Edicts overruled by realities on the ground

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 July, 2010, 12:00am


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Call it a reality check: the central government has lowered the mandated minimum protein level for unprocessed milk and stopped funding the content-control software Green Dam Youth Escort.

They had little choice: their edicts were being ignored. That sort of thing can happen when policies fail to take into account facts on the ground.

In the case of dairy products, the protein level was set too high for some producers to meet. So they illegally added the industrial chemical to give falsely higher readings. Standards were met, but the toxicity led to six children dying and 300,000 others falling ill. The government's response was harsh punishment. Two of those arrested and charged were executed.

But death sentences don't get to the heart of a problem that lies in unattainable expectations. Still more tonnes of melamine have been detected in milk powder so far this year.

After so much heartache had been caused, officials last week finally took a realistic approach and lowered the required protein level for raw milk from 2.95 per cent to 2.8. It is hoped this will be low enough to take away incentives for dairy farmers to add melamine to meet standards. Without that change, many farmers simply couldn't meet the rules - a situation ripe for encouraging illegal activity, no matter what the laws or enforcement action.

Green Dam seems also to be a casualty of market realities. The specially produced pornography filtering software was ordered to be pre-installed on all computers being sold on the mainland or able to be publicly accessed. Manufacturers rebelled, saying it was sub-standard and if offered at all, should be provided separately. Users questioned the government's motives, believing the software was yet another effort to censor their internet activities.

The outrage was justified. Pornography is a matter that parents and people who are offended by it can already deal with; if they want filtering programs on their computers, they can install it themselves. Government help wasn't needed.

In addition, the restrictions Beijing had already imposed on internet users in the name of censorship and control were so great that making such software compulsory could only be viewed with scepticism.

In the face of the backlash, authorities delayed the installation order. It would seem that at about the same time on July 1 last year, they ended funding to the developers. One has dramatically scaled back operations while the other is in financial difficulties, putting database updates for the existing 20 million programs in use in doubt.

If the software is as good at filtering pornography, as the government claims, this will be a pity; if not, Chinese will be glad that the debacle is almost over.

There's no substitute for staying in touch with people and realities on the ground. This is as true for companies as governments. Lessons have been taught and hopefully learned by the melamine tragedy and Green Dam.