Recalls of toys. Allegations of poisoning. Chinese exporters are under fire. And the recent wave of safety-related accusations in business and global media is raising the question among Chinese: What is this all about? Is it just another round of politically motivated demonization?
But there was good news from Washington last week, with a joint petition signed by more than 1,000 economists led by four Nobel laureates to dissuade the US Congress from enacting protectionist laws against China.
At the same time, a group of Congress members unveiled a bipartisan legislative package designed to expand US engagement with China and increase American competitiveness in the global marketplace. It included a bill to boost support to small- and medium-sized US businesses exporting to the Chinese market.
In fact, no matter how emotional the China critics get, this will not become a lasting campaign. And it's even less likely to turn into blatantly anti-competitive legislation - even though it comes as the presidential campaign heats up.
This current round of China bashing is unlikely to get any worse than the criticism directed at the country in the late 20th century.
But although businesspeople may do well to ignore protectionist arguments from politicians, they should respect feedback from consumers. Safety concerns are fully legitimate. There should be zero tolerance when it comes to food and anything given to children.
Since China's entry to the World Trade Organization, more and more local companies have begun exporting. Some of them are small. Some make the same goods and supply to the same brands.
Chinese-made products have become so ubiquitous that it may be nigh on impossible for Americans to do without them. At least that's the conclusion reached by Sara Bongiorni in her book A Year Without 'Made in China'.
During Bongiorni's one-year experiment, she confessed: "I ended up spending almost $70 for tennis shoes for my son, compared to $10 or $15 for those from China."
With such a high level of business activity and so many suppliers serving numerous customers, any loopholes, any instances of lax regulation or misconduct - whether by manufacturers or merchants - can easily lead to mishaps. It is time for Chinese exporters to do something to provide a better service to their customers.
Rising safety concerns in the Western press should not be viewed as just China bashing. It is not purely politically motivated. And while analysts can always argue that politics is behind it, for businesspeople there is no time to waste.
Exporters mindful that "putting people first" actually means putting lives first will be compelled to act more competitively not only in price and overall cost-effectiveness, but also in quality - and safety.
What governments can realistically do to protect the interests of both small Chinese companies and importing countries' consumers, is to work out a better system to reinforce trade standards and ensure quality.
The government, of course, should take the lead on this. This economy cannot always compete on speed and cost. And if it does not shift to include being safe and clean when it has already got the money to do so, it will miss a huge opportunity.
(China Daily August 6, 2007)