The recent hoopla over poisonous, tainted, and otherwise malignant Chinese exports — toothpaste, toys, and pet food, oh my! — has left us with an unpleasant taste in our mouths (and not just the minty-fresh kind). Industrial malfeasance has become the bane of Chinese commerce, and we have no intention of downplaying the unique brand of terror experienced by a parent who realizes he just gave his kid a lead-addled plaything.
But it is difficult for this Shanghai resident not to worry about sinophobic implications of the current hysteria. Witness sleeper-hit non-fiction book A Year Without Made In China, sparked by journalist Sara Bongiorni’s realization that “China has taken over the place,” and her year-long attempt to evict it (excerpt here suggests the project sucked most for her kids, who were forced to endure A Year Without New Toys). Bongiorni’s most shockingly Ameri-centric claim — that if the US boycotted China for one week “the empire will collapse” — demonstrates a naive view of global commerce. Last we checked, China exported to a few countries other than the U.S. Rather, it is America’s growing trade deficit — ergo, dependence on nations like China for production — that leaves Americans quaking in their Made-in-China boots. The “means of production” are not only invisible, they’re in a different hemisphere, and under different legal jurisdictions! It is as though the servants in the kitchen have begun to poison the meals destined for the dining room set, and diners like Bongiorni are suddenly realizing that they are more at the mercy of their distant producers than they care to be.
So where does this leave the consumer? And what is an export-minded industrialized nation to do? Last year alone Chinese exports totaled more than $1 trillion (that’s, like, a bazillion-jillion RMBs). Despite its success, though, China’s industrialism is still relatively new — and uniquely tied to those enigmatic “with Chinese Characteristics” that her government so loves.
Good thing Joseph Kahn, of the New York Times, has got it sorted into language even this naive, young American can understand:
Phony fertilizer destroys crops. Stores shelves are filled with deodorized rotten eggs, and chemical glucose is passed off as honey. Exports slump when European regulators find dangerous bacteria in packaged meat.
More product safety scandals in China? Not this time. These quality problems prompted a sluggish United States government to tighten food and drug regulation 101 years ago, when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the act that created the Food and Drug Administration.
Like America’s industrializing economy a century ago, China’s is powered by zealous entrepreneurs who sometimes act like pirates. Both countries suffered epidemics of fatal fakes, and both have had regulators who were too inept, corrupt or hamstrung to do much about it.
The question now is whether Chinese factories, caught exporting poisonous pharmaceutical ingredients, filthy shellfish, bogus pet food and faulty tires, can react in time to head off more damage to their reputation.
Or, to put it another way, are the latest incidents enough to push China toward its own Progressive Era?
Here’s where we all cross our fingers …
The answer, say people who have studied the country’s regulatory system, is a cautious yes. But first, they say, Beijing must take a fresh approach to inspecting and policing its often unruly economy.
Hooray! Kahn points to a “roguish undercurrent” in Chinese commerce, the side effect of massive bureaucracy and an unsustainable model for growth:
Safety lapses are a serious side effect of China’s gradual and still incomplete efforts to separate politics and business. To spur economic growth in the 1980s, top leaders gave local-level officials more power. The goal was to undercut socialist conservatives in the central government who exercised tight controls. Regulatory power was also scattered.
Growth surged. Entrepreneurs, foreign investors and peasant farmers assumed a dominant role in production. But safety, as well as labor and environmental standards, fell by the wayside.
The article also details various ministerial buck-passing tangles and political hurdles in the consolidation of China’s currently diffuse product regulations organizations. The creation of a single, authoritative, hopefully un-bribe-able FDA-like organization is widely acknowledged to be the current goal, just as it was for America in Roosevelt’s years. Kahn notes, however, that the FDA took about 55 years to grow from its relatively weak early role to its current regulatory-behemoth status; for the sake of Thomas-the-tank-engine-sucking toddlers everywhere, we’ll just have to hope China does it a little faster.
New York Times: Can China Reform Itself?