A former association official has fallen hard, from a heroic figure of consumer safety advocate with frequent media appearance, to a criminal who faces more than a decade of jail time.
Dong Jinshi, former secretary-general of Beijing-based International Food Packaging Association, was sentenced last month to serve 14 years in prison for multiple counts of extortion that amounted to more than $1 million, according to Chinese state media.
During August 2009 and April 2014, Dong and his accomplices exploited his influence as an association official and media celebrity to blackmail plastic packaging manufacturers to pay him “advisory fees” and “deposits” in exchange for silence about these companies' illegal or subpar packaging products. Those companies, fearful of media exposure and government inspection, mostly succumbed to the threat.
The backdrop of the case is China's ban of polystyrene foam food packaging that was initially introduced in 1999. Like many other bans in China, such as the 2008 plastic bag ban (which is another story), the PS foam container ban was never effectively enforced. In 2005, for example, the nation consumed 8.6 billion of foam containers, Chinese media reported.
Despite the massive scale of the industry, technically those manufacturers were still making illegal products — and that's why Dong was able to get his way.
China officially lifted the ban in 2013, but Dong would not give up on his revenue. He continued to blackmail companies, not for making illegal products, but for common practices of tax evasion or failure to meet hygiene standards.
Dong is clearly paying for his despicable criminal acts, but the case also reflects a muddy picture of China's manufacturing practices and law enforcement. If the companies could abide by laws in the first place (I know it's a naïve thought), or if the government would actually enforce its laws and regulations, Dong's tricks wouldn't have worked.
The same state media that acclaimed Dong as a consumer advocate a few years ago now berate him not only for committing the crimes but also for “delaying the development of China's PS foam container industry.” Perhaps they should also ask: who created the loopholes that Dong was able to exploit? What can be done now to clean up the business and legal environment in China?
For full disclosure, I interviewed Dong on the phone in 2008 regarding China's bag ban in 2008 and used some quotes in this story.