13 September 2007

Tucker, let me ask you a question, is it me or are the Chinese trying to kill us? First it was toxic toothpaste. Then they sent over a batch of lethal toys drenched in lead for our kids to play with. Then it was bad tires for our cars. Now the evil Chinese regime is hitting us where we sleep. A new study shows that some pajamas made in China contain levels of Formaldehyde 900 percent above what is considered safe.

The discovery was made when pajamas worn by two different children in New Zealand and made in China, literally caught on fire. So, if you are wearing Chinese pajamas right now, take them off slowly before you combust spontaneously.

Tucker, I don‘t know. I know your kids wear exclusively Chinese pajamas, so this one hits home for you.

CARLSON: Not only Chinese pajamas, but Chinese pajamas made by political prisoners about to be executed so their organs can be harvested. Yes.

HAHAHAHAHA! Oh, that Tucker Carlson. Oh, I shouldn’t laugh: “his bowtie knows where you sleep”.

Pet food, shellfish, tires, pajamas, action figures - this was an exciting summer in the world of Chinese exported goods. CNN didn’t just have Tucker Carlson cracking jokes about the Yellow Imported Hordes that threatened Americans from every Walmart. No, they also had John Vause, who has reported from Baghdad, talking of how he dreads eating anything in China, and consider this bit of cognitive dissonance:

Even drinking a glass of water instills fear: A recent government report found half the bottled watered in this city was counterfeit… In a Communist country where corruption is rampant and the press appears only free to go after the little guy, I believe the deep systemic problems go unreported

Didn’t he just say it was the unresponsive Communist government that told him about the water? But like Tucker Carlson and his fellow correspondent, it must all lead back to Fu Manchu, erm, Hu Jintao. As the China logistics blog All Roads Lead to China points out, Vause was part of a half hour special on CNN titled “Made in China”, summarizing:

In the end, and besides the fact that the reporters are constantly adding elements of fear into the story, what I find most negligent about this report is that no one (except the guy on the street) mentioned the role that private business has in this. There was no acknowledgment that the importer of tires suspected 2 years ago that the tires were bad, there is no attempt to frame the actual problems in a responsible manner (the tires did meet highway safety standards), and there is absolutely zero attempt to responsibly report the statistics. Sure 80% of all toys in the U.S. are imported from China, but CNN really needs to distinguish between foreign products made in China and Chinese branded products made in China.

It’s just too easy to make this about “The Chinese” and “The Communist government”. As if a different form of government would change the immense pressure of so many millions of people are competing with one another to make a buck, in most cases to become not rich, but less poor. Never mind the tire importers responsibility. Never mind that a Canadian study at the same time found that “of the 550 toy recalls since 1988, 76.4 per cent were due to problems that could be attributed to design flaws”, meaning that foreign companies manufacturing in China share responsibility. Never mind that Mattel is still trying to figure out what supplier downstream provided the lead paint, when even the small firm I once worked for doing quality control had the good sense to source their own components and not leave it to their end assembly factory. For years its been no secret that some Chinese companies will substitute cheaper parts when possible. Sometimes its to skim profits, other times its because they simply have no idea of the consumer issues involved and think they’re passing on savings to you. As blogger Bunnie says: “In the end, there is no substitute for going out to China and getting directly involved in the quality process.” Or, put another way: “They [Mattel] did not do their own due diligence,” said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the consumer group U.S. PIRG.”They relied on Chinese subcontractors - that doesn’t cut it.”

The New York Times David Barbosa described accurately what American audiences are often being fed:

Each week, it seemed, brought news of another faulty Chinese product; and with it, growing concerns about unscrupulous Chinese businessmen: cutting corners; pouring cheap, sometimes lethal, ingredients into their products; endangering consumers around the world, even children, to make a bigger profit.

As All Roads pointed out, the focus is mostly on the Chinese side, not so much the American side. Both American and Chinese companies are under pressure to provide cheap goods because, well, Americans are addicted to them. There isn’t exactly a movement in the United States to have less stuff.

