China’s domestic media on the crisis of confidence in “Made in China”

As China’s leaders go into repair mode following the recent spate of international news about Chinese product quality and food safety problems, domestic media must report on the issue only with extreme caution. With few exceptions, the story is about a foreign assault on the “Made in China” trademark and effective official measures to deal with concerns. [Homepage Photo: Chinese scholar Chen Jitong, who wrote in the late nineteenth century of the great reputation Chinese had among foreign traders, see article below.]

The official line was made clear again today in a report in the official People’s Daily praising China’s handling in recent weeks of a series of breaking news events and saying actions in response had shown “transparency, efficiency and cooperation.” The article said governments at various bureaucratic levels were “moving toward maturity” in their handling of such emergencies. Most of the examples in the People’s Daily article dealt with handling of the “spreading of rumors” and “falsehoods.” Labeling foreign news reports on Chinese product safety issues “false,” the article showered praise on party leaders for their “strong counterattack”:

On August 17, the Information Office of the State Council released a 16,000-word white paper called “The State of Chinese Food Product Safety and Quality”. The paper comprehensively introduced a general survey of food product manufacture and safety, the system and execution of food safety inspection, inspection of food imports and exports, laws and regulations on food safety … and the state of international cooperation and dialogue on food safety.

Experts have said that this is a successful case study in “crisis management” (危机公关). A number of foreign media have lately come out with false reports on China’s product quality and food safety problems, casting a shadow over the “Made in China” label. The release of the white paper was a strong counterattack.

Coverage in the overseas edition of People’s Daily similarly praised actions by China’s leadership and criticized “exaggeration” of product quality and food safety problems in the foreign press:

“I believe we can say three things. The first is that Chinese product quality has seen major progress in the last few years – this is the key point to the issue. Secondly, China’s government and Chinese enterprises have attached great importance to recent product safety problems, and they have at the same time made earnest corrections. The third thing is that we oppose the exaggeration and playing up of problem products. We oppose the untrue and exaggerated propaganda and reports undertaken by a few trade protectionists behind the scene who seek to fan up sentiments [against China].”

As head of the agency charged with management of imports and exports, Commercial Bureau Chief Bo Xilai (薄熙来) gave an exclusive interview with China Central Television’s economic channel. Bo Xilai answered head on questions about ‘Made in China’ and Chinese product quality. He affirmed that the reputation of Chinese products on the world market would only grow better and better.

An editorial in yesterday’s China Business Times similarly characterized China’s product safety crisis in warlike terms, as a “siege” on “Made in China”:

There has lately been a spate of incidents in which the West “lays siege” to products made in China. In one case after another “Made in China” products have been exposed as having quality and safety problems, from toothpaste to marine products to food products and toys and cars and tires. Some have said this is the result of many years of rapid export growth emphasizing low prices over quality. But clearly … some Western media have made a conscious effort to blow up the situation, and this is basically a smear on the “Made in China” label.

But the editorial does manage, just barely, to turn from nationalist blameshifting and find a less shallow lesson:

For private enterprises in China, this should be seen as an important opportunity to raise production quality and make an all-round entry into the international market … raising the technological content and innovativeness of products, raising the degree of proprietary products. Taking a longer view of our interests, the more we can raise the added value of “Made in China” products, the more competitive “Made in China” [products] will be on the international market.

For variety of coverage – and there isn’t a great deal – one has to turn, as usual, to the better commercial newspapers. The examples yesterday came again from Southern Metropolis Daily.

One reader’s letter, appearing with other editorials on Page Two, chastised the West over the recent product safety row. But the tone was a personal one, the voice of a single Chinese citizen, stripped of the boilerplate partisan outrage:

My hometown makes a certain kind of dried fruit, well known throughout the world. But or a long time it has only been supplied for export, so that ordinary Chinese have no way of enjoying it. Even if they want to buy it they can’t.

In order to earn foreign exchange, everything good has been given to foreigners. . . . As for the quality of those toys exported to America. Whether or not these toys actually have quality issues, Chinese children by and large have no hope of playing with them.

