We received a dramatic introduction to the global food economy when our pets started dropping dead. Animal feed has long included filler protein. The killer pet food used "human-grade protein" from China which had melamine—a slightly toxic coal byproduct—mixed in to make a crappy product mimic a high-quality one. It was crafty chemistry. Melamine is a six-member ring of alternating carbons and nitrogens. The three NH2s—the amino groups—hanging off the ring chemically behave like the amino groups that hang off every amino acid in proteins. The chemical reaction that determines protein amounts in food works by detecting these amino-to-carbon bonds. The test doesn't care if the amino groups are in melamine or protein, so it gets duped.
Of course, melamine doesn't "enhance" protein, provide any nutrition, or do anything good for your health—it's there to cheat a test. This isn't the only bit of thievery passing as entrepreneurship in China. Rather than using an expensive syrup, why not use sweet tasting—and so toxic that it's made glowing green in the U.S.—antifreeze? Why bother producing expensive infant formula when cheap, white liquid sells just as well? So what if some babies die from malnutrition? If it isn't explicitly banned, if people are not becoming ill or dying in inconvenient numbers, what's the problem?
Unfortunately, there is nothing new about these scandals in post-Communist-revolution China. The Great Leap Forward was the first development push in China after the revolution, and it was meant to catapult China ahead of Great Britain. Faced with impossible goals, local officials fudged crop-production numbers, leading to the largest man-made famine in world history. The heirs of these corrupt officials, the new robber barons of the world, seem determined to carry on the tradition.
These schemes are brilliant, employing clever chemistry and marketing—everything but manufacturing a quality product. Imagine what China's emerging businessmen and scientists could accomplish in a system that punishes cheating your customers, demands quality products, and protects intellectual property. Executing scapegoats will not build such a system. How long have we been promised that with openness—and our willingness to overlook some unsavory aspects—we can remake China in our image?
We forget that modernity, free speech, representative government, and independent and empowered regulatory agencies—the things that have made America so successful—are not the ends. They are a means toward building a sustainable economy, one built on reality and tangible progress rather than myths and wishful thinking. Yes, we have had our own thieves—the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Waltons—but in our constitutional kleptocracy, their worst excesses could be contained. U.S. robber barons were forced by governmental infrastructure to at least make an honest product. Rockefeller rose to commanding heights, in part, by producing better oil than competitors. Wal-Mart might have a ghastly labor record, but it also created a distribution system that is a wonder of the world. The cracks in "Socialism with Chinese characteristics" are beginning to show. We should not dismantle our regulatory infrastructure to compete with a lie.