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A Backlash Against China

Posted by: Diane Brady on July 6, 2007

As I was shipping off a batch of Thomas the Tank Engine toys to RC2 Corp. the other day, I began to wonder when we might see the first signs of a consumer backlash against China. What happens if people start to substitute a stereotype of “dangerous” instead of “cheap” when it comes to Chinese-made imports? Will we see demands for much more disclosure on ingredients of Chinese origin? It seems likely, given the spate of recent incidents involving toxic toothpaste, killer cough syrup and pet food that sickened or killed thousands of animals across North America.

Here are some thoughts from leadership expert Michael D. Watkins, a professor at IMD Business School in Lausanne and co-founder of Genesis Advisers in Newton, Mass. He happens to have young kids (including a 3-year-old boy addicted to Thomas) and owns some of the recalled trains as part of a $300 collection.

“What’s so outrageous is that this is a premium brand. Anyone who buys this stuff gets sticker shock because you’re paying $10 for each little train. The implicit promise is that this was quality stuff. My wife said that when she saw Niall (the 3-year-old) put anything else in his mouth, she would take it away. But she never worried about Thomas. Thomas is all about morality and being dependable. You assumed it could never be dangerous to kids. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.”

“I think this could prove to be a flashpoint in catalyzing a consumer reaction. We’re going to see Congressional hearings on this. It’s clear that the Chinese do not have control of their supply chain and neither do we. The outrage is being fed by the perception that the company is way behind the curve on this. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have to recall the metal toys, too. We’re not letting our little boy touch any of his Thomas trains at the moment. Just look at the number of toy recalls alone this year from China.”

“What we’re seeing is the logical conclusion of an effort to drive prices down further. The tainted toothpaste was all about suppliers using cheaper ingredients. Everything in China is about driving down price. And now people have evidence that there’s reason to worry.”

Food for thought …

Reader Comments


July 9, 2007 7:50 AM


Michael Watkins mentioned morality. Lead paint on children's trains is one thing but what about the cough syrup and diluted baby formula that killed children? Can you even imagine what went through the minds of those greedy and immoral Chinese businesspeople when they made their decision? Don't you think there's a huge difference between cutting corners to produce products just "good enough" versus producing poisonous/nutrient-free products meant to treat/nourish kids? BW just had an article about Chinese cars. If we don't trust them with toy trains, what makes them think we trust them with something that needs to go 80 mph? The last thing I want to do is strap my child inside a Chinese car. I find their business practices -- the 20% of them -- outrageous and I'm surprised to not hear more protests from consumers. Since we don't know which 20%, I suppose we protest by not buying anymore of their junk and poison until they have assured us they cleaned up their act. We're all competing globally now and they're simply not up to the task.



July 9, 2007 7:51 AM

The U.S. government has failed its citizens once again. They never should have allowed us to trade like we do with China. For one thing, the Chinese do not share similar values. It's a cultural thing. I am for diversity but not when it comes to such disparate values. It's very hard to find products made anywhere but China. I am very angry about the petfood situation. It didn't affect my pets but it made me very nervous. Since my mom works for a vet she saw firsthand the effects of the tainted pet food recall. There was a lot of suffering, a lot of pain, and a lot of tears. For what? GREED! What happened to standards, values, principles, and yes, morals?


July 9, 2007 8:03 AM

Just like the old axiom says, you get what you pay for. It seems that we have forgotten that prices can only be driven down so much by cheap currency, low income workers and grueling factory schedules. Eventually the factories have to use cheap and dangerous stuff to keep their prices lower then everyone else, so these incidents shouldn't be such a surprise to us.

Considering this, part of the consumer backlash is bound to be fueled by American manufacturers who will reiterate their points about how the Chinese are competing unfairly and using these recalls as ammunition. I have to say that their point will be very vaild. After all, it's very difficult to compete with $0.65 an hour and 14 hour a day labor and cheap as dirt toxic materials which should never be used and would not be used by American companies due to strict regulation.


July 9, 2007 8:58 AM

Absolutely right on. While names like "Walmart" become global epithets, the world falls over itself for the privilege of doing business in China. This is a country that wants all of the benefits of capitalism without any of the pluralistic, democratic institutions that make true capitalism work. The China "brand" should immediately evoke images of sweatshops, lack of transparency or accountability, stonewalling on Darfur, poison toothpaste and pet food, and theft of intellectual property. Only short-sighted greed would make anyone in the free world want to do business with this regime.


July 9, 2007 12:23 PM

Interesting to hear all the readers bashing about China, the Chinese business persons and even the Chinese culture and values. I guess the world is not really "flat" (yet).

Firstly, China is still an early developing country, and lots of things that we have taken for granted is not even known to most Chinese. Take the lead paint for example. It was still legal to use lead paint in most American homes a few decades ago. In many respects, China is probably at the stage of development we had in the 1970s. Is it any wonder that they don't even bother to check the lead content in the paint?

