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Shanghai Consumer Watchdog Gets More Bark and Bite

In the eyes of many Chinese, consumers' associations in the country are more like complaint centres attached to the industry and commerce authorities.

But the Shanghai Consumers' Association, facing a rising tide of complaints, plans to be more than that -- it has taken the initiative to induct representatives of the government, manufacturers and consumers to the organization to garner more authority and improve efficiency.

The Shanghai Consumers' Rights and Interests Protection Commission, as the organization will now be known, will have a "stronger" presence; and deal with consumers' complaints "more efficiently", says Lao Jianhong, deputy director of the commission's general office.

Originally affiliated to the Shanghai Municipal Industry and Commerce Administration, the new commission has representatives from the government's market regulatory bodies, such as the quality inspection and quarantine bureau and the food and drug administration.

The restructuring process is due to be completed by the end of next month, according to the commission, which will be financed by the municipal government.

"Compared with before, we will have greater power," Lao tells China Daily.

The reform was launched amid increasing complaints by local consumers in the past years which had put great pressure on the association and the Shanghai Municipal Industry and Commerce Administration.

Statistics show that local consumers filed more than 60,000 complaints last year but less than a quarter of them had been handled by the end of last month.

Though the association was the first in the country to obtain the power of arbitrating on small-claim disputes last year after the local arbitration authority set up a subsidiary under the association, the pressure on it was mounting because of the fast-growing number of complaints, experts say.

And the introduction of government bodies in the restructure, therefore, helps speed up the tackling of cases, they say.

In addition, the new commission will also take advantage of the influence of local industry associations to help discipline enterprises that hurt consumers' interests.

"Our team will be much strengthened by the representatives from various local industry associations," says Lao.

Roped in are representatives from industries that attract the most complaints -- telecommunications, electronics, home renovation and tourism, according to the commission.

The new commission will gain more public trust by inducting representatives of ordinary consumers, experts say.

It's the first time that a consumers' association in the country has taken in representatives of ordinary consumers.

The commission is expected to more directly represent consumers' interests, says Shen Youlun, a civil and consumer law expert of Shanghai-based East China University of Politics and Law.

"Compared with the original Shanghai Consumers' Association, the new commission will hear more views of the public," Shen told local media.

Consumers' associations across the country are usually affiliated to the local industry and commerce authorities and function rather like subsidiary departments. Many staff with the associations also work as local industry and commerce officials.

However, the reform may bring about stronger government intervention in consumer disputes, which to a certain degree, contradicts the original spirit of the association, notes Xu Lanbo, a researcher with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

A consumers' association should be an independent and autonomous social organization which represents consumers' interests, according to Xu.

Due to the affiliation with the industry and commerce authorities, however, many associations across the country sometimes take advantage of the government's powers to help settle disputes but they still mainly function as merely conciliators between consumers and enterprises, says Xu.

But the presence of more government representatives in the Shanghai commission will certainly impose more governmental influence and will upon the organization, Xu says.

The newly-joined governmental bodies, such as the Shanghai Quality Inspection and Quarantine Bureau, have the administrative power of penalizing enterprises, which may make the commission even "more powerful -- like a government department rather than an independent NGO (non-governmental organization)," Xu tells China Daily.

"The Shanghai government may have hoped to give more power to the new commission through the restructure so that it can work more efficiently," Xu says, adding that the Shanghai government wants action to ensure social stability.

It seems there are three parties inside the commission but no doubt the government is taking a leading role, says Xu.

Shen Junfu, a professor at East China University of Politics and Law, notes that too much government intervention may undermine the independence of the consumers' association and also public trust.

Consumers' interests may also clash with the government's stance in some cases, Shen adds.

In addition, too much government intervention in social disputes does not conform to the principle of the market economy, said Shen.

It is hard to say that Shanghai's restructure will be successful but the local government has shown the goodwill and determination to strengthen the protection of consumers' interests, which is certainly positive, says Xu Lanbo.

Shanghai's reform is based on a strong city government and the city has a tradition of a powerful government, he adds.

But Xu suggests the city still needs to further deepen the reform by separating the commission into two -- a pure consumers' association composed by consumer representatives only and a special governmental body that concentrates on co-ordinating the handling of conflicts between consumers and enterprises.

Consumers' associations can thus really become independent from the government and provide impartial and professional consultative services to consumers, he says.

"A good consumers' association helps consumers become sensible buyers when facing a dazzling array of products and glamorous advertisements," Xu adds.

(China Daily March 16, 2004)

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