That Made in China label

Don’t you just love vilifying China?

Growing economy? (Check) Massive trade imbalance? (Check) And Commie to boot? (Check!)

Were you really surprised when they started poisoning our puppies? It’s a vast, Chinese, pink-o commie conspiracy against the American way of life people! Wake up and smell the green tea!

Well, ok, no. It’s not. But when it comes to buying things, why are we so anti-China?

You have books such as A Year Without “Made in China” by Sara Bongiorni and massive fear-induced boycotts of all Chinese goods, so maybe we do think it is a commie plot.

Oh! But Jennie! They all work in sweat shops! And only make 57 cents an hour! And their pet food/toys/toothpaste ARE all being recalled for poison/lead paint/whatever… China’s cutting too many corners! Chinese products are bad!

Well, no. They’re not.

Why are we blaming China for something that is fundamentally the fault of industry? American industry?

Yes, the recalled products all came from China. But, as I once read, don’t blame your maid if she breaks a dish– as the one who handles the dishes, she’ll be the one to break them. China is our second largest importer. She’s going to occasionally break a dish. Or use some lead paint.

And, yes, Chinese labor practices are awful… um, kinda. I mean, there are no laws in China saying you must only have sweatshops. It’s just that you’re allowed to have them. And you aren’t required to be environmentally unsound. And you’re not required by Chinese law to only pay your workers $104/a month. (But, also, let’s consider this is a country where 620ml of Tsing Tao beer in costs, in central, tourist-filled Beijing, a whopping 38 cents.) It’s just that in China you can get away with this stuff.

And then, there’s the recalled products. Toys with lead point. Lethal Dog Food. Yes, it was made in China, but why are we blaming the entire Chinese manufacturing industry for this? Why are we boycotting goods that carry the Made in China label?

I read an editorial in Saturday’s China Daily, the Chinese government’s English-language mouth piece. (It’s not yet online.) It quoted some official stating that most of the recalled products were built on faulty specs provided by the companies, and therefore, not China’s fault.

I’m not buying the spin, but I still say, not China’s fault. Mattel et al. owns these factories, or at least pays them to make their products. They need to have some sort of quality and safety control in place. For all we know, Mattel told their companies to go cheap and use the lead-based paint. But it’s not Mattel’s fault that they hired crappy people to make crappy products and then didn’t make sure they weren’t entirely crappy. Let’s instead blame the location of the factory.

Yes, let’s boycott China because corporations are unscrupulously taking advantage of what China has to offer by ways of crappy labor laws and environmental controls. Who cares if you’re also boycotting the companies that are doing things ‘right.’ Let’s boycott China because certain American corporations are too lazy to ensure their products are safe and up to standard before putting them on the shelves.

Why not, oh, I don’t know… boycott the companies and not China? Why aren’t we boycotting Mattel? Why aren’t we boycotting the companies that allow unsafe products with their label on our shelves? Why aren’t we boycotting the companies that mistreat their workers? Why are we boycotting everything else made in the same country while letting the real offenders off?

Why are we blaming China?

Because it’s easy. And that’s really unsafe.


9 Responses to That Made in China label

  1. kidsilkhaze says:

    Ah! I found a paper copy of the editorial!

    “Vice Minister Wei Chuanzhong of the Central Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarentine (AQSIQ) made an important point which has not received due attention in the recent frenzy over Chinese exports.

    While the Chinese side understands the United States’ concerns about some problematic Chinese exports, he told the press in Washington, Americans should also know the real reasons for the recalls.

    Defective designs provided by American toy importers were responsible for 85 percent of all the recalls, according to Wei, while manufacturers’ neglect of standards was liable for the other 15 percent.”

    It goes on to complain that Wei’s comments were fairly covered by the American press and the American media is treating China unfairly.

    As I said above, I don’t buy the spin, but I do fail to see why we blame a country’s entire manufacturing industry when companies are allowing substandard, unsafe products to carry their label. It’s the companies that need to be held accountable for their products, not the country that hosts the plant. If it’s the plant’s fault, the company needs to make changes or other arrangements for manufacture.

  2. kidsilkhaze says:

    Whoops. That should read “It goes on to complain that Wei’s comments were NOT fairly covered by the American press…”

  3. poetloverrebelspy says:

    I agree with the main thrust of your argument that it is the companies who are ultimately responsible for the products they put on the shelves bearing their label. If those Mattel production directives said to paint toys with lead paint, then they are definitely the villain.

    But I see two problems here. First is that some of these factories were knowingly flouting instructions and recipes in order to cut costs and increase profits. The example of pet food comes to mind, where a urea substitute creates false high protein readings in laboratory tests (which suggests that the companies *are* performing quality checks). It fooled the machines, but ultimately made pets sick when the amount added got too high.

    And WHY was that possible? Because there are fewer government regulations in China to control how things are produced. Yes, that is part of the reason things are able to happen so easily and cheaply there and why multinationals have moved their production facilities. Yes, it is the multinationals who have exploited the situation and now find it biting them back. Nevertheless, I am too cynical to believe that consumers have much control over multinationals. Instead, it is our governments (and their multilateral agreements) which must protect citizens and consumers against abuses by and hazards from corporations and hold them accountable. That naturally includes environmental and social welfare as well. The recent Mattel apology to China suggests the power that governments can wield over multinational corporations. Long story short, more regulation in China would have positive benefits for both Americans and Chinese.

