Financial Times Editorial Comment: China’s new debt to US consumers
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: August 3 2007 19:46 | Last updated: August 3 2007 19:46
Another week, another safety scandal involving Chinese exports: Mattel, the US toymaker, is recalling 1.5m toys because the paint contains too much lead. That follows a recall of Thomas the Tank Engine toys and problems with other contaminated Chinese-made products ranging from toothpaste to pet food.
Tempting though it may be for US politicians on the campaign trail to pounce on China – first they take our jobs, the putative script goes, then they kill our cats and poison our children – the recent revelations about unsafe Chinese exports should not be used as an excuse for protectionist rhetoric or the erection of new trade barriers.
It is not even proven that products from China are more dangerous than those from elsewhere; the fact that almost all toys recalled for safety reasons in the US are made in China simply reflects Chinese manufacturers’ overwhelming dominance of the US toy market.
To reject protectionism, however, is not to assert that the Chinese authorities are blameless. On the contrary, they have neglected their duty to regulate and enforce product safety in the Chinese domestic market, while assuming – correctly, on the whole – that foreign importers will ensure the quality of the goods distributed in developed countries because of the large financial penalties of failure.
While Chinese consumers have been subjected to appalling abuses, including the sale of lethal antibiotics and milk powder that helped kill a dozen infants, US shoppers have so far been spared the worst, for which they can thank lawyers eager to launch product liability suits and the vigilance of companies such as Mattel that value their brands.
Chinese consumers should use the publicity about the safety of the country’s exports as an opportunity to press for an overhaul of their entire health and safety regime, just as environmentalists exploit disasters to enforce green standards.
China, unfortunately for those same consumers, is not a democracy. Communist party leaders know they have a problem with product safety, but instead of promoting the transparent regulation, media freedom and independent judiciary required to tackle it they are resorting to old-fashioned and spectacularly ineffective methods: ordering their underlings to comply with the rules and punishing them when they disobey and get caught. So it is that Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration, was executed for taking bribes from drugs companies and approving fake medicines.
Bo Xilai, China’s commerce minister, insists that most Chinese exports are safe and says the safety issue should not be allowed to damage trade. If he wants to be taken seriously, China must accept that Chinese consumers – not just Americans – have the right to know what they are buying and deserve to be protected from dangerous products.