China is easily one of the most amazing places in the world when it comes to food, yet when locals ask if I like Chinese cuisine, I draw a distinction between recipes and ingredients. Few can rival the resourceful variety of China’s recipes, but the quality of its ingredients is often so bad as to be terrifying. This is an illustration of the larger problem of Chinese quality control, but exactly how bad is it? And what can actually be done?
The 2008 milk scandal compromised the health of 300,000 individuals, requiring the hospitalization of 54,000 babies and ending in the deaths of six infants. I wasn’t living in China then but I remember reading about this and feebly trying to comprehend the pall of grief these poor parents must have suffered. This tragedy assumed a shade of evil when the government tried to cover it up and the whistle blower was later beaten to death. When I have raised the topic with Chinese friends, they usually prove themselves incapable of discussing it without first referencing Western corollaries or insinuating I am being prejudiced. Can we at least agree it’s wrong when Chinese children suffer and die, I wonder, whether or not it also happens in the West?
Not many Chinese, owing to state censorship, are aware of the extent of the problem. There are insecticides in dumplings, eggs repeatedly tainted with melamine, urea in bean sprouts, 40-year-old meats, hepatitis A in frozen berries, plastic rice, formaldehyde in beer, sewage used as cooking oil and tofu marinated in human feces. This brief list hardly runs the gamut, because for every scandal that breaks there are hundreds of unreported cases — and that’s only looking at food. Foreign nations have endured cyanuric acid in pet food, toothpaste adulterated with diethylene glycol (a chemical used in antifreeze and brake fluid), carcinogenic crayons, poisonous cough syrup, and toys containing date-rape drugs.
“This is not just a food safety issue,” says Chen Qiaoling, a Tsinghua University postgraduate student. “Serving such ‘food’ is spitting on basic human dignity and society itself.”
Sadly some Chinese, possibly out of a sense of nationalism, insist Chinese products are no worse than those of any other nation, or if they are, it’s only because China is a developing economy and this will all soon pass. But market growth doesn’t always lead to better quality. Paul Midler, author of Poorly Made in China: An Insider’s Account of the Tactics Behind China’s Production Game, recounts how 19th century Chinese silk manufacturers increasingly skimped on quality as the market grew, forcing traders to seek alternatives: “[B]y 1930, Japan was exporting twice as much silk as China.”
Also, China’s quality crisis is partly by design. Chinese manufacturers, writes columnist Mike Wootton, are “manufacturing cheap […] in order to capture markets in which people think they cannot afford to pay or simply don’t want to pay for quality.” Consumers play a role too. Michael Diliberto, General Manager of Lynx Displays China, says in China “it is assumed that if you want quality, then you buy the best one; otherwise just buy the cheap one. So manufacturers are not rewarded for making incrementally better products.”
Not all Chinese products are awful. Xiaomi makes a phone roughly as good as the iPhone (in fact in some ways I prefer it) at a fraction of the cost, while Huawei scores high on the consumer satisfaction index. Still, a few good apples don’t compensate for a spoiled bunch. Why then are so many Chinese products of such poor quality? A Deutsche Welle report this year cites a litany of obstacles: cyber-security, Internet speed, wasted funding, poor management, scientific misconduct, lack of clear bureaucratic responsibility and lack of an open atmosphere needed to create innovation, “with all the political implications that this entails.” It’s unrealistic to expect a politically open atmosphere anytime soon, but in the meantime hiring private firms to test product safety doesn’t help either since Chinese manufacturers have ways of deceiving lab tests.
“Recent accusations of unreliability in Chinese products,” Midler adds, “are now being met with tit-for-tat claims that U.S. products are faulty.” And no doubt some readers will respond to this article with such tu quoque arguments, but consider this: the Rapid Exchange of Information System (RAPEX), the EU’s consumer protection alert system, publishes its 2014 report, “Keeping European Consumers Safe,” which provides a graph (on page 17) illustrating “number of notifications by country of origin.” The U.S. ranks fourth with 60 notifications, Turkey is third with 66, Germany is second with 75 and China is first with 1,462.
Yet foreign companies continue to solicit Chinese manufacturers. God made life, as the old joke goes, and the rest was made in China. Indeed, Chinese merchandise exports exceed those of any other nation. Manufacturing can be done more safely and quickly back home, or more cheaply in other parts of the world, but the “Made in China” label continues to appeal, despite the costs, because of the ingenuity of Chinese manufacturers who can work directly from samples, providing greater expediency.
As for the future, Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” program to give “manufacturing a makeover” is great news, though it’ll be difficult to prevent manufacturers from gaming the system so long as the government is doing so itself, e.g. using the label “Made in PRC,” rather than “Made in China,” for clothes shipped to Japan “because many Japanese customers don’t know what this stands for.”
To be sure, the shoddy quality of Chinese products are partly the result of economic growing pains, but as we can see, political and social factors weigh heavily as well, and foreign companies are by no means innocent.
“In the final analysis,” writes Dan Harris, attorney and editor of China Law Blog, “you will get the quality you demand and if you don’t get that quality, it is up to you to go elsewhere to attain it.”