Saturday, May 30, 2009

From China with Love

Remember growing up and buying that toy that was made in China or an electronics device with the same origin, then being dissapointed later to find that it did't seem to last as long as your Fisher Price or Sony purchase? I've read that these days China is working hard to develop a more reputable national label for its manufactured goods destined for the West. Meanwhile, that kind of low quality manufacturing is still happening in Africa.

Every once in a while evidences of this shows up in the international news, but living here you see it all the time, and can't often help but feeling that too many pieces of life are uncontrollably at the mercy of cheap imports. I've had two rather disturbing recent experiences that have driven this point home for me.

There's variety of new bus lines that have popped up in Benin in the last year, riding on the advantages of having a large potential client base of people desparately looking for safe, reliable, and efficient alternative modes of overland transport, and secondly the availability of inexpensive Chinese imported buses. Rolled off the dock, the buses are shiny, clean, and airconditioned--all welcome changes to the normal transportation alternatives.

But structurally and mechanically the buses have not proven so appealing. Exhibit 1: Mid march, I'm traveling North and the engine catches fire. Fortunately, all the passengers got out of the cabin before the entire vehicle caught flame, which was in a matter of minutes. (There's a photo of that wreckage in my last blog post). Exhibit 2: Last week I'm making the same trip w/ the same company and in the same bus model and the windshield "suddenly" (without any obviously siginificant cause) shatters into large and small shards, which shower over the first three passenger rows. This was obviously not a shatter resistant window pane. This time there were injuries: three bleeding badly, including the driver himself. Fortunately he didn't panic, and wasn't hit in the face, otherwise the end could have been alot worse for all. (Minutes later, by the way, the back window pane also blew out).

The problem does't just reside in the public transport sector. Late last year you may recall the scandal of one of China's largest dried milk manufacturers essentially lacing their recipe with a main ingredient to pesticides in order to bump up their milk's printed protein count. I remember hearing the story on the news here, that quite a few number of African kids died and thousands more were sick as a result. Earlier there was the antifreeze toothpaste that thousands (or millions?) were using without knowing it. I'm always hearing complaints from neighbors and coworkers about the repairs they're always making on their motorcycles, almost all of them Chinese makes, all purchased w/in the last year ago.

Who's Fault?

I'm not one of those people that labels China a rising evil industrial power, nor do I fear globalization, nor do I get upset necessarilly when I read about China's increasing commercial and financial presence in Africa. I say commerce and competition is always good when the market is honest and fair. In fact, China has improved the quality of life for many poor Africans buy making available cheap goods that do work, and at an aid level by financing many public infrastructure projects across the continent. But I'm all for trying to fix economic inefficiencies when they're there--especially when they have the potential to hurt people-- and there's some to be fixed when it comes to commerce from China to Africa.

The biggest is imperfect information: the African mother doesn't know enough about the milk she's buying to know whether its good for her family. Often the labeling isn't even clear enough for her to know what country it comes from let alone what's in it. Another related problem is that when malfunctions happen there's not really any single and central and accesible mode to complain, nor know about other complaints. I felt the pangs of this problem after my second bus incident--there was somthing significantly and seriously wrong with these bus models, and I wanted "to do something about it," but I felt that I had no satisfactory recourse to voice my complaint.

Of course I complained to the company management my string of "bad luck" with his cars, but will that stop them from buying more? I doubt it, just recently I'm pretty sure I saw at least one new purchase. And new companies are buying from the same place. And so this is another problem...though a product may be risque, African firms continue to buy them because they're cheap, and often neither the government nor the clients will mount enough pressure for change.

So then we can put some on the African governments, who don't regulate their importants nearly as much as they should. When the powdered milk crisis came out last year, a slew of African states banned Chinese imported milk. This reaction was good until the products were proven good once again, but there needs to be more preventative and controlling activities going on too.

How much fault should be accorded to the Chinese producers? Probably lots, but depends on the severity of the deception. With regards to the milk, it was completely the fault of the group of individuals who decided to lace their product with chemical melamine, and furthermore deceive their consumers about it. Perhaps rolling out cheaper buses is a lesser crime, but in my opinion it's still a crime to put on the market buses knowing they have weak windows and malfunctioning engine pieces, and furthermore that they will be put under even further strains in the tropics of Africa.

I should make a couple points to catch some false assumptions that might otherwise be made. One, it's not just Africans that are sufferring from cheap goods--China dumps them on their own people, as well. Chinese infants also died from the poisoned milk incident. (What's more, I've heard reports of entire Chinese communities with whose population suffer physically from the harmful chemical spillovers from careless and accountable-less nearby industrial factories.) And it's not just China dumping it's cheap goods on Africa. There are alot of scary low quality Chinese-made meds sold on the streets of Benin, but alot of them also come from India. And Africa also dumps alot of bad products on itself. And alot of the equipement imported can become dangerous when it's over used and poorly maintained.

I guess what is so unique and potenially frightening about the Chinese cases is the fact that China is probably the biggest supplier of "cheap imported goods" to Africa--and commerce is only going to increase. The other element is that certain of China's manufacturers seem to have the power and intention to put pretty shines on prodcuts that prove inferior once they've been road tested.