Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
Is China Killing Your Baby?
By David G. Young
Washington DC, August 21, 2007 --
Safety scandals regarding Chinese manufactured products are fueling fearmongering and economic nationalism.
A relentless avalanche of health scares involving products made in China has created a public relations disaster for China-based manufacturers and the Western brands that employ them. The chain reaction started five months ago, when hundreds of pets in America died after eating Chinese-produced pet foods spiked with the coal byproduct Melamine.1
Since then the stories have been coming at a relentless pace. In May, Chinese-made toothpaste containing a poisonous chemical often used in antifreeze was first found in Panama.2 The same chemical was soon found in imports in other countries, and many nations have since banned toothpaste made in China. In June, The Food and Drug Administration banned imports of farmed fish from China to America, due to antibiotic and anti-fungal residues found in some products.3
The most recent scare involves toys manufactured with lead-based paint. Earlier this month, Mattel recalled nearly a million toys made in China, following similar recalls this summer of Hasbro Easy Bake Ovens and wooden Thomas the Tank Engine rail cars.4 A second Mattel recall has since pulled hundreds of thousands more Chinese-made toys from the market.
The stories have given a reliable source of material to America's morning news shows, targeted toward an audience of concerned mothers. Shows like ABC's Good Morning America and NBC's Today regularly feature inflammatory segments stoking fear to increase viewership. Invariably, these scare stories are filed under the template, "Is the [blank] killing your baby?"
Aside from temporary diversions toward bridges and plastic baby bottles, the "blank" of the year has been one product after another made in China. While there is certainly plenty of blame to be placed on careless and disreputable Chinese manufacturers, there is no question that the series of stories has taken on a life of its own. Prejudice toward Chinese manufacturers is now so great that any product defect originating in China will create a much bigger story than a similarly defective product made in any other country.
To the extent that this increases the watchful eye on shoddy Chinese manufacturers, this might not be a bad thing. But negative sentiment toward China -- especially in America -- was already a problem before the product scandals, due to a clash of economic, environmental and financial interests. The series of scandals only serves to worsen this sentiment.
An example of this can be found with Sara Boniorni, a young mother who rounded the morning talk show circuit earlier this year. Bongiorni wrote a book documenting the great lengths needed to comply with her family's self-imposed boycott of China.5
The point of Bongiorni's book was to highlight just how dependent the world is on Chinese manufacturing. Point taken. But aside from getting material for a book, why on earth would anybody want to boycott every single product made in China? Arguments about safety are nonsense -- plenty of American products have been recalled for safety reasons, and plenty of Chinese made products are perfectly safe.
The real, if unspoken, reason for boycotting China is economic nationalism. People resent the economic progress made in China, and blame the country for local job losses in manufacturing. While this sentiment is perfectly understandable, it is terribly destructive to the larger interests of the world. This kind of thinking stokes resentment, hatred and, in extreme cases, war.
Fortunately, we are not at that point yet. The anti-Chinese feelings created by this year's recalls will likely cool rather than worsen. But this year's product recalls show just how easily an accidental series of events can create a hyped-up atmosphere destructive to the world at large. Let us all hope that cool heads continue to prevail.
Related Web Columns:
1. The New York Times, 104 Deaths Reported in Pet Food Recall, March 28, 2007
2. Ibid., Toxic Toothpaste Made in China Is Found in U.S., June 2, 2007
3. Health Day, FDA Halts Imports of Farmed Fish From China, June 28, 2007
4. MarketWatch, Mattel recalls China-made toys on paint fears, August 2, 2007
5. MSNBC, Could You Live Without China? August 16, 2007