By Kit Stolz
The trouble began with cardboard dumplings. In Beijing, a Chinese television reporter found a street vendor who was selling dumplings stuffed with fake pork made out of cardboard. His caught-live video showed the cardboard secretly being softened with caustic acid, mixed with a little pork juice, and being sold in dumplings on the street.
I mentioned this over dinner to my family. Big mistake.
“That’s disgusting,” said my daughter Emily, age 17, making a face. “We should boycott products from China.”
“No way,” I thought, but I didn’t say it. What if she was right? That would be embarrassing, and I hate losing arguments to people thirty years my junior.
So I kept my mouth shut. That turned out to be a good move, because the more I read into it, the more I began to think that she had a point.
Chinese exports up: Regulation and Reputation Down
This year has been a disastrous year for the reputation of imports from China. Since 1980, when imports first began coming to this country, China’s economy has grown faster for a longer period of time than any nation in history, (according to experts at JPMorgan Chase) but the number of defective, dangerous, and poisonous products from China imported into the us this year is shocking—in some cases, quite literally.
Family Dollar stores recalled 35,000 Chinese-made space heaters in January because they were at risk to catch fire. In February, 6,000 toxic Chinese-made necklaces for kids were recalled. The food and drug administration soon warned consumers not to eat any monkfish from China, because it could actually be deadly puffer fish, whose poisons cannot be neutralized by cooking. Not to mention 450,000 Chinese-made tires recalled this year because the treads were installed without gum strips to prevent separation on the road. Or the Chinese-made hotel toothpaste recalled because it might contain diethylene glycol—also used in anti-freeze—which caused over 50 people to die in Panama last year when it ended up in cough medicine. Or the 19 million toys recalled by Fisher-Price and Mattel, including Barbies, which had small magnets that could come lose and choke children, or were contaminated with lead paint.
Yet the product that more than any other seems to have turned the tide of public opinion against Chinese manufacturers was never intended for humans at all. Millions of cans of pet food sold in the U.S. suspected of causing kidney failure and the ultimate deaths of thousands of pets were recalled in April. The foods were contaminated in China with melamine, a byproduct of coal production. The scrap, which is easily dyed to resemble grain, costs about one-fifth as much as real protein from soy or other healthy sources, and boosts nitrogen levels to mimic protein when tested. In this country melamine is used mostly in the making of plastics.
No one knows how many pets died as a result of the contamination, but the FDA logged more than 18,000 calls on the issue, according to spokesperson Julie Zawisa. About half the callers reported pet deaths. Few pet owners conducted autopsies, but a national consortium of pet clinics—The Pet Hospital—did autopsies on 26 animals which died during the wave of poisonings and linked nine of those deaths to the recalled foods. Thousands of pet deaths in this country—mostly cats—were likely caused by the contamination.
In China, melamine for years has been mixed into feed products for pets, chicken, pigs and fish. After the pet food recall, the government officially banned the practice, but the pet food recall in the U.S. was not reported in China in the government-controlled press, and supplementing animal feed with melamine appears to be continuing on a local level. Chinese manufacturers have not recalled melamine-contaminated feeds and consider it harmless in small quantities.
China acted to improve the quality of Chinese products by executing Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of China’s agency of food and drug safety in July for taking bribes. But the problem has not gone away, and the continuing avalanche of poisonings, recalls, and warnings has had a major effect on public opinion. A recent Zogby poll found that 82 percent of Americans were “concerned” about buying goods from China, and just 30 percent were confident food from China was safe. Such fears appear well founded.
After finding cancer-causing chemicals and banned antibiotics in nearly one-quarter of all tested seafood products from China, this spring the FDA ordered a hold put on the importation of catfish, shrimp, and other seafood from China. But a recent investigation by the Associated Press found that one of every four seafood shipments from China reached our supermarkets without being inspected at all, despite the FDA “hold.” Consumer advocates weren’t surprised.
The FDA can’t keep up with food imports from China, up almost 25 percent last year, because the agency has 635 inspectors nationwide to look at more than 300,000 shipments of food expected from Asia alone, not to mention the rest of the world.
Nor were the experts surprised that China continued to flout regulation.
“The Chinese have a long record of cheating on patents and copyrights,” points out Consumer Federation of America official Carole Tucker-Freeman. “Why did we think they would play by the rules when it comes to food?”
Boycotting China—Or Trying To
Inspired by this horror show of food and product safety violations, my family and I agreed to a test run boycott of products from China for two weeks. Not too tough, we thought—if worse came to worse, we could just delay purchasing an item for a few days.
On the first day of the boycott I visited our local feed store where I had a detailed discussion with the shop owner, who had done considerable research into the melamine issue. She pointed me toward various dog foods made without wheat gluten (for which melamine was substituted in the contaminated products) and explained convincingly why I didn’t need to worry about these American-made products.
They did cost about two-and-a-half times as much as the supermarket pet foods I was accustomed to buying, but nonetheless I walked out lugging two heavy bags of “wholistic” pet food, feeling “China free,” virtuous and safe.
Then I lost wireless connectivity for the Internet, for reasons far beyond the range of my limited technical abilities, and was told by my service provider that the solution meant plugging directly into the router via an Ethernet cable.
A project was due, the clock was ticking, and it just so happens that all networking cables at my local electronics store—and yours too— are made in China. Had I been a little less frazzled or a little more ingenious I might have found an alternative solution; perhaps I could have found a tech-savvy friend to restore my wireless capabilities or at least loan me a networking cable. But I ended up making the obvious boycott-breaking choice—and spent the $5 bucks or so for the cable.
Day one—I’m a flop as a “China free” boycotter.
