Friday, April 15, 2011

"Made In China"

"Made In China"

The “made in China” bugaboo is reminiscent of the post war Japan products, and following a bit later, the Taiwanese products, both of which acquired the stigma of being shoddily made and invariably looked at as synonymous to cheap and inferior. The major difference between the Japanese and Taiwanese phases as compared to that of China’s is that the former were borne out of dire situations, Japan from the ravages of war and Taiwan over a long period of deprivation resulting from the lack of natural resources being a small “renegade nation” that was stymied by the constant takeover threat by China. Perhaps much earlier China might have been in a similar situation. They have been saddled by unproductive, if not destructive politically inspired revolutions, a burgeoning population to feed, an almost non-existent infrastructure covering a vast tract of land and the realization of what seemed to have been a failed ideology after the USSR conversion to non communist modified capitalistic states, but, as we have seen in the more recent years this modification seemed to have been the force that spurred the economic growth in China. Capitalism was no longer the shibboleth then associated with the evils of democracy.
Now that they had already risen above the turmoil of change  and having tasted the success of early attempts at providing cheap labour to western manufacturing concerns they were emboldened to get into manufacturing their own products and engage in international business. This resulted into the proliferation of cheap China products. What ensued was breakneck industrialization fuelled by cheap labour which had attracted the world’s leading manufacturers to bring their production requirements to China.

Small to medium sized local manufacturers have been turning out low cost products with no concern about the consumer’s well being not because of survival pressures but that of greed and a mad rush to grab the opportunities of a high global demand.  High demand has caused the Chinese to compromise on quality and safety.

It has been found out that food products being exported out of China have been tainted by ingredients that are not food grade or in some, dangerous to human consumption. The melamine in dairy products which resulted into sickness and deaths among babies is the best known example of this irresponsible act. The examples that have been cited are numerous. In America there have been reports of pet deaths resulting from “made in China” pet foods. The same incidence has been reported in other countries as well. In medicines, toxic ingredients have been analyzed in cold remedies which resulted in the deaths of those who have taken them. Cheap but toxic substitutes have been used in the manufacture of over the counter medicines, dietary supplements and toys. The Panamanian Health Authorities  reported  hundreds of deaths from medicines imported from China and the much publicized Mattel toys incident where lead poisoning has been reported.

Not all China products are bad. Electronic products (computers, Ipods, Blackberries etc), appliances, automotive products, agricultural products, haberdashery, heavy industries, etc. are of acceptable quality and are a bargain compared to those manufactured in the Japan, the US and other leading industrialized countries. These are a boon to the less affluent countries because they are made available to them at prices their people can afford. Those in the third world benefited from the cheap but quality electronic products and other conveniences that would have been out of reach if it were not for the cheaply priced but relatively hi-tech products. Intellectual protection (IP) could be controversial in some of the product areas here, but then again, that is a separate issue which could be subject of another discussion.

World markets are composed of the affluent ones in first world countries and the middle to poor countries in the developing and third world markets. There will always be a market for cheap products because there are more poor countries than there are affluent ones and with the changing fortunes of some western economies cheap products are finding acceptance among the “new poor” nations. A colleague mentioned that “It is all about the "value for money equation" and it applies equally to the East as well as the West”.
China products will have to be looked at critically and that the consumer will have to be cognizant of the age old adage in marketing; “Caveat Emptor” or let the buyer beware. Practicing a good measure of precaution might be in order.

Product areas that are potential health hazards must be shunned; this will include ingestible products and those that may be potentially harmful to children who may be unwary and highly susceptible to inadvertent contact and use of the product.

Earlier on there was the perception that the China bashing was being fanned by the pr efforts of countries who were threatened by the seeming upsurge of China's dominance in world business. Protectionism by incumbent leaders, fair or foul has always reared its head in world commerce. These world leaders are notorious for their protectionist efforts. In our country, our coconut industry has been dealt a foul blow when the US laboratories at the prodding of the Soybean Association of America declared laurics (coconut oil) as artery clogging and detrimental to health.  The National Heart Savers Association launched a vicious media blitz against tropical oils.  Research findings since the 1950’s have lauded coconut oil as having the best properties health wise and in culinary use. In the sugar industry, a once thriving agricultural sector which at one time contributed about 8 % of our domestic output has been harmed by price pressures in the international market in favour of high fructose corn grown in the US. The SARS scare in Asia, the celebrated mad cow disease and the bird/swine flu were highly suspected of being ploys to weaken the economies/countries affected by it. In fairly recent history, WTO would have protectionist horror stories which have put the less developed countries at a disadvantage. The power of media wielded by the western countries is tremendous and this could spell disaster to hapless countries unlucky enough to be targeted by it.  
However, it would be hard to deny the ill effects of some “made in China” products because these have been documented and validated by experts and even by some of us who could have had a firsthand experience of it, but somewhere between the drummed up news and actual occurrence of incidents would lie the degree of severity and the gravity of the incidents. The drumbeat might have been ten octaves louder than what some of the bad news deserved. The big players form cliques and have international media on their side through influence and financial clout that could effectively disseminate misinformation and disinformation churned out by their “expert” institutions and personalities. Some of the incidences were statistically insignificant and yet the western “spin” doctors made them a “cause celebre” that reverberated around the globe.

 China may have been guilty of irresponsible manufacturing of certain products and yet one cannot be blind to the technologically acceptable product outputs in a lot of their other industries. The Chinese manufacturers who have been remiss in product safety and quality might have come from the smaller manufacturing sectors where there was a feverish rush to make money and an eagerness not to miss out on the opportunities prevailing. The government should put more controls in these areas where most harm can be done to consumers. They fully understand the seriousness of the problem and have put efforts to improve product quality and shore up their tarnished image. They have had little success thus far. In time the diligent research and development activities and the constant improvement of quality control procedures will pay dividends and when this happens there is no stopping China into becoming the premier economy of the world. As we were wont to say rather the end China will win.

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