, while butchering is the province of the Ministry of Commerce. And at least four different departments are responsible for the quality of pork." While attempts at consolidating relevant government organizations are apparently underway, these overlapping jurisdictions are extremely common in China, making it easy for officials to pass the blame in the event of a mess-up.

No country is immune to environmental catastrophes, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to draw conclusions to them. Hurricane Katrina in the United States resulted from a terrible storm -- but also from a chronic government underinvestment in infrastructure as well as an incompetent federal emergency-management organization. China's dead pigs can be dismissed as simply an unintended consequence of a government crackdown, but this misses the larger point: China's government seems unable to prevent the environmental catastrophes that most threaten their hold on power.
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Matt Schiavenza is a former associate editor at The Atlantic

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