June 22, 2007

China's Growing Pains

Hatched by Sachi

Recently, we have started to hear one disturbing story after another coming out of China:

All of a sudden, we started to notice that one of our largest trading partners was not living up to the standard we demand. But in fact, China’s sloppy business practice has been noticed by many businessmen all over the world who have dealt with them over the years. Only recently, however -- when their products started to kill us (and especially our pets!) -- have we started to pay attention.

Decades ago my father, a patent attorney in Japan, was engaged as a business consultant to a Japanese company dealing with a Chinese manufacturer. As you probably know, patents and copyrights are foreign concepts for the Chinese. After a few months of frustrating and fruitless negotiation, the Japanese company, disgusted by the “unprofessional, and childish behavior,” terminated the contract. In my father’s opinion, the Chinese were not ready for real world business.

For years, I have heard bits and pieces of news about the terrible pollution and lethal food in China. I heard that the soil of southern China was so contaminated that northern Chinese would not eat any vegetables coming from the South; they called them “poison vegetables." I even heard that some Chinese started bringing their own cooking oil to restaurants after they discovered the chefs using industrial oil to cook food.

However, not until I started reading Japanese language Chinese blogs few months ago did I realize just how serious the situation has become.

A contaminated lake bed

Contaminated lake bed in China

I honestly do not think that China is unusually unethical or uncaring a country. After all, the western world went through the exact same phase of industrial innovation vastly outstripping resource management and pollution control. The very reason we have a Food and Drug Administration today is the careless or ignorant misuse of chemicals in food, particularly diethylene glycol; DEG was used extensively in the late 19th century as a cheap substitute for non-toxic, pharmaceutical-grade glycerin.

It was used in our tooth paste, just as China does now; and many children's toys were painted with colors containing lead... just as many Chinese toys are today. We made such practices illegal precisely because the toxic materials killed and harmed thousands of Americans in the past:

[diethylene glycol] has been responsible for a number of mass poisonings:

The most infamous incident was the 1937 Elixir Sulfanilamide disaster in the USA, in which 107 people died after taking sulfanilamide dissolved in diethylene glycol. This episode was the impetus for the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938.

The reason today’s air is cleaner than yesterday is that most individuals realized, somewhere along the road, that it's not a good idea to pollute the environment we live in. We figured out that killing consumers with unsafe food is, shall I say, fatal to marketing.

The distinction is that we did not know the bad effects at first, and nobody else did either. The industrial revolution was new then; we had to learn from our mistakes by trial and terrible error.

But China does not. China need not make the same mistakes we made, because they have the West as an example. They study our experience and do the right thing from the beginning. Even though it may cost more money initially, when you take the long view and consider lost business, law suites, and so on, clean and safe manufacturing of products will save billions of dollars.

Eventually, China will learn... because it must. Their survival depends upon it.

But meanwhile, how many people are going to be poisoned or killed by their products? We cannot wait forever for China to grow up.

Hatched by Sachi on this day, June 22, 2007, at the time of 3:53 AM

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We have discussed dangerous chinese products on this blog before, and unsafe food from China has been in the news over and over. But the bad news from China just keeps on coming, with no end in sight: Just a... [Read More]

Tracked on February 29, 2008 4:21 PM


The following hissed in response by: wtanksleyjr

There's nothing new here. China is an authoritarian, centralized statist country; people in such countries have always polluted and made bad choices like this. (I'm not saying that people in non-centralized ones don't, but there exist at least incentives to not foul your own company's future). Look at Russia for another example of uncontrolled pollution (but Russia wasn't trying to trade with us, so we didn't care).

The solution is not for China to establish reasonable environmental regulations; such regulations would have to be enforced HARD, since they're against the immediate convenience of the people, and the people have no reason to look beyond immediate convenience. They would also probably be wrong (as most of our environmental regulations are).

The solution is for China's property rights laws to be reformed so that the people of China have a stake in their own future. THAT will be "growing up" for China.

(I know, I'm not contradicting anything you said.)

The above hissed in response by: wtanksleyjr [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 22, 2007 7:43 AM

The following hissed in response by: FredTownWard

wtanksleyjr hewed pretty close to the mark here. China's main environmental problem is simply a lack of freedom. China needs some combination of a free press to investigate this stuff, private companies to compete with each other, multiparty elected government held responsible for its stewardship, and a legal system to fairly and honestly adjudicate claims of injury. Currently it has NONE of these to any sufficient extent.

In addition to these minimums one could argue that China needs a majority of its population sufficiently far enough away from grinding poverty to care about the environment, and outside of certain limited areas, this isn't anything close to being true yet.

China SHOULDN'T have to learn all this the hard way, but they probably will anyway. God knows that the Russians and the Eastern Europeans had to, with less excuse than the Chinese have. I for one would be reluctant to live anywhere downstream of the World's Largest Dam, not because it COULDN'T be made as perfectly safe as modern man can make it, but because I'd have to trust a totalitarian government that it had been.

The above hissed in response by: FredTownWard [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 22, 2007 11:52 AM

The following hissed in response by: Watchman

Here's another data point for your perusal (from Instapundit this morning) on the "performance" of the new Chinese auto in a German crash test. After watching this, you'd have to say that the definition of crash test dummy is someone who buys one of those death traps.

The above hissed in response by: Watchman [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 22, 2007 12:25 PM

The following hissed in response by: Mr. Davis

Eventually, China will learn... because it must. Their survival depends upon it.

Has Russia learned? Their chance of survival would seem to indicate not.

The above hissed in response by: Mr. Davis [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 22, 2007 6:22 PM

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