Demonizing China

In the past few weeks, I’ve heard several people announce loudly that they planned not to buy any goods manufactured in China. (Good luck with that, by the way.) They mention issues with the toothpaste, seafood, toys and pet food. And it appears that “Made in China” has taken on some of the taint that “Made in Japan” used to carry–those wily Orientals, passing off inferior merchandise to make a buck.

(Apparently people have short memories, because they’ve forgotten recent food contamination that originated in the United States. Remember the e. coli in the spinach? The lettuce problem? What about that peanut butter? And ironically, China has blocked import of some U.S. products because of safety issues. The blocked imports include meats from Tyson Foods, which were contaminated with salmonella.)

The dangers of China and Chinese merchants seem to be in the forefront of people’s minds. This NY Times article is about a Canadian toy manufacturer that continued to sell a toy called “Magnetix” even after several children were seriously injured or killed after swallowing parts.

IT is a disturbingly familiar story. A hot new technology produced cheaply in China creates a highly profitable product for its maker. But if problems arise with the goods, the companies selling them can impede understaffed consumer protection regulators who are hamstrung in their efforts to get the products off the shelves.

MEGA Brands, which buys its magnets in China, looks to be just such a company, according to records that the United States Consumer Products Safety Commission provided to Congressional investigators examining problems with magnet toys. Even as the company’s products were the subject of two voluntary recalls prompted by the commission — one in March 2006 and another on April 17 this year — MEGA Brands delayed answering the government’s requests for information, was uncooperative with the commission and violated the terms of one of the recalls, the records show.

Note how China is worked into the story twice?

Neodymium magnets (invented in Japan, by the way) are extremely powerful. As they began to be manufactured more and more cheaply, companies found uses for them in various consumer products, such as toys. Magnetix was one such toy. After finding an inexpensive source of these magnets, the MEGA Brands company rushed to put the magnetic toys on the market.

In November 2005, a young boy named Kenny Sweet died after accidentally swallowing pieces of the Magnetix toy. The magnets pinched together his intestines. The Chicago Tribune reported as follows:

Not long after Kenny’s death, a top executive at Rose Art’s parent company called the Sweets to offer his condolences. Vic Bertrand, chief operating officer at Mega Brands, assured the Sweets that this was the first time in the company’s history that a child had died or even suffered a serious injury from a Mega Brands toy, according to the company.

That wasn’t true.

Before Kenny’s death, at least three children had suffered life-threatening intestinal injuries from swallowing loose Magnetix magnets, and word of two of those injuries reached Mega Brands’ Rose Art division before Kenny Sweet died.

But perhaps the story could have been written this way:

Not long after Kenny’s death, a top executive at the Canadian company called the Sweets to offer his condolences. Vic Bertrand, a Canadian and the chief operating officer at Mega Brands, assured the Sweets that this was the first time in the Canadian company’s history that a child had died or even suffered a serious injury from a Mega Brands toy, according to the company.

That wasn’t true.

Before Kenny’s death, at least three children had suffered life-threatening intestiny injuries from swallowing imported Magnetix toys from Canada, and word of two of those injuries reached the Canadian company before Kenny Sweet died.

Of course, rewriting this paragraph does not invoke the same sense of menace, because demonizing China relies on ingrained stereotypes and images of the country that most U.S. residents don’t tie to Canada. It’s a little like trying to reverse a racial comment by switching the races of the actors. It doesn’t work because it depends on existing power structures and belief systems.

In any event, the problem wasn’t that the toys were made in China. The problem is that unethical corporate executives ignored warnings that the toy could be dangerous. China manufactures approximately 80 percent of the toys in the United States. The reason? As the New York Times article points out, using a cheap source of labor is “highly profitable.” I think the profit angle is key. As long as there is a demand for cheap consumer goods, companies will continue to exploit China for its workforce and the ability to pass the buck.

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3 thoughts on “Demonizing China

  1. Pingback: China Law Blog

  2. Pingback: Demonizing China « China Now Weblog

  3. China needs to acknowledge its role in the production of dangerous products. And it needs to get the heck out of Darfur. Why is China financing the genocide in Darfur? Or am I a racist to ask that question??

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