When 'Made in China' is a warning

These safety recalls point to reforms that will allow the press and elections to hold Beijing accountable.

The theory goes like this: Engage China and, willy-nilly, it will reform. The world has opened its doors to "Made in China" goods, but with so many recalls of Chinese products from toys to tires, Beijing is hardly acting like an accountable regime.

In the United States alone this year, nearly two-thirds of the recalls by the Consumer Product Safety Commission have involved Chinese imports. And the number of such recalls has doubled since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Other nations, from Japan to France, are also cracking down on Chinese imports.

American consumers first became aware of China's lax oversight earlier this year with the discovery of toxic waste in food for dogs and cats. Then came news of faulty tires for trucks, lead paint on wooden toys such as Thomas train sets, contaminated fish, and lately, poisonous toothpaste.

At first, China saw all this news as yet another Western conspiracy to keep China down by trying to block its nearly $1 trillion in exports. Officials made a few token "seizures" of Western imports, claiming they were tainted or unsafe.

But then the truth sank in: China's quarter-century dash for dollars lacked an adequate system to hold both government and business accountable to even basic standards in consumer safety.

Last week, Beijing's quality control watchdog agency acknowledged that nearly 1 in 5 products were substandard. (For "large" companies, the quality was a much-better 93 percent.) Two high ranking officials in charge of regulating pharmaceutical drugs have been sentenced to death on corruption charges – certainly a sign of concern within the Communist Party. And behind the veil of secrecy there appears to be more hustle to crack down on wayward, smaller exporters. At least 180 food factories have been shut down.

But what of deeper reforms that would really ensure accountability, such as a free press, independent courts, and elections with political parties?

Not a word.

In American history, it was during the Progressive Era of the early 20th century that safety lapses of the market system were corrected by a vigorous media and vibrant democracy, leading to, for instance, the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.

While China does have such regulatory institutions and allows the media to tackle product quality, can it simply continue to rely on the iron hand of unelected leaders to correct millions of businesses? And can it continue to prevent journalists from asking if China must adopt truly representative government?

Not when lives are at stake, both within China and wherever its exports go.

China has launched a public relations effort in the US, along with lobbying of Congress, in hopes of avoiding consumer backlash or possible trade sanctions over these latest safety issues. But this is simply eyewash to cover the lack of real reform.

The better tack is to allow independent activist groups more freedom to question the government, place more non-Party professionals in high levels of regulatory agencies, and end curbs on the press. Such steps are real reform and will ensure China is welcomed on the world stage as a responsible partner.

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