Secondly, in all these incidents, I will hold the US corporations more responsibility than the Chinese manufacturers. Ultimately, they are the ones who sell the products to the customers. And they should understand more about the safety and standards we valued here in the States, and they should be the ones who imposed the standards on the Chinese (or any) manufacturers, where they are plentiful to choose from.

Finally, we should look also in the mirror for our own safety records too. Right here in California, we have a spinach recall a few months ago. And it was even legal to sell painkillers that exaggerate heart problems. What about the SUV rollovers, the tainted flu shots, etc? Should we also start wondering the culture and values of this country?


July 9, 2007 1:24 PM

It's interesting that Random says "you get what you pay for" ... That's true. The issue here, though, is that these are premium-priced products that are among the most expensive toys you can buy. The cough syrup, too, was not some dime-store stuff; nor was the pet food. One problem is that consumers can't tell anymore whether something is even likely to be a problem.

I wouldn't buy odd-sounding toothpaste at a dollar store, and I wouldn't really trust a 99 cent toy made in China. But I did assume that Thomas was beyond reproach and it certainly never occurred to me that regulated products like toothpaste and cough syrup could be toxic.


July 9, 2007 3:12 PM

I am so amazed by all these comments, so American indeed ! Now we can do just one thing: STOP BUYING ANYTHING FROM CHINA ! Or one step further, stop buying anything from any country we consider not Americanly moral or not Americanly safe or anything not American. Then United States government would stop trading with China or with any China-like country; those US companies doing business in China would come back; outsourcing American jobs would be put to stop; the US deficit would come down; of course, America would once again become a fairyland as it used to.

See, how simple and straighforward to solve the nation's problem !


July 9, 2007 3:40 PM

@ Diane,

I'd like to clear up what I was saying. When I was talking about "getting what you pay for," I was not talking about the consumer. I was referring to the companies outsourcing production to Chinese factories to fatten up their profit margins on top-dollar items.

Reviewing my comment above, I see that I didn't make this clear and would like to apologize for the confusion.

Joe List

July 9, 2007 4:49 PM

I believe it is a historical evolution of any country pursuing capitalistic development to undergo this kind of trials and errors. Looking at the history of the United States 70 years ago when unscrupulous business people maximized profits in the environment of scanty regulations and enforcement (see below) and we can understand the situation in China now:
" A Select History of the FDA

Congress passes the Pure Food and Drugs Act, prohibiting interstate commerce in misbranded and adulterated foods, drinks, and drugs.

Congress enacts the Sherley Amendment, which prohibits labeling of medicines with false therapeutic claims.

After an elixir containing diethylene glycol kills 107 people in 1937, Congress passes the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), requiring that drugs be shown to be safe before marketing."


July 9, 2007 8:07 PM

Never tolerate, never appease, stop buying from the barbarian country.


July 9, 2007 9:38 PM

True spectrum of American caliber and mental soundness at display just by reading all the China-bashing comments.

Yes, the pet food was China's fault (one pet food producer does not even represent China), but, don't blow it out of proprotion, "killing thousands of animals?"

The toxic toothpaste was only reported in Panama because the manufacture misplaced the ONE batch of industrial grade chemical. There has never been confirmed of any "toxic" toothpaste in US market.

In fact, it was so obvious that US government took the queue of the pet food wind and tried to create a storm out of all Chinese products. Without any evidence to suppor the claim, tires were recalled, fish imports were banned. Guess what, Chinese are now reciperocating to the American products as of now, you just have not heard that from American media, like worms, toxic chemical were found in food, raisin....from US

Out of hundreds of billions of trade or imports from China, so much ado just about pet food, lead containing paint? Keep spinning...

If American want to talk about moral value, principles and greediness, alas, which people can be lower than you? Killing innocent lives without mercy just because you lust for other's oil and wealth?

"barbarian"? For Chinese people, that is a reserved word for countries which had plungerred, robbed, raped other innocent people without mercy. For that case, it has to be you again. should you be reminded of the 140 million native Indians? 3 million Vietnamese? There is even no need to look afar back, just Iraq.


July 10, 2007 8:55 AM

Wanted to make something absolutely clear. If you read my comment, I did not "bash" Chinese businesspeople in general but the group of individuals responsible and the current inadequate system they operate under. Let's face it, 20% is an extraordinary number of export products that the Chinese authorities themselves determined as substandard. You can risk your family's safety with Chinese products if you choose but count me out. Not a race or culture issue but a safety one.

