Yellow Peril?

China’s cheap exports have come under increasing scrutiny recently, particularly in the Canadian press, after a string of dangerous products were recalled. First, there was the case of the tainted toothpaste, sold in low-cost stores (like dollar stores) as reputable brands like Colgate. Then, there was a case of tainted pet food (and soon enough, people food). And, most recently, a case of excessive lead paint in several toys — this is something that effects my family personally, as I’m sure it does millions across the world.

There’s a lot of obfuscation going on in what, exactly, the Canadian media is saying and how it’s saying it. Let’s peek through this using one of Linwood Barclay’s pieces in The Star, “Quality control that’s made in China.” (Barclay is supposed to be a humourist, but I’ve never found any of his columns to be even remotely funny. They’re not intelligent enough to be scathing pieces of satire, either. Ultimately they’re just sophomoric attempts at humour.) The article takes the form of a multiple choice test those applying to become Quality Control Inspectors have to take.

Obfuscation One: Intellectual Property

4. What should China do about the fact that Canada’s Customs Act does not make it illegal to import or distribute goods known to be counterfeit?

a) as sign of gratitude, put “highly flammable” stickers on substandard extension cords.

b) give Canada a cut-rate on shrimps left out in the sun too long.

c) is this a trick question?

Barclay conflates counterfeiting with safety. Let’s be clear about this, just because something is counterfeit does not mean it’s unsafe. As a matter of fact, the tainted toys I mentioned above are produced by Mattel (and its Fisher-Price line) — Poison Me Elmo. It’s also known that Bayer, the big pharmaceutical corporation, exported HIV-tainted medicine to Latin America and Asia with full knowledge in the mid-1980s. Other pharmaceutical companies, like Eli Lilly, suppressed data that indicated that drugs, like Prozac, can cause adverse side effects. The CEOs aren’t executed or even jailed — most cases aren’t even brought to trial because this big pharmaceutical companies either settle out of court or buy members of the legal profession.

The point is that counterfeiting does not, in and of itself, equal lack of safety. Counterfeits can save people money, giving them the appearance of carrying ugly Louis Vuitton bags and the like instead of paying absurd sums to do so (instead of making them question why they want to carry around ugly Louis Vuitton bags in the first place). What we see here, then, is an argument for exclusive intellectual property rights piggybacking on safety concerns when, in fact, there’s no causality. Any business, counterfeiter or not, will look for ways to cut costs and maximize profits — that’s the entire point of capitalism. There may be a correlation between counterfeit goods and safety concerns, but then the issue is one of safety regulations and enforcement, not counterfeiting, per se.

Obfuscation Two: Only in China?

3. Consider the statement: “Optimizing profits at the expense of customer safety is an appalling practice that must be stamped out immediately.” This is:

a) false

b) false

c) not true

d) all of the above

See above. Any business, Chinese or not, will look for ways to cut costs and maximize profits — that’s the entire point of capitalism. By shifting the focus exclusively to China — instead of also saying, “Wait, this happens in our backyards everyday” — is disingenuous.

According to Health Canada, the majority of products that face recalls do, in fact, come from China. But second in line is the United States. It’s not hard to figure out why China tops that list, there’s nothing one can think of that isn’t manufactured in China.

But let’s take a look at something like Mattel’s tainted toys — isn’t Mattel supposed to have inspectors on the ground in China to ensure safety?

“From the size of the recall, we’re not talking about accidental use of paints,” says Paul Mushak, a toxicologist at PB Associates, a Durham, N.C., risk-assessment firm specializing in toxic metals. “We’re talking about something that’s been a conventional practice.”

Mattel disputes this claim.

The “we didn’t know” claim rings hollow, it’s like GAP and Nike feigning ignorance when confronted with evidence of sweatshops in various countries. And here’s where we have to start focusing not just on regulatory laws or such in China, but the flows of global capital and labour. There’s a reason why so many corporations manufacture in China and why so many import from China — and that’s because you can find cheap labour, whether it’s cheap technical expertise or cheap assembly line labourers, it’s cheap:

[...] Mr. Ruppert said the cost of moving operations from China were too high given China’s unique ability to produce high toy volume. “The cost of the transition would be disruptive,” he said.

If China tightens regulations of one kind or the other — you name it, safety, environmental, labour standards — then costs will be driven higher. Corporations will take their money — their factories — elsewhere, where things are cheaper to make. Most of the time, it’s labour standards that suffer. There’s also a whole lot of other stuff going on in China — not good stuff — that implicates global capital:

China’s growth has been driven by the intensified exploitation of the country’s farmers and workers, who have been systematically dispossessed through the break-up of the communes, the resultant collapse of health and education services, and massive state-enterprise layoffs, to name just the most important “reforms.” With resources increasingly being restructured in and by transnational corporations largely for the purpose of satisfying external market demands, China’s foreign-driven, export-led growth strategy has undermined the state’s capacity to plan and direct economic activity.

Additionally, it’s important to remember the myriad products made in China, from mugs to bowls to blankets, that aren’t counterfeits and that are dandy.

Obfuscation Three: Standards

1. Your level of education includes which of the following:

a) No One ‘ll Ever Notice Middle School.

b) That’s Good Enough Secondary School.

c) National Vocational Institute of Once It’s Out The Door It’s Somebody Else’s Problem.

The implication is that the Chinese, by virtue of being Chinese, are likely to look over lack of qualifications. That’s absurd, it happens all over the place, not least of which is Canada. (The argument that piggybacks on this one is that regulatory inspectors probably have poor educations or are faking it — but education has nothing to do with how likely you are to overlook safety standards.)

The levels of obfuscation make me wonder if there isn’t some kind of underlying racism here — I can certainly sense it in Barclay’s article. Thoughts?

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