A separate editorial in SMD takes a more scholarly approach to the issue of Chinese product quality. It asks not just how the present “Made in China” crisis arose, but draws out the deeper question of how China came in today’s world to be synonymous with fakery.

In China, the inland province of Henan is the constant butt of domestic humor. The first paragraph of the editorial ends with the wonderful line: “The people of Henan are the Chinese in miniature. We are all Henanese”:

In China, people from Henan Province have become symbols of all things fake. And now, in the Western world, China has come to symbolize fake products, to the extent that one European has even registered a “not made in China” trademark. China’s image internationally is not unlike the image we have domestically of Henanese. Just as we joke about the Henanese, foreigners now discriminate against us.

The author turns to the writings of late Qing Dynasty author Chen Jitong (陈季同), who wrote in the late nineteenth century that Chinese were known for their honesty and integrity in trade, that even Westerners talked of the “total honesty with which commercial transactions were carried out” by Chinese. “We can’t suppress a feeling of disbelief,” the editorial writer continues. “How is it that in 100 years the Chinese, so resolute in their honesty, have become the very image of fakery in the eyes of Westerners?”

The blame is not shifted to the West, however. After a brief social and cultural review of China, the author sums up by suggesting institutions ultimately have a more decisive impact on behavior [honest or dishonest] than such factors as “national character”:

All of this shows that circumstances are stronger than people. Present environmental factors are more important than long-standing traditional influences. And hard institutional factors are more critical than cultural factors … So-called national character, or social ethos, these are not preserved unchanged, but sometimes change fickly to suit opportunity.

The point is subtle, but clear enough – more effective institutions are the key to ensuring better product quality and safety.

The editorial concludes with a reference to late nineteenth century Germany, whose manufacturing sector, the author says, faced its own crisis of reputation and eventually launched a successful campaign to build “Made in Germany” into a respected trademark:

Will there be a day when “Made in China” rises like a phoenix from the ashes just as “Made in Germany” did?

[Posted by David Bandurski, August 31, 2007]

20 Comments to “China’s domestic media on the crisis of confidence in “Made in China””

  1. mary zhang says:

    Thank you David for your explanation. I will keep your comments in mind!

  2. David says:

    Mary,

    Hello from CMP. Just a note, since we’ve had a few e-mails from you wondering if you’re being censored on our site.

    No. We do not censor. BlogPress software allows moderation of comments to the site and CMP does this on a regular basis throughout the day. In other words, your comment may not appear automatically.

    In the future, please leave a working e-mail for us if you would like us to respond to your e-mail in earnest, so that we do not need to respond through this forum.

    Thanks for your interest in our site.

    David

  3. mary zhang says:

    Nope: no hatred at all. Just historical facts. (But what was the chopsticks-lah bit about? Dont bother answering, I don’t want to know!)

  4. MyLaowai says:

    Ah yes… Hate America! Hate Britain! Hate Japan! Can you use chopsticks, lah?

  5. mary zhang says:

    Yet more apologies: Have I forgotten Japanese carpets & skeletons? NOPE. But THAT Group needs a separate PLANET (“ghastly”, “unspeakable”, etc.) all-their-own! Hardly human, almost; I recently read some pretty gruesome Japan stuff, in a blog about Beijing.

  6. mary zhang says:

    SORRY: for the sake of inclusiveness, perhaps British carpets & skeletons rate a mention: Opium trade & WARS! (Wouldn’t it be curious to hear Colombian drug traders declare war, to protect their trade!?), Bengal famine in India. I wish I knew more of areas further afield.

  7. mary zhang says:

    Many thanks for comments (by Proud etc. & Hmmm Christianity) which are very thoughtful. Clearly they have lived long enough in Chinese society, to share in our dilemmas (not rehashed here), which we all “know”: that bump-under-the-carpet, that thing-rattling-in-the-cupboard. For a dispassionate blogger with interest & time, I can well imagine a very successful blog (with lots of advertisers!) that is both riveting & ENLIGHTENING. Easy blog to start too: it is an OLD, OLD SUBJECT with many starting points available (e.g. works by Lu Xun, including “Diary of a Madman”, “The Ugly Chinaman” by Bo Yang.).