In addition, comparing China to the US in the early 1900s or even the 1970s is ridiculous. I've been to China and have seen their production facilities from the inside. They have the most advanced equipment around and have the latest product safety knowledge (that we acquired since the 1900s). They don't operate in a time vacuum. Don't underestimate the Chinese and think them as backwoods. Like the Americans, most are shrewd, well-informed businesspeople. However, due to lax oversight, some simply did a cost-benefit and chose to cut costs over public safety, even children's safety. Shame on them! Don't they have families of their own? Perhaps with more regulation, their cost-benefit will now change but I nevertheless wonder how some people sleep at night.



July 10, 2007 10:05 AM

The pet food did sicken or kill thousands of animals and, having lived in China, I agree that there's a lot about the country and its practices to admire. But few consumers can or should forgive practices that put families at risk--from lead paint on one of the most popular toys for toddlers to cough syrup that kills people anywhere in the world. Industrial materials should not be making their way into the food chain; nor should standards be flouted that exist to protect consumers.


July 10, 2007 11:46 AM

Many issues with food imported from China can be solved reasonably without getting politically emotional.

For instance, the issue with "toxic toothpaste" actually results from the different quality standard between US and China as to whether or not diethylene glycol is allowed and how much is allowed. The FDA knew for a fact that many countries do allow diethylene glycol to be used as a component of cough syrup and toothpaste and China is one of those countries. As a matter of fact, The FDA also allows no more than 0.2% of diethylene glycol in polyethylene glycol when the latter is used as a food additive. The question is how much. What I don't understand is that the FDA behaves like they never heard of this before. Worse than that, they allows the brainless medium to foolishly scare the hack of everyone who never does any homework about what the medium says.

Is this a difficult issue to solve, not at all. All it has to be done is to tell China that either you follow the US quality standard (NOT China's standard) to reduce the level of diethylene glycol in toothpaste or you won't have any sale. And this should apply to any country whose quality standard of food is different from or lower than the US standard if their food products are allowed to come to the US. The same applies to the US as well. Some European countries have a tougher control of chemical ingrediants in food products, then US food products imported to those countries should follow their standard instead of ours.

This is an issue of science or business, not politics, unless we do want to stop trading with China or anyone we don't like all together, as some of comments suggested.


July 18, 2007 6:02 PM

Over 10 years ago my sister would not buy anything from China because of the Lead issue. This is not a new problem, it has been around for years. And since our income is smaller I had a hard time avoiding buying things from China. I do get the re-call notices on a regular basis and see that a huge percentage of re-called items are from China. And it took too long for the public to become aware this was going on. China is known for human rights and safety aabuses. And this is the outcome of the whole process. The U.S. has also been very lax for allowing dangerous items to be imported into our country. One wonders about the importers for allowing for such a avoidable serious problem from happening.

Children's lives are ruined due to lead poisoning. It is very scary. And those of us putting trust in others for our families safety should be ashamed. unfortunately as consumers we need to do our own research. In fact I have gone as far as buying lead test kits to check out the toys that I give my children. It really is the only way to protect our children and families. That is until the people who are supposed to protect us actually do their job.

There is enough blame to go around. The information was out there over ten years ago. We can't change the way Chinese manufactures do business. But we can avoid buying anything or importing anything from China until the problem is resolved. Do research find out where the safety records are best and buy from there. And find out where the records are bad and avoid buying (no matter how cute, pretty or enticing the item is).

Virginia Vinyard

December 16, 2007 8:27 PM

Where can I find a list of protest groups against china goods containing lead in Louisiana?

Iris Heighway

March 21, 2008 10:00 AM

I have read the comments of some of the people on this website. For a little while now I have been totally against Marks and Spencer department store for one having so many products, even greeting cards, handbags, gloves and scarves just to name a few being MADE IN CHINA. Many years ago I purchased items and some maybe around 5 years ago that were MADE IN THE U.K. and guess what I can still wear them and the quality was so much better. Now I will not purchase anything if I can that is MADE IN CHINA. I have seen and heard of so many jobs going and companies taking their business to CHINA and I feel so very sorry for the people in this country that are losing their jobs when it is not there fault.

I have never been against countries before but I am so ANTI CHINA it is unbelievable.

The sooner these goverments in this world and countries realised that we make better quality products the better.

I have spoken to a few people in the M & S store and people are of the same opinion but they still buy the products as there is not much else they can do.


January 14, 2010 9:40 PM

I'm mad to go to the hardware store Osh, BigLots, World Market and the list gos on, just to turn the idem around and find "Made in China" on it. We stuff our hard earned money into "Civil and Environmental Rights ignoring China".
We own them Trillions of Dollars in top of buying and producing our products in this country and than we adopt little Girls because they let them die there other wise. Our kid are spoiled and over feed to gigantic proportions into obesity and laziness, they have no more motivation to reach higher because we gave them China phones, china toys, china laptops........... and china children make up the Magnet Advanced classes to earn top honer graduation and fill our collages. Hurray America.

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