As China’s Economy Roars, Consumers Lack Defenders

Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: July 8, 2007
SHANGHAI, July 7 — For weeks, as questions have multiplied over the safety of China’s exports of food and other consumer goods, the Chinese news media have had a consistent refrain.
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Ryan Pyle for The New York Times
At a market in Shanghai, customers can buy meats and other food. But even as China’s exports face greater scrutiny overseas, some food sold domestically has been found to be substandard or tainted.
American complaints about China’s products are part of a mounting trade war. They are the expression of efforts by Westerners to keep China down, to invent what the news media here have called a “China threat” to manipulate public opinion.
Exceptions can be found to this line, particularly regarding safety issues involving Chinese-made toothpastes, which importers around the world recently discovered often contain diethylene glycol, a poisonous chemical that tastes sweet, like its more expensive cousin, glycerin. Panama last year inadvertently mixed the chemical, imported through middlemen from China and mislabeled as glycerin, into cold medicine, killing at least 100 people.
After an initial spate of attacks on the foreign coverage, many Chinese media outlets have belatedly come to accept that the country’s toothpaste standards — which hold that using the chemical in small amounts is not harmful — need to be refined.
In a commentary last week, one newspaper, The Xiaoxiang Morning Post, went further, rejecting the foreign conspiracy theories outright.
“In the end, it is not trade barriers, or stirring people up, which I deeply believed at the outset,” wrote Liu Hongbo. “In recent years, whenever we have heard of the rejection of Chinese agricultural or seafood products, we have adopted the formula of invoking trade barriers. Please, let’s drop the perspective of international struggle to explain our consumer safety issues.”
Such commentary, however, has been rare. And that is remarkable, given that for years, Chinese consumers have been bombarded with reports about problems with domestic food safety and fraud: animals injected with illegal hormones to speed growth; eggs treated with poisonous dies; turbot, a popular fish, contaminated with unsafe antibiotics.
“I have no idea what we can and cannot eat nowadays,” said Feng Jiangping, 40, as she shopped in a Shanghai street market. “I have stopped eating many things based on media reports. Recently I have stopped eating turbot, river eel, eggs from free-range chickens.”
“I don’t know how the government manages food-safety things,” added Ms. Feng, a saleswoman for a chemical company. “I only know there is less and less safe food for us to eat.”
More than anything, the food-safety crisis has revealed major weaknesses in China’s emerging civil society, which for all its booming, frontier capitalist ethos has never developed anything like a consumer movement or citizen advocacy groups.
That leaves Chinese consumers at the mercy of what the Chinese government decides to make of any situation. Since earlier this year, when Chinese exports of tainted pet food ingredients touched off one of the biggest pet food recalls in American history, the Chinese government has announced that it would rewrite food safety regulations, introduce a national recall system and overhaul the nation’s top drug watchdog. On Friday, it sentenced a former top drug safety official to death.
[China’s food and drug watchdog announced that it had shut down five drug makers over the last year, including one that made a substance implicated in 11 deaths, The Associated Press reported Saturday, citing state news media. The agency, the State Food and Drug Administration, also stripped 128 drug makers of their Good Manufacturing Practice certificates, a symbol of favorable performance, the newspaper China Daily reported on its Web site.]

But the government’s sense of commitment seems, at the least, variable. “After all, these problematic products in the news are infinitesimally few,” said Qing Gang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman in a briefing on Tuesday. “Do they represent all the goods China exports? Should we totally deny the quality and safety of Chinese products because of what very few people did and the existence of very few products?”
The next day, a government survey was released showing that nearly 20 percent of consumer goods on sale in China were substandard. The news drew scant commentary here.
“China’s food and drug situation has worsened over the last 10 years,” said Wang Hai, one of the country’s few prominent consumer advocates. “Before, it was only small and informal workshops that would churn out fake food and drugs, but nowadays many big companies have joined in. The main reason, I think, is that penalties are not stiff enough to stop wrongdoers from making bad products, but there are many other faults in our consumer safety system, as well.”
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