Over the past two months a tragedy has been playing out in Europe and the US. Mattel, the world’s largest toymaker, has recalled more than 20 million of their products, including Fisher Price and Barbie.
The cause? Toys with paint containing too high a lead content and poorly attached magnets that could present a choking hazard to tiny tots.
Mattel was quick to cast the blame at their largest manufacturers in China. EU and US politicians promptly suggested unilateral bans on Chinese-made goods and trade restrictions at all levels. Zhang Shuhong, the head of Lida and one of the biggest Mattel suppliers, committed suicide.
Off the back of the melamine-pet-food scandal a few months ago China is taking severe punishment for their behaviour. Is it justified?
China is a developing nation. In the past 10 years China has begun one of the most dramatic transformations in human history, shifting an astonishing 350 million people out of poverty. The fact that Chinese manufacturing is still very rudimentary, environmentally hazardous, and with poor safety and health controls belies how far they have come. And how much worse it used to be.
China is also not deliberately foisting poorly made goods on the world as some weird act of terrorism or sabotage. What is exported is at a higher standard than what is consumed locally.This is a nation pursuing development as rapidly and with as much determination as they can. They’re not asking for a handout, merely a chance to sell goods that the rest of the world wants to buy. The “China factor” has held down inflation internationally and resulted in the long Bull Run that has driven up consumption and asset prices around the world. It has also lead to a lot of groaning from blue-collar workers that cheap Chinese labour will put them out of work.
Mattel has now admitted that they didn’t check until after the products were in toy-stores whether or not European safety-standards had been followed.
In this the real ugly nature of the protests against China are seen.
Imagine it differently. A few winemakers in South Africa have, on occasion, embellished their product by adding ethylene glycol (antifreeze) into it to improve its flavour and alcohol content. Some countries still consider South African wine of dubious value as a result of these recalls. Now imagine if South Africa posed a “threat” in the way that China does, soaking up low-wage jobs and exporting cheap textiles and toys. Perhaps some EU minister would suggest a general trade embargo against South African motor-cars as well. After all, if we put ethylene glycol in our wine, perhaps we fit poor quality breaks on our cars as well.
One correspondent suggested that this type of sweeping act of judgement is like charging a person who owns a firearm with murder, because they have the tool to commit it. South Africa is also concerned about Chinese imports undermining our manufacturing. Union leaders have frequently called for a ban on Chinese goods and scandals such as these make for politically popular fuel.
Keep something in mind though. South Africa, too, is a developing nation. Africa is still to follow the route that China and India are taking. The response from both Europe and America has been to question the ethical and quality standards of these countries and use these as justifications for trade restrictions and import penalties.
The trade advantage that China and India have is their unskilled and low-wage population working in unsophisticated manufacturing and service businesses. If the developed world gets into the bad habit of seeing this as a threat instead of an opportunity for both to profit then pity Africa.
China and India will get rich. Trade restrictions won’t stop them for long. They’re too big, too organised and have far too much to offer to be kept down. Africa is none of these things; fragmented, politically naive and entirely uneducated.
African nations can ride along on the coat-tails of these two giants by supporting their demands for open markets. If we don’t we’ll get left behind, and forgotten.