Analysis of the dynamics of international food regulation in China

May ChuMay Chu

Political scientists have been debating the question of whether global factors promote convergence, divergence or stability in regulatory policies and outcomes. In the age of a hyper-connected world, it is natural to conjecture that, for food safety regulations, countries would adopt international regulation and regulatory practices, in order to promote trade and expand income sources.

However, the debate risks over-simplification if the discussion stops at this point. National interests are multifaceted, meaning that government agencies cannot be guided by one set of interests only. The developmental needs of various sectors cannot be tackled by one approach. To build on existing theories of regulation, I explore the dynamics of China’s food safety regulation in practice, which has implications for this widely debated question.

In my recent research article in Policy & Politics, I illustrate how international and domestic forces influence the dichotomous food safety enforcement strategy of the Chinese government. Examining two dimensions of regulatory enforcement, I compare the enforcement styles regarding domestic food and food export markets, including information gathering (ie the collation and provision of information about the status quo of controlled policy issues or problem areas) and behaviour-modification (ie ways of adjusting individual and organisational behaviours to ensure that regulatory standards are met). For domestic food markets, both a reactive form of information-gathering and a persuasive approach to behaviour-modification were used. For small producers in the sector, authorities inspected their production venues, for example, farmlands, less frequently. For large and medium-sized producers involved in domestic food production, inspection rates were higher, but more moderate when compared to export products. Regarding the dimension of behaviour-modification, when discovering failure in compliance, there was a degree of tolerance. The government authorities were less likely to penalise small producers heavily, because of their economic disadvantage and inability to pay fines. Instead they were more likely to use persuasion and education to tackle the problem.

As for food export markets, the Chinese government has adopted a “police-patrol” style of information-gathering together with a highly deterrent and drastic approach of behaviour-modification, due to international standard agreements. This is reflected in the institutional reform of the government’s structure. For example, the terms of reference for the General Administration of Customs (GACC) were expanded to include many of the previous functions of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ). This vertical institutional design allows the central government to take direct control and supervision over the regulatory enforcement of food exports, and to implement regulations in a strict manner.

To conclude, my article contributes to the study of the dynamics of global regulation against a backdrop of what I call ‘pragmatic authoritarianism’ in China. In other words, although the Chinese state remains authoritarian, the Chinese government is pragmatic and flexible, which makes it more responsive to demands from the international community resulting in a more endurable authoritarianism. It is hoped that my findings will enrich our understanding of the regulation enforcement style of the Chinese government in relation to food markets, while also having implications for how developing economies balance international obligations and pressures with weaknesses in domestic politics.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

May Chu’s article in Regulation & Governance: Horses for courses: China’s accommodative approach to food standard‐setting in response to the internationalization of regulation

And in Policy & Politics: How do media, political and regulatory agendas influence one another in high risk policy issues?


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