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China and Inner Asia
In Session: The Business of Chinese Science: Global Engagement and Nationalist Imaginaries
2: Coca-Cola Science and the Dangers of “Business as Usual”
Friday, March 26, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Harvard University, United States
Since the late 1970s, the marketization of science has been a fundamental policy of the PRC party-state. State encouragement of industry-science collaborations, along with a loose ethical climate around business-science-state relations, has created a perfect storm in which large foreign corporations have been able to clandestinely exploit their financial power to shape Chinese science – and sometimes policy -- to their advantage. This paper considers the case of Coca-Cola’s intervention in China’s obesity science. The consumption of sugary soda is a major contributor to soaring rates of obesity, leading the WHO to name soda taxes and marketing restrictions the leading counter-measures. With profits threatened, in the early 2000s, Coca-Cola, working through the China branch of an industry-funded global scientific nonprofit, began quietly intervening to promote exercise – not dietary restraint -- as the solution, and to discourage the adoption of soda-unfriendly policies. Coke’s project, which exploited the hierarchies of global science and local narratives of China’s scientific backwardness, was remarkably successful. Reflecting the pro-market culture, China’s obesity experts saw industry involvement as business as usual. Despite state concern about scientific misconduct, conflicts of interest in funding have been ignored. The result is not just a policy on chronic disease that poses risks to the health of China’s people, but a state-industry-science/technology knot of power in which wealthy foreign firms can quietly shape state policymaking to their liking. The wedding of market to science poses unseen dangers to party and people.