China vs. the American Consumer

china vs americaThe last six months have been less than friendly to Chinese exporters and increasingly, it appears that US consumers are forming blanket opinions about the safety and quality of Chinese made products. As the complaints from the US side and the rhetoric between China and the US continue to build, one must question if this is simply a bump in the road or the beginning of a major trend where Americans become increasingly resistant to all goods stamped with the “made in China” label.

There are a few factors that must be considered that seem to have been overlooked by much of the media coverage. One big issue that has not received its fair share of coverage is the fact that American politicians are looking for reasons to make the “China issue” a campaign issue and these consumer scares not only give them an opportunity to further push trade protectionism, but also play to the voters that feel that their safety (and the safety of their defenseless pets) is at risk. China Law Blog captured this point by highlighting how Alabama senate hopeful Ron Sparks has used scares over the safety of Chinese seafood to further his attempts to protect Alabama’s fish farming industry.

Another factor is that in reality, the typical American consumer has only a partial understanding of how critical China is to the global supply chain. It’s one thing to avoid buying cheap toys with “made in China” written all over them, but it’s another thing to take the necessary time to sift through the opaque supply chains of every piece of merchandise that one buys to determine if products were partially sourced or assembled in China. This The World is Flat type complexity would be a major obstacle if a consumer were to try and boycott Chinese goods until they felt that the Chinese government was sufficiently ensuring safety and quality.

A huge driver behind the rhetoric that is building between the United States and China is that the Chinese government is completely unfamiliar with how protected consumers in the United States are made to think that they (we) are. Chinese consumers are increasingly vocal about food safety issues but because of the nature of the Chinese political system, their complaints have traditionally not made much of a difference (this definitely seems to be changing though). In the United States on the other hand, when we feel that this trust between supplier and consumer has been violated (and government agencies fail to catch it) it sparks a public and media outcry that usually then gets picked up by the political sphere.

The only way to reverse the current trend is for China to take concrete action in better ensuring that their exports are safe, and they seem to be doing this. The fact that they did it in a manner that according to this New York Times article was rushed and haphazard suggests that they are also realizing the urgency of taking action before American politicians and the foreign media escalate it beyond their control.

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