Short-changed on consumer rights day

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 March, 2004, 12:00am

Mainland has a long way to go to ensure that people get value for money when buying goods and services, experts say

Sun Changshan, a 65-year-old retiree living in northwestern Beijing, will not have much to celebrate today, World Consumer Rights Day.

'We were cheated and treated unfairly,' he said of the residents of his apartment complex, which was supposed to have a 10,000-squaremetre park but is instead getting eight new buildings.

'We didn't turn to the local consumers' association because the government was on the side of the developers. What could the association possibly have done for us? The park is what attracted us to buy our home here in 2000.'

Mr Sun said the developer, the Tianhong Group, and various government departments had ignored the residents' complaints.

This is just one of the scores of conflicts between consumers and property developers seen in the capital every year.

The State Administration of Industry and Commerce says the property sector attracts the most complaints after food, mobile phones and agriculture-related materials.

Last year, 695,142 complaints were filed to Consumers' Association branches across the country, according to the organisation's website. Of those complaints, 670,304 were resolved and more than 1.16 billion yuan in losses were recovered.

Stories exposing violations of consumer rights are common in the mainland media: hot pot spice mixes laced with poisonous chemicals; car repair shops installing fake parts; hospitals adding thousands of yuan to patients' bills with non-existent reasons.

'I've been researching consumer rights protection for 15 years and I have seen a lot of consumers being cheated and treated unfairly,' said Liu Junhai, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

'Every March 15 my heart is heavy when I see so many people gathering to complain. The government and companies don't pay enough attention to consumers on the other days of the year.'

Thilo Bode knows the power of the consumer. The former international executive director of Greenpeace, who oversaw the opening of the Hong Kong office, turned from environmental campaigns to consumers' rights in 2001 when he formed the Foodwatch organisation.

'Consumers should ideally influence products. When they become organised, they become very powerful and corporations pay attention,' Dr Bode said, adding that it was essential the government encouraged consumer groups.

'In the end, [consumer groups] improve the quality of products and the market in general.'

Dr Liu said companies were starting to see that protecting consumers' rights was also in their interests. 'If you don't pay attention to consumers' rights they won't buy your products,' he said. 'Furthermore, the more consumers' rights are protected, the higher domestic demand becomes, and the more the economy improves.'

He said the government should strengthen its monitoring and regulatory powers.

'Punishments must be harsh enough for businesses to feel that breaking the law costs more than it saves,' he said.

Dr Bode said: 'Consumers also need to become more aware and not buy products solely based on low prices.'

'They must have the right to ask for information about products. But once people have the right to ask for this information, it becomes a challenge - a democratic challenge - to the government.

'It is difficult to restrict this right because it isn't political; it is self-evident that people have the right to know what goes in to the products they consume,' he said.