  4. Jennie says:

    I’m not saying consumers have control over multinationals, I just feel China’s being unfairly blamed, especially when the actual companies who were in charge of this product are getting off relatively scott-free. We’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    And ok, so this factory was going behind the company’s backs and putting substitutes in their pet food? That’s really scary. Because WHERE THE HELL WAS THE COMPANY?! What kind of oversight do these corporations have on their manufacturing that this could happen? Shouldn’t they have someone on the ground checking this stuff out? Why are they still doing business with this factory? And, in a case like that, I’m not an expert on Chinese law, but I’m sure what they did was legal by Chinese standards, so more regulation would not have helped.

  5. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Is it common business practice to assume your partners in production are substituting harmful ingredients? I think it’s common practice to sign a contract, pay up and expect the contracted services. Were these companies all aware they were being defrauded till this crisis broke? Part of the problem is these do not seem to be isolated incidents, making voting with their feet a less reliable option for the corporations. In the case of pet food, the companies WERE testing the food; the point was the replacement ingredient imitated protein in their tests, so they were unaware anything was wrong.

    I don’t understand your last sentence. Obviously many of these things are legal. How does that mean more regulation wouldn’t help solve the problem? We have more regulation, Sweden has more regulation, these things don’t happen as often with products produced in the US or in Sweden. Additionally, our workers have safer work environments, our citizens have cleaner physical environments. Do you disagree with “more” and prefer instead “better”?

    If you agree that consumers have little power, what do you think will control the behavior of multinationals or cheating factories if not government regulation?

  6. Jennie says:

    See, I’m not sure, in the case of the pet food factory, what they did was legal, even in China. In that case, such the regulation was in place and didn’t help. Also, overall China doesn’t have that many recalls– it’s just been a bad summer.

    The US has rather strict regulations on what can and cannot be imported or sold, but, it still ended up on our shelves.

    And if consumers can’t influence multinationals, are they really going to influence a foreign government?

    And yes, expecting contracted services to be provided as per contract is business standard. But, if the contracted services aren’t delivered as per contract, who’s to blame? The factory for not fulfilling its contracted duty? The company for, at worst, knowing this was going on-condoning it or even ordering it, and at best just chosing a very unreliable business partner? Or should we blame the geographic region where the manufacturing takes place because they provided an environment where such a thing *could* happen.

    I mean, if I get shot during a bank robbery, do I blame the guy who shot me? Or do I blame the bank for having inadequate security? I’m more likely to blame the guy that shot me.

    I do agree with better rather than more regulation, and I’m not saying China doesn’t need a massive overhaul of labor laws and safety standards. China does if they’re going to be a player in the 21st century.

    Still, I have a very hard time in blaming an entire country and region for, when it boils down to it, was a handful of factories. Did the lax regulation and lack of enforement for what little regulation there is help create the problem? Sure. But is that what is most responsible for the problem? No.

  7. poetloverrebelspy says:

    What is then, in your estimation, most responsible for the problem?

    I think our disagreement here boils down to the estimation of societal norms’ contribution (as measured via laws/regulation) to willingness/ability to cheat.

    Regulations as such never keep cheats and sneaks from cutting corners. There was recently a rotten meat scandal here in Germany, grocery stores in the US have been caught changing labels on meat, etc. But their enforcement (and the subsequent punishment of wrongdoers) is how society controls the behavior of individuals and firms. Yes, the multinationals can switch to another factory, but shouldn’t the factory in question also pay damages or suffer legal repercussions for its misbehavior? How can that be ensured without a law and the enforcement of that law? That role is essentially played by the factory’s government. This is why we look broadly to China and not just to the factory.

    The fear is of course that in such a production climate products are consistently altered and we are unaware. If big-name corporations can’t keep their products in line, how am i certain that my no-name sunglasses are really uv-protected? How can I be certain my name-brand fish food is really providing my fish with protein and not urea? Enforcement of regulation goes a long way towards assuring product safety for consumers.

    In your bank robbery example, the shooter is ultimately to blame. But if we live in a country where robbing banks is not illegal (or only robbing banks with knives is illegal), the victim is simply SOL till the laws change to reflect the real-world situation. That does not mean that robbing banks (with guns) shouldn’t be regulated; this again is an example where the government must step in to change and enforce regulation.

    That is not to say we are not also looking to the multinational and to our own government and asking them, “Why didn’t you protect us?” We must also have defenses in place to regulate the products we use and the behavior of firms, and obviously those defenses have largely failed (or been intentionally weakened). This all simply shows how dangerously unimportant the consumer is relative to business interests. In our litigious society, if it could be proven that the bank in question encouraged robbery with its severly lax security, they would also be held accountable for the injury caused. The complicity of the firms and their level of responsibility is of course one big remaining question mark.

  8. Jennie says:

    I have a really hard time equating societal norms with legislation/regulation.

    And where you say that we should be also looking to the multinationals and our own government, no body is. They’re all taking the easy answer of blaming China.

    And yes, the bank could be held responsible through lawsuit, but *should* they? There’s a huge dfference there.

    And many of these factories are paying damages and fines, and the people in charge have lost major face (no small thing in Chinese society) to the point where a few have even committed suicide. (Or, to the really cynical amongst us, been taken out by the Chinese government.)

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