As China’s leaders go into repair mode following the recent spate of international news about Chinese product quality and food safety problems, domestic media must report on the issue only with extreme caution. With few exceptions, the story is about a foreign assault on the “Made in China” trademark and effective official measures to deal with concerns. [Homepage Photo: Chinese scholar Chen Jitong, who wrote in the late nineteenth century of the great reputation Chinese had among foreign traders, see article below.]

The official line was made clear again today in a report in the official People’s Daily praising China’s handling in recent weeks of a series of breaking news events and saying actions in response had shown “transparency, efficiency and cooperation.” The article said governments at various bureaucratic levels were “moving toward maturity” in their handling of such emergencies. Most of the examples in the People’s Daily article dealt with handling of the “spreading of rumors” and “falsehoods.” Labeling foreign news reports on Chinese product safety issues “false,” the article showered praise on party leaders for their “strong counterattack”:

On August 17, the Information Office of the State Council released a 16,000-word white paper called “The State of Chinese Food Product Safety and Quality”. The paper comprehensively introduced a general survey of food product manufacture and safety, the system and execution of food safety inspection, inspection of food imports and exports, laws and regulations on food safety … and the state of international cooperation and dialogue on food safety.

Experts have said that this is a successful case study in “crisis management” (危机公关). A number of foreign media have lately come out with false reports on China’s product quality and food safety problems, casting a shadow over the “Made in China” label. The release of the white paper was a strong counterattack.

Coverage in the overseas edition of People’s Daily similarly praised actions by China’s leadership and criticized “exaggeration” of product quality and food safety problems in the foreign press:

“I believe we can say three things. The first is that Chinese product quality has seen major progress in the last few years – this is the key point to the issue. Secondly, China’s government and Chinese enterprises have attached great importance to recent product safety problems, and they have at the same time made earnest corrections. The third thing is that we oppose the exaggeration and playing up of problem products. We oppose the untrue and exaggerated propaganda and reports undertaken by a few trade protectionists behind the scene who seek to fan up sentiments [against China].”

As head of the agency charged with management of imports and exports, Commercial Bureau Chief Bo Xilai (薄熙来) gave an exclusive interview with China Central Television’s economic channel. Bo Xilai answered head on questions about ‘Made in China’ and Chinese product quality. He affirmed that the reputation of Chinese products on the world market would only grow better and better.

An editorial in yesterday’s China Business Times similarly characterized China’s product safety crisis in warlike terms, as a “siege” on “Made in China”:

There has lately been a spate of incidents in which the West “lays siege” to products made in China. In one case after another “Made in China” products have been exposed as having quality and safety problems, from toothpaste to marine products to food products and toys and cars and tires. Some have said this is the result of many years of rapid export growth emphasizing low prices over quality. But clearly … some Western media have made a conscious effort to blow up the situation, and this is basically a smear on the “Made in China” label.

But the editorial does manage, just barely, to turn from nationalist blameshifting and find a less shallow lesson:

For private enterprises in China, this should be seen as an important opportunity to raise production quality and make an all-round entry into the international market … raising the technological content and innovativeness of products, raising the degree of proprietary products. Taking a longer view of our interests, the more we can raise the added value of “Made in China” products, the more competitive “Made in China” [products] will be on the international market.

For variety of coverage – and there isn’t a great deal – one has to turn, as usual, to the better commercial newspapers. The examples yesterday came again from Southern Metropolis Daily.

One reader’s letter, appearing with other editorials on Page Two, chastised the West over the recent product safety row. But the tone was a personal one, the voice of a single Chinese citizen, stripped of the boilerplate partisan outrage:

My hometown makes a certain kind of dried fruit, well known throughout the world. But or a long time it has only been supplied for export, so that ordinary Chinese have no way of enjoying it. Even if they want to buy it they can’t.

In order to earn foreign exchange, everything good has been given to foreigners. . . . As for the quality of those toys exported to America. Whether or not these toys actually have quality issues, Chinese children by and large have no hope of playing with them.

A separate editorial in SMD takes a more scholarly approach to the issue of Chinese product quality. It asks not just how the present “Made in China” crisis arose, but draws out the deeper question of how China came in today’s world to be synonymous with fakery.

In China, the inland province of Henan is the constant butt of domestic humor. The first paragraph of the editorial ends with the wonderful line: “The people of Henan are the Chinese in miniature. We are all Henanese”:

In China, people from Henan Province have become symbols of all things fake. And now, in the Western world, China has come to symbolize fake products, to the extent that one European has even registered a “not made in China” trademark. China’s image internationally is not unlike the image we have domestically of Henanese. Just as we joke about the Henanese, foreigners now discriminate against us.

The author turns to the writings of late Qing Dynasty author Chen Jitong (陈季同), who wrote in the late nineteenth century that Chinese were known for their honesty and integrity in trade, that even Westerners talked of the “total honesty with which commercial transactions were carried out” by Chinese. “We can’t suppress a feeling of disbelief,” the editorial writer continues. “How is it that in 100 years the Chinese, so resolute in their honesty, have become the very image of fakery in the eyes of Westerners?”

The blame is not shifted to the West, however. After a brief social and cultural review of China, the author sums up by suggesting institutions ultimately have a more decisive impact on behavior [honest or dishonest] than such factors as “national character”:

All of this shows that circumstances are stronger than people. Present environmental factors are more important than long-standing traditional influences. And hard institutional factors are more critical than cultural factors … So-called national character, or social ethos, these are not preserved unchanged, but sometimes change fickly to suit opportunity.

The point is subtle, but clear enough – more effective institutions are the key to ensuring better product quality and safety.

The editorial concludes with a reference to late nineteenth century Germany, whose manufacturing sector, the author says, faced its own crisis of reputation and eventually launched a successful campaign to build “Made in Germany” into a respected trademark:

Will there be a day when “Made in China” rises like a phoenix from the ashes just as “Made in Germany” did?

[Posted by David Bandurski, August 31, 2007]