    I suppose it is also interesting evidence of Chinese “negligence”, that (to my knowledge) Chinese people do not seem perturbed by, or indignant about, American equivalents to bumpy carpets & unmentioned skeletons, which (I suppose) would be the slave trade, eradication of native American population, & currently, the excesses of rampant “turbo-capitalism” , now spread to China (like Financial SARS?). They hardly seem to mention (or remember?) earlier maltreatment of railroad workers etc. Yes, THAT blog would be interesting indeed, perhaps useful catharsis.

  8. Hmmm Christianity... says:

    Well having grown up in a Christian society, but not having heard a thing about whether my parents believed in anything at all until I was 28 years old, I can’t deny that there are certain better elements of that faith that I absorbed, like just being decent to people, and the 7 deadly sins (which are sort of lacking in China – at least PRIDE being a bad one, but strangely nobody takes pride in one’s work, thus all the low quality stuff that comes out, sorry but all too true – I deal with quality issues every single day) but then of course I also follow the Old testament and some might argue more Jewish interpretation of “an eye for an eye”. Don’t let people do anything bad to me without revenge, if they actually intended to do bad.
    I agree that the Pope is probably closer to what they term as Satan than anyone else on earth, and is nothing but a very powerful business – in fact more powerful than China in terms of sheer numbers.

    I have heard though that there are 100 million evangelical Christians in China, though this is of course denied by the govt. I could believe it though, have met plenty of Christians here, though are pertty quiet about their beliefs.

    but you know what? Most of those better “Christian” ideals are just merely basic messages that exist in all our hearts… which leads me to say “how can we get your average man in China to believe in things again?” This is what puzzles me about the baddies, both in China and abroad. More Anthony Robbins seminars? What’s it going to take? Seems we are pretty much screwed in the long run if you ask me!

  9. mary zhang says:

    In search of solutions to our problems:
    1. I think CHRISTIANITY (Man-is-Steward-of-Earth. which belongs to God — not to emperors, queens, corporations, IMF, World Bank etc.) would be a quick fix. But Christianity with CHINESE CHURCH LEADERS — nothing from Rome, etc. please; since we can ALL read the Original Scriptures, there would be no need for “translators” & missionaries equipped with more than just translations.
    2. But Asian Christians seem “strangely” ill-fated, e.g. Taiping Kingdom & Rev.Sun Moon.
    3. Also with Abrahamic religions battling each other, perhaps we had better not jump from frying pan into fire.
    4. Then again, some say that “Christianity without Popes” sounds like “Communism”!

  10. Proud etc. says:

    Yeah, Mary I can’t deny what your saying, but your argument that they are the “lesser of two evils”, which is essentially what you are saying when you say that it is so much better than before…. hmmm, I really feel with the general enthusiasm of the average person in China, when properly directed/managed, that this place could be a whole lot better. Think this country needs better hospitals rather than the Olympics, a few dozen gold medals are going to what? Make the Chinese feel proud and contribute more to society?

    I guess it gives your average man something to believe in, as they have pretty much nothing else to guide them through their mean lives today.

    I think you misunderstand perhaps why we Western people criticise our government, and yours as well…. we do so in the interest not of destabilising things, but rather to keep constant vigilance against the threat of things becoming corrupted beyond the point of return (which is something that has perhaps happend in the US already unfortunately but may not be too late to be saved).

    This is something that China (one of the many wonderful contradictions that I find inherent in the character of the country and people) has a real problem with – a culture of 5000 years and NO SENSE of long term management. Generally I find people will build something here and then let it go to rot through poor upkeep. Buildings, etc. A poor metaphor perhaps but I feel somehow valid. Everything is built to ressemble a wealthy society, but then rusts shortly thereafter. Much like what the CCP did, they built an impressive apparatus that did indeed change society VERY MUCH for the better! but then everyone just stopped questioning anything, and good old Mao got away with murder, and the party has lost control in further stages.

