The recent fact-finding tour to China by trade officials from the European Union (EU) marks a necessary but overdue step towards settling the anti-dumping dispute over Chinese shoe exports.
It is overdue because too little time is left for the truth to prevail, as the EU is set to impose an unfair punitive tariff on some Chinese shoes.
It is needed because this is the largest anti-dumping case the EU has launched against China, involving shoes worth more than € 300 million (US$390 million) and millions of Chinese workers. Also, the move sets a precedent that both sides can use to properly deal with trade disputes in the future.
By talking for the first time face-to-face with local shoe-makers in Zhejiang Province in East China, the EU trade officials are expected to gain a sense of reality about the latest Sino-EU trade conflict.
Seeing is believing. The visit to Zhejiang, one of the richest provinces in China, which has largely based its success on a thriving private sector, can help clear misunderstandings about the practices of Chinese shoemakers.
Local enterprises are no longer State firms that run on government subsidies and planning. In the shoemaking industry, an overwhelming majority of players, if not all, are private companies or joint ventures. They have to fight hard with each other for survival.
The short trip must have deepened the EU trade officials' comprehension of Chinese officials' commitment to free trade, as well as the source of Chinese enterprises' competitive edge.
However, if that is not enough, the rising consumerism that the World Consumers' Rights Day highlighted in the country might be worthy of their attention.
Not that China is already a consumers' paradise. Protection of consumers' rights is far from perfect in the home market.
Yet, surging public complaints and intense media coverage in run-up to consumers' day explicitly showed that Chinese consumers have become much more demanding as their choice increases and diversifies.
From State-owned telecom giants that abuse their monopolies to overcharge mobile phone users to private producers of low-quality or unsafe food, businesses that profit at the cost of consumer rights have all come under severe attack.
Chinese consumers have increasingly taken for granted their right to demand better and cheaper goods and service. And since the country has decided to base more of its economic growth on domestic consumption, the understanding that what is good for consumers will be good for the economy will take a deep root in the country.
Chinese shoemakers have to face ferocious domestic competition.
Hence, it is unwise to deny market economy status for Chinese shoemakers by written criteria and not reality.
Local industries' calls for protection rumble on in some EU member countries. To prevent the situation from escalating into full-blown protectionism, EU trade officials must keep an eye on the interests of both industries and consumers.
Satisfying the needs of a specific industry at the sacrifice of the public, not to mention the interest of related industries, is not the correct response to the challenge of globalization.
(China Daily March 16, 2006)