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The melamine-laced milk powder crisis of 2008, the crisis arising from pig carcasses being dumped in the Huangpu River in 2013, and the bird flu virus H7N9: PhD candidate Annemieke van den Dool studied three Chinese public health crises and looked at how the ensuing scandals brought about change to laws and regulations.

A. van den Dool

To what extent and under what circumstances do public health crises lead to legal changes in China? That is the core question of Annemieke van den Dool's research.

What is interesting about how China copes with crises?

“Events in China have an impact on the rest of the world, as evidenced by the SARS crisis, for example. That virus originated in China, but because news about it was suppressed, it was able to spread across the entire planet. We were also affected by the milk powder crisis. In China, 300,000 children fell ill and at least six babies died because the substance melamine had been added to milk powder. Chinese citizens proceeded to purchase vast quantities of milk powder from abroad. Scandals like these can also cause political instability in China because they undermine the authority of the Communist Party. There is an increasing risk of social unrest and this can have consequences for the rest of the world.”

How did China respond to the scandals?

“New regulations were passed but many of the underlying problems went unaddressed. One example was the crisis involving pig carcasses; ten to fifteen thousand dead pigs were dumped in the Huangpu River quite close to Shanghai. The new regulations only applied to large-scale farming, but in that area, they mainly have smaller farms. 

And the bird flu virus N7N9: the main sources of bird flu proved to be markets where live chickens were being sold. Attempts were made to pass regulations that would prohibit the operation of such markets, but that proved to be too problematic. The slaughter of live chickens at the marketis a hallowed tradition in Chinese food culture. If you shut down the markets, black markets will emerge thus leaving you with even less leverage. Sometimes there are better options than outright prohibition. Some cities regularly shut down their markets for a day, and that has proven to be quite effective.”

What do you recommend?

“First of all, it is very important that more research is carried out into how legislators in non-Western, non-democratic countries respond to crises. Existing theories are almost exclusively based on research conducted in Europe, North America and Australia, whereas most crises occur in other types of countries. My research focusses on the Chinese response, but we also know relatively little about Russia, for example. 

As regards crises and legislation, my research indicates that information is crucial both to citizens and to public authorities. China would thus benefit from a more unrestricted flow of information. This not only makes it easier to detect risks and even prevent certain crisesbut is also important for drawing lessons and improving legislation and regulations.”

What does China mean to you personally? 

“I think of China as my other homeland. My husband and I will be moving from Sweden to China in two weeks. I have a four-year contract at an American-Chinese university where I will lecture on crisis, politics and public policy. It's not always an easy place to be, but I do find it fascinating. The hospitality there is tremendous, something to be jealous of. You do, however, need to keep a lid on your expectations. Opening a bank account or obtaining a SIM card can easily take half a day. That' s just something you have to live with.”

Annemieke van den Dool will be awarded her PhD on 26 June 2019 at 10:00 a.m. in the Agnietenkapel.