But its so much more profitable and fun to invoke the spectre of “China trying to kill us”, and that all these goods are far more dangerous than they really are. As Spiked Online points out:

Apparently it is ‘continuous sucking on such toys and putting them in the mouth for days at a stretch that is hazardous’. Children often suck on toys, but not for ‘days at a stretch’. A guide to ‘dangerous toys’ in Time magazine pointed out that ‘lead can’t be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, so a child would have to chew the paint off a toy and eat a significant amount of it before getting sick’

Now I know some three year olds who might chew on a Thomas the Tank Engine for a week, but its pretty unlikely. Moreover, lead paint or not, parents ought to be concerned if their child gnaws like a rodent on their Barbie dolls that much. The statistical probability of your kid being the one in flammable pajamas approaches zero, but that doesn’t make good copy. Speaking of statistics, consider that so far “the value of recalled toxic and dangerous Chinese goods to $430 million since June 6, from $152 million a year earlier”. In that time, Chinese imports to the U.S. have valued somewhere between $150 and $176 billion. If my math is correct, that means something like less than .3% of Chinese goods have been recalled. Go back and cruise through some of Bunnie’s recent posts on sourcing and assemblying his Chumby (looks fun) gadget. He talks about the factory workers he meets in posts titled Skill and Craft. It’s a good reminder that plenty of Chinese factories and workers care about their work, and the benefits of being hands on with your own supply chain and factories.

Meanwhile, there continues to be reports saying this like: Maybe the recent wave of Toys-made-in-China bashing is paying off. The Chinese government finally agreed to eliminate the use of lead paint on toys exported to the United States. Yes, according to Forbes, “

Instead of reacting defensively or merely resorting to slogans to “lift export quality,” Chinese officials sat down with their American counterparts and signed an agreement Tuesday to ban the use of lead paint on toys exported to the United States.” This is ridiculous. China has had stricter laws on the books against lead paint than the U.S. for a while (though Forbes reports, erroneously, that lead paint is legal in China).

The problem is with enforcement - the same local politics that limits the central governments reach on numerous issues is the problem here as well. The Chinese government can’t prevent local officials from land grabs that result in mass “unrest” that is supposedly a threat to their very existence, or block webpages that contain, supposedly, other seeds of revolt. If we are to believe that these are existential fears for Beijing, and they can’t keep these together, how likely is it they can truly enforce better standards for U.S. citizens, when they can’t even provide them for their own?

More repugnant is that the focus is on improving quality control for exports to the U.S. - no concern, apparently, for Chinese domestic consumers. As Barbosa points out, “China’s lead therefore poses perhaps the greatest risk to the Chinese themselves, and their environment. Chinese children are buying toys that are less likely to be inspected than those going onto US store shelves, and less likely to be subject to the same sort of recall system as in the US.” How will Chinese citizens feel about the U.S. suggesting you can kill Chinese kids, but lay off ours?

There isn’t alot of distinguishing between the various actors in China in alot of these reports. Often, it’s just “China” that is the source of the problem, and little or no mention that many Chinese people are the victims as well. According to Brendan O’Neill at Spiked, it echoes some less than stellar moments in Western history regarding China:

The idea of the Chinese as a pollutant has a long history. Today, the Chinese are seen as an environmental pollutant; in the past, as the American author Jess Nevins points out, they were seen as ‘physical, racial and social pollutants’. In the mid-nineteenth century, Western commentary was full of irrational fears that the Chinese might pollute the white racial pool with their inferior racial qualities, or pollute Western societies with their strange cultural habits. There was, in Nevins’ words, a ‘Western fear of the supposed limitless hordes of Chinese overrunning white countries’ (9). We can see the re-emergence, even the rehabilitation of these fears in the idea that the Chinese are now a ‘toxic pollutant’ whose toys might undermine Western children’s health and IQ levels and give rise to a new generation of cretins in the US and Europe.

This isn’t about China, or the Chinese, or Communism. This is about the Return of Fu Manchu.

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