    Voices must continue to be heard, only to AID the government to know what needs to be fixed my dear, they do not have enough voices within to do the job and when they stifle dissent in all forms, when nobody stands up to show what needs to be further improved upon, and many of these problems could be fixed (Chinese, I feel, have an unfortunate inclination toward fatalism and acceptance that has made it possible to for leadership to abuse the population so readily on so many occasions thoughout history) then nothing gets done, and China slips back toward the previous way of life, which was fun only for a very few.

    It is a leader’s choice to do their job, and with it should come a requirement for the highest standards of morality and self-sacrifice in return for all the rewards that come with the position, so the criticism should be an intergral part of the position! As a manager, I welcome my workers telling me if they feel I am doing something wrong. It helps me out. The CCP should be no different.

  11. mary zhang says:

    @be proud etc. Many thanks for well-intentioned, well-observed & well-received criticism about the “assholes” (short-hand for ALL wrong-doers) in our midst. OF COURSE we are aware of them! We worry about them all the time, because they are potentially harmful to ALL of US: good, bad & indifferent. It is hard to understand the WHO, WHAT, WHY etc. of assholes — & what can be done about them? Possibly in an earlier era, they might have come to a sticky end. Perhaps it is the question of GOOD & EVIL; however that may be, I find it very encouraging that the PRC Government is doing a good job (especially compared to the preceding century) & has apparently successfully chosen Economic Development as the path to social well-being.

    What annoys me is: “assholes” (both Chinese & foreign) who apparently WANT to confuse the issue: by atempting to paint the PRC Government as incompetent & evil (Communist, atheist, etc. etc.) & try topple it. To what end? In my opinion, a Chinese person would have to be both STUPID & UNGRATEFUL to forget what has been achieved, by the sacrifice & struggles of our people, when well-led, as at present.

  12. Be proud for a change, not insecure says:

    I only want to say to Mary that I understand there is some China bashing around the world, mostly due out of a lack of understanding of what China is, and has become, and what it will become, short of a national disaster.

    However, you would be naive and/or just plain foolish to deny that there are some very greedy people amongst many other extremely good people. To be honest, the advantages for foreigners to live here is hardly great, and yes, we are your guests – because your fine country doesn’t allow any immigration, even through marriage, unlike almost every other country in the world. There are millions of Chinese living quite contentedly in many countries of the world.

    And yes all these factory owners, many of whom have been sending their money abroad for years, why?… oh yeah they don’t believe in their own country’s stability… why? Oh yeah they are taking a great role in defeating China’s own advances, as previous posters said, they are just simply PURE greed incarnate.

    There are good honest people in China, some of the best I have ever met in my life, and you know what? they don’t own the factories where teenagers produce lead painted toys, or fake foods, they are just good honest people trying to survive in a society that has seized to care about them, and the funny thing is that the only people who really care about them are foreigners.

    With rare exceptions, the only people I have met helping the poor in China are foreign NGO’s, with white rich kids working there for peanuts (never met a rich Shanghai kid doing any time in some small village in Anhui!!) out of some intention to help balance this society gone completely amok. Sorry you feel that everyone hates your country, but it ain’t necessarily true. We just want to be able to eat eel from China without worrying about dying, and we want fair trade at a fair price. Who cares about the government, in truth I think they are doing the best they can with the hope they began with, but it is all too big, too fast, and things are way out of control…. stop sounding silly and just admit that EVERY citizen of China has the responsibility to stand up for yourselves against the bad element within you society who are ruining your countries reputation.

    So what would you do to control all these total assholes who I have had the pleasure of doing business with, endless karaoke and bribes and prostitutes and broken promises and NO CONCERN for the environment? Any suggestions? Sorry your country has run a little wild, but let’s hear some answers dear.

