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Banning China: How American-Style Capitalism Led to Toxic Products

New America Media, News Analysis, Xujun Eberlein Posted: Sep 19, 2007

Editors Note: On a recent trip from America to China, New America Media commentator Xujun Eberlein noticed how similar the two nations have become since her youth during Mao's reign. But the American demand for goods has created some kinks in Chinas new capitalist system.

BEIJING -- Five months after the deaths of 14 animals in the United States were linked to China-exported pet food ingredients, Zhang Shuhong the owner of Lida Toy Company in Foshan, China hung himself in his own factorys storage room. This incident occurred two weeks after Mattel recalled 967,000 toys made by Lida.

There was much buzz on Chinese websites that the recall led to Lidas predicament and, in turn, Zhangs suicide. The exact cause notwithstanding, these trade skirmishes between the two giant nations from food fights to toy fights are a result of rapidly transforming capitalism in China.

Today the label Made in China scares the wits out of Americans. Last Friday, I picked up a copy of U.S. News and World Report in a doctors waiting room and read an incendiary letter to the editor: Whether [its] currency devaluations to dump cheap junk into our markets, poison pet food, or killer car tires, Chinas greed is dangerous In its total disregard for these basic components of a civilized society, China is, at least, consistent.

The outrage sounds familiar, but is China really that consistent? It seems like the last time Americans felt so threatened by China, it wasnt over greed. During the heyday of Maos socialist rule, it was the color not the goods of Red China that had been the scare. The biggest irony, of course, is that Chinas export of toxic goods did not occur under Maos evil socialism. It occurred three decades after China began to adopt American-style capitalism. Nowadays, China is so much like America its kind of scary.

This summer, when my American husband visited China with me, his first comments on a Chinese friends daughter were: She dresses just like an American teenager! The young generation in China wears American-style T-shirts and Nike shoes, carries cell phones and MP3 players, eats McDonald's, drinks Starbucks, and camps out in movie theaters waiting for the opening day of Hollywood blockbusters like Transformers.

As a Chinese kid from the 1960s, I grew up reciting Mao and the Communist Partys warning: Do not let the American imperialists prediction come true! The Party was referring to an ingenious prophecy that foresaw China changing color in the third or fourth generation of Chinese Communists. But even if capitalism is taking over China, Americans arent very happy about getting what theyve asked for. As the Chinese adage says: Not both ends of the sugar cane will be sweet.

Unfortunately, capitalism and consumerism are twin brothers. Most Chinese I talked to this summer were not very sympathetic to American woes. In other words, they saw the food and toy fights as American-induced problems. Though biased, this view is not without merit. In the United States, our endless demands pressure corporations to supply increasingly higher quantities of products at lower prices, so they turn to cheaper sources like Chinas food and toy industries. As a result, we get a huge trade deficit. Trying to alleviate the deficit, we put pressure on China to raise the value of its currency, which exacerbates the need to lower the manufacturing cost on their end, putting pressure on their business people to seek alternative, often unsafe, solutions.

In the transition from Maos socialism to capitalism, China has yet to perfect its laws, and the laws it does have are not all well enforced. Thats where the illegal supplies banned additives, toxic chemicals and so on, come into play. In capitalism, profit is God.

In the case of Zhang, the toy manufacturer who committed suicide last month, Lida employees say he was entrapped by his best friend who supplied the company with cheap, lead-tinted paint. So, it is not all about the quality and safety of goods. It is command economy supply meeting consumerism, with protectionism thrown in for spice.

Heres another irony: China has become one of the biggest holders of U.S. treasury bonds. That is, the Chinese are paying us Americans to consume their goods. This is why a Chinese officials mention of dumping U.S. debts early this year caused a panic wave on Wall Street. Borrowing an economists words, such an action from China would cast the United States into recession.

With Christmas still months away, U.S. toymakers have already began to worry about losing the confidence of wary parents and hence their holiday profits. But why do we have to spend so much on toys? For my entire childhood I had only one plaything a stuffed bear, yet I was happier than my American-born daughter who has a roomful of toys.

But it doesnt end here: The latest ban comes from China, who just rejected some 18 tons of pork kidney from the United States claiming the pork contained a growth agent called ractopamine. Most news reports are claiming this as a retaliatory move by Chinese government. It seems like two can play the ban game.

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