My daughter, who mostly shops for clothes at thrift stores, would get a far better grade, although she does consume certain processed foods, such as energy bars. Processed foods, which often contain citric acid—a relatively benign preservative—will usually include some ingredients from China, which now makes 80 percent of the world’s citric acid.
My wife, on the other hand, who like me buys for the household as well as for herself, had nearly as much difficulty as I. Even at our local alternative retailer, Trader Joe’s, she learned that it’s often difficult to tell which products come from China and which don’t.
Ask at a store if this bag of pet food or that jar of minced garlic comes from China, and chances are you will be told “I don’t know,” or “no, definitely not.” (In truth, the answer in both cases may well be yes.) According to Robert Clarke, a former professor at George Mason University, who for years taught a class in global production realities, “China free” boycotters should not trust store clerks to tell the truth.
“Occasionally I’ll ask a salesman in a store where a product is from, if I don’t know,” he said. “But I often find that if they don’t know, they’ll just say whatever it is they think I want to hear.”
Another Family Boycotts China—Successfully
Our boycott came to an unceremonious end with a visit to a “big box” store where my wife broke down and bought a teakettle to replace the old one with a broken spout. Not surprisingly, the new one came from China.
Still, the attempt at a family boycott was useful, if only because it showed us how difficult it is to live without products made in China and because it brought to my attention a book just published this summer by Sara Bongiorni, a former business reporter, called A Year Without Made in China.
Back in 2005, stricken by what she calls “China-is-taking-over-the-world-panic-attacks,” Bongiorni convinced her husband, a professor, to join her and their two young children in a yearlong boycott of goods from China.
“Our challenge was to avoid the label ‘Made in China,’” she said in a phone interview from her home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “If there was no practical way to determine from the label the origin of components of a product or a food, we didn’t try to research it further.”
Even so, Bongiorni writes with an almost-painful frankness of the difficulty of avoiding products from China, though the family had already succeeded in boycotting Wal-Mart. She has two young children, but virtually all toys are made in China, and her two-year-old son had a hard time understanding why he could not have the plastic sword he really, really wanted.
Nor was it easy to deny her husband (whom she dubs “The Weakest Link” in the book) the woodworking tools he wanted, or the simple hardware items—such as nails—he needed. But ultimately, the biggest challenge wasn’t personal, but the fact that China dominates manufacturing of some items and competes fiercely on a cost basis virtually across the board.
“Telephones don’t really come from any place but China,” Bongiorni said. “You can still find clothing made in the U.S. and some other places, but shoes—for children especially—overwhelmingly come from China. And the cost differential can be shocking. Toddler sandals made in Italy cost $72. I bought them two sizes too big so my son wouldn’t outgrow them too quickly. That’s a lot of money to spend on a two-year-old. It’s really not affordable for most people.”
James Fallows, a veteran reporter who has been living in China to research a book and just wrote a cover story about manufacturing there for The Atlantic, made essentially the same point in an email interview.
“Especially in electronics, but also in a number of other areas, China really has become the factory of the world,” he said. “It has taken on that role to a large degree because American, Japanese and European companies have found it an advantageous place to do their manufacturing.”
Fallows concludes that this boom in outsourcing has been beneficial for both us and the Chinese—for us because “modern consumer culture rests on the assumption that the latest, most advanced goods—computers, audio systems, wall-sized TVs—will get cheaper year by year. Moore’s Law, which in one version says that the prize of computer power will be cut in half every 18 months or so, is part of the reason, but China’s factories are a big part, too.”
For the Chinese, the boom has given millions upon millions of people paying jobs and lifted them out of rural poverty. When Fallows asked one foreman at a Taiwanese-run electronics plant about the grind of factory labor, the foreman replied: “Have you ever seen a Chinese farm?”
Boycotting China—A Silly Idea?
To Fallows, the idea of a “Free China” boycott sounded a little “silly.”
“It would mean for a start, that you simply could not buy a notebook computer, no matter what the brand, because virtually none of them are made anywhere else. The same with iPods, iPhones and most similar devices,” he told me. “A boycott of Chinese products where problems have arisen is sensible, but a boycott of all Chinese products is not. How would Americans feel about an across-the-board boycott of any made-in-America product, just because people disapprove of some aspect of American policy?”
To my surprise, Bongiorni—after successfully boycotting Chinese goods with her family for an entire year—mostly agreed. “We take for granted the benefits of trade with China, such as access to low-cost goods,” she said. “The more I got into this issue, the more aware of consequences I became, the more difficult it became to draw absolute conclusions. Overall it’s a beneficial relationship for most people in this country, I think.”
But from their separate vantage points in Beijing and Louisiana, these two also agreed that China as the factory of the world has created serious problems, especially where human health was concerned.
“Even a respected company like Mattel cannot always maintain quality controls when the supply chain is spread so far away,” Bongiorni pointed out.
Fallows adds that China’s factory boom “creates environmental pressures that, if not controlled, could pollute China and the world out of existence. China has to do something about its pollution, because if it doesn’t, no one here will survive. That’s slight hyperbole, but only slight.”
Remember that Chinese television reporter in Beijing who filed a story for state-run television on the cardboard-stuffed dumplings? He was arrested by Chinese authorities. They labeled his video a hoax. He was fined, and sent to prison for a year for “infringing the reputation of commodities.”
A curious crime, at least by American standards. Some foreign reporters, such as Anthony Kuhn for National Public Radio, wondered if labeling his story a hoax might be the government’s way to cover up an embarrassing truth, which is that China’s frenzied industrialization is victimizing its own people as well as Americans.
“The Chinese reaction is to say yes, we’re dealing with this problem, let’s not talk about it, while the American reaction is to want to talk about it more,” said Bongiorni. “It’s a point of cultural divergence being brought into view, but I think more information would be ultimately beneficial to both sides.”