China was the United States’ largest supplier of goods imports in 2010 and was our 3rd largest supplier of agricultural imports at $3.4 billion.

Leading categories include: processed fruit and vegetables ($811 million), fruit and vegetable juices ($386 million), snack foods (including chocolate) ($190 million), and fresh vegetables ($132 million).

USAChinamain.jpgChina’s food safety record is a mixed bag.  Yes, China can move with swiftness and severity against those endangering food safety.  Yet, the same government also jailed Zhao Lianhai, who worked for the Food Quality and Safety Authority of China.

Zhao’s “crime” was organizing parents of children like his own son, who became ill from drinking contaminated milk.  Zhao was arrested November 2009, and sentenced a year later to 30 months in prison for inciting social disorder.

He went on a hunger strike, and subsequently was released last year on medical parole.   He is kept essentially under house arrest in Daxing, and gets harassed by police and state security officials whenever he takes his children out or tries to go to a restaurant.

When China first started beating up one of its own food safety workers for the crime of becoming too much of an advocate for injured children, some suggested it might mark larger events to come.

The treatment of Zhao sounds familiar because it follows the playbook China was using on the blind activist Chen Guangcheng until he escaped his illegal house arrest and made it to the U.S. Embassy.

Chen, who dissents on China’s one child policy, arrived on U.S. soil  this weekend with his family thanks in part to skillful handling by the U.S. Ambassador to China.  (More on that below.)

Also earlier this month, China expelled journalist Melissa Chan of Walnut, CA, the first accredited foreign correspondent to be kicked out of China in 14 years.  She worked for Al Jazeera English.

It is not known for certain what got Chan expelled, but had written about “black jails” for violators of the one-child policy and her press credentials were revoked just as the Chen story was breaking.

Chen was expelled for breaking unspecified “relevant laws,” according to a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry.  Chan insists she broke no laws.

But these are really nothing more than incidents in a country of 1.3 billion.

The big story in China is the one that reads like the opening chapters in a Tom Clancy novel. It’s included murder, mystery and political intrigue and we know not how its going to come out.

We now know about this provincial Communist Party chief named Bo Xilai, who had ties to People’s Army and was running a sophisticated surveillance operations on top government officials.   Bo was slated for the ruling circle, but now has been purged.

Will others in his network have to go too?   It’s the greatest “internal crisis” for China since the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre. It is an “internal crisis” that is also being fought out in China’s upper echelons.

As for China’s growing middle class, they are said to be unhappy with certain basic government services including food safety.   China might want to think about making the next Zhao a hero, not a criminal.

Whatever is going to happen in China is going to happen.  Xi Jinping is slated to follow Hu Jintao as China’s president this fall.  But China’s governing by consensus is clearly going to be tested by the Bo purge.

Many in government and business in the U.S. seem to think of China as just being governed by a big diverse group, sort of like Coca-Cola’s board of directors.  Losing a board seat at Coke, however, does not carry the consequences of being purged from the Chinese leadership.

What happens with China’s government concerns every bilateral relationship we have with the PRC including food safety.  So, politics in China this year is every bit as important as politics in the U.S.

We cannot do much as China’s internal affairs, but luckily we do have someone in Beijing that well might be best suited to represent U.S. interests during these historic times.  I say that with some personal knowledge of our man in China.

Before he was U.S. Ambassador to China or Governor of Washington, Gary Locke held a grimy office called “King County Executive” where he had to deal with punks like me.

That was back in the time when the bachelor Locke spent his weekends doing his own remodels, pulling electrical cable and installing plumbing.   To say Gary Locke is not afraid to get his hands dirty is an understatement. 

I was not surprised to see Ambassador Locke dealing with Chen personally without using some candy pants from State to run interference. 

After making the transition from Secretary of Commerce to U.S. Ambassador last Aug. 1, the Washington Post ran a story that basically said Locke was a little too popular in China than the Beijing government would prefer.

Ambassador Locke is a third generation Chinese-American married to former TV reporter Mona Lee, also of Chinese ancestry, with three children.   So, I don’t know how this Clancy novel is going to come out, but I do not doubt U.S. interests are going to be well represented to this government in turmoil.