China Steps Up Efforts to Cleanse Reputation
SHANGHAI, Sept. 4 — In recent weeks, Beijing has begun its most concerted global public relations offensive since the outbreak of SARS, by sending out officials and diplomats to hold news conferences, showing contrition and a determination to improve safety in high-level talks with Western officials, and briefing foreign reporters on the dramatic changes China says are under way here.
But China has also struck back at critics who have called Chinese exports shoddy or dangerous, highlighting the problems with other nations’ goods to China. In its latest moves to respond to a series of high-profile recalls and product safety scandals this year, Beijing introduced a new food and toy recall system last week and announced a “special war” to crack down on poor quality products and unlicensed manufacturers.
Marshaling an army of inspectors, the government said it had already begun nationwide inspections of farms, groceries, restaurants and manufacturing operations in an effort to root out fake and substandard goods.
Regulators say that in recent months, they have broken up scores of counterfeit drug makers, unlicensed toy producers and criminal networks that make everything from fake bird flu medicine and fake Viagra to counterfeit toothpaste.
Beginning last weekend, regulators here also said food packages that did not contain a label certifying them as safe were blocked from being exported.
“This is a special war to protect the safety and interests of the general public, as well as a war to safeguard the Made in China label and the country’s image,” Vice Premier Wu Yi, one of China’s highest-ranking officials, said at a news conference Friday.
Trying to convince the international community of its commitment to improving consumer product safety after a series of scandals involving everything from tainted pet food ingredients and toxic toothpaste to toys coated with lead paint, the government on Tuesday even offered foreign journalists escorted tours of a toy factory and toy testing lab in southern China’s Guangdong Province, where most of the country’s — and the world’s — toys are produced.
The government hoped the tour would demonstrate that new safeguards had indeed been put into place.
The bold actions and tough rhetoric suggest that China is growing increasingly worried about the possibility of trade sanctions or further damage to its international profile heading into 2008, when Beijing is scheduled to host the Summer Olympics.
But the government has also shown its resolve to fight back against critics of its booming exports, many of whom Beijing has labeled trade protectionists.
Last week, for instance, China blocked imports of American wood packaging material after finding them contaminated with what inspectors said were “worms and other creatures.”
It was just the latest move in an effort that earlier this year saw Chinese regulators reject imports of American meat, Indonesian seafood and other products from the Philippines, South Korea, Germany, France and Spain, saying those countries also shipped shoddy or tainted goods, even Evian water, which Chinese authorities said was tainted with high levels of bacteria.
But experts say regulators here are facing daunting challenges in trying to overhaul a corrupt and ineffective regulatory system that is ill equipped to control a marketplace teeming with unlicensed operations and entrepreneurs willing to cut corners to make a fatter profit.
“The reality is this is a vast problem, involving hundreds of thousands of factories which are hard to police,” says Arthur Kroeber, a longtime China observer and publisher of China Economic Quarterly.
The government has also begun a campaign aimed at the domestic market.
In recent weeks, Beijing’s largest state-run television network has been broadcasting a special called “Believe in Made in China,” which features interviews with regulators, in-depth reports on China’s biggest companies and segments on “foreigners who buy Chinese goods.”
A promotion for one special called it “fighting to save the reputation of Made in China.” And that’s how many in the government have labeled the initiatives.
Still, most of China’s efforts have been aimed at the international community.
“The government is really, really serious, and you will see concrete results by the end of this year,” Kuang Weilin, deputy consul general in New York said at a breakfast briefing for Western and Chinese reporters in Manhattan last Thursday. “Officials will be held accountable for what happens,” he said, speaking of the local officials who often impede the implementation of national regulations.
Beijing insists it is not all talk; and that improvements are already being seen. And while China has long insisted that 99 percent of the country’s exports to the United States, Europe and Japan are safe, the government has at times acknowledged large problems in product safety. After government investigators found that Chinese companies had exported tainted pet food ingredients and toys coated with lead paint, they closed factories and even detained managers.
But the recalls continue to come, not just from the United States but from a growing number of other countries.
Two weeks ago, for instance, New Zealand said it was investigating reports about what some called “chemical pajamas,” or Chinese-made clothing that some scientists said contained dangerous levels of formaldehyde.
Late last week, Canada announced it was recalling thousands of pencils made in China because of fears they were coated with too much lead.
But Beijing has made food safety one of its top priorities. The government says it plans to spend $1.1 billion to improve food and drug safety supervision by 2010. The government also said that under the new recall system announced last week producers would be held accountable for products that pose a danger to public safety.
The government even issued a lengthy “white paper” on food safety last month and said it would begin offering rewards to those who blow the whistle on bad producers.
Regulators have unleashed a flood of new regulations and initiatives in recent months, including a promise to create national standards to govern things like cooking oils and the fillings of moon cakes.
And if anyone has doubts about food safety during the Olympics, Beijing said it was already acting: white mice will be used to test most foods served to athletes, and pigs for pork are already being bred organically, in secret locations. GPS technology is being employed to track the whereabouts of some animals.
But clearly, there is still work to be done at home as well. When China Daily, the country’s English-language newspaper, recently asked consumers whether they believed most food in China was safe, 41 percent answered, “no.”