  13. mary zhang says:

    Yep. I am indeed kept VERY BUSY — coping with the endless, sneering comments about China: Chinese people, Chinese government, CCP. And now, condemnation of Chinese CULTURE as well! (And ALL of it, on Chinese soil, from “foreign guests”!) I would not presume to educate anyone (Chinese or non-Chinese) about their shortcomings. But as a duty to myself, I try to remember things like courtesy towards a host. GRATITUDE for favours received, etc. Specifically, gratitude to the CCP that China is no longer anybody’s colony, or stamping ground for adventurers of all sorts. It does take longer than I wish. The CCP does have many unfinished jobs & I am sure that like other Chinese people, they welcome CONSTRUCTIVE criticism.

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  15. MyLaowai says:

    In answer to your questions:

    1. I have not met 1.3 billion Chinese. I have only had business dealing with 15,000 or so. And not a single honest one amongst them.

    2. I’m not sure what it smaks of to you. To me it smacks of dishonesty and lack of integrity as a culture.

    3. I am in the company of good people, in my private time. I do business with a lot of people who want my money. At any cost.

    4. All things are possible. Including the fact that I am living in a place where honesty, integrity and basic human compassion are values that are utterly alien.

    I notice, ‘Mary’, that you have a lot to say on various sino-blogs. Perhaps you would be better rewarded in the eyes of your people if you tried educating them about their obvious shortcomings.

    Y’know, there are more than just two countries on earth (China and Foreign) – the fact that EVERYONE says the same things about China should be more than a hint that something is wrong here.

  16. mary zhang says:

    If I failed to find ONE honest person, amidst 1.3 billion persons, I might reflect:
    1. This is statistically impossible! Therefore, is something wrong with me?
    2. Or: does this smack of racism?
    3. Why am I (so pure & lily-white?) in the company of dishonest “whiners”, since they obviously do not welcome me?
    4. Since they are mean-to-me, without exception, is it possible that I am an objectionable person?

  17. MyLaowai says:

    I have been doing business in China for quite some years, and I invariably find the following to be true when dealing with Chinese manufacturers, right across the board:

    1. Very often, in China, you don’t get what you pay for. That is the problem.

    2. Chinese manufacturers are beginning to price themselves out of the market. In some industries, they have already done so. With the numerous quality, reliability and honesty problems manufacturers here have, price is the only thing that makes doing business with them worth the pain. And yet many manufacturers raise their prices by large amounts year on year. The increases are far higher than inflation, material costs, etc – they represent nothing more than greed in almost all cases.

    3. The day that I meet someone in China who is interested in making a fair profit, I promise to shout it from the rooftops. Unfair profits, for backroom deals involving cheating people out of their money, shoddy quality, dishonesty, and all the rest, are all too common in this country. Fair profits? Don’t make me laugh.

    4. The Chinese are indeed suffering. At the hands of their countrymen/women and Government. They have only themselves to blame for their situation, and the sooner they stop whining about how victimised China is at the hands of everyone else, the better it will be for them.

    One can make all the excuses in the world, but in the final analysis they are just that: excuses. Anyone doing business in China should be warned about the high levels of risk involved, never mind what it is that the Communist Party spends all that hard currency on.

  18. mary zhang says:

    1. “You get what you pay for” is a fact of life.
    2. Chinese factories (I have been told) paid PEANUTS by buyers from abroad. Their effort to make a profit (just to survive) is resourceful, but can go too far (when the squeeze is bad enough).
    3. Until factories (in China & elsewhere) are able to make a FAIR PROFIT, people in charge of unfair terms-of-trade, purchasers, media, etc., should look in their mirrors to find the true explanation & solution to the current problem with substandard food, toys etc.
    4. The Chinese people are suffering too — probably suffering the most of all.

  19. mary zhang says:

    1. “You get what you pay for” is a fact of life.
    2. Chinese factories are (I have been told) paid PEANUTS, by importers from abroad.
    3. Until factories (in China & elsewhere) make a FAIR PROFIT, I think retailers fom abroad & those in charge of UNFAIR terms-of-trade, should look in their mirrors, to find the true explanation for the current problems about substandard food, toys, etc.

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