Suffering in silence

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2007, 12:00am

The foreign press have been busy highlighting the spate of scandals surrounding the safety and quality of mainland Chinese products made for export. But there has been surprisingly little discussion in the mainland media about the quality of goods produced for the domestic market. That's despite the fact that food safety is consistently cited as one of the public's major concerns. Some surveys suggest 80 per cent of people are worried about the food they eat.

Cases such as the Beijing factory raided last month for selling used bamboo chopsticks that had not been disinfected demonstrate that mainland consumers face far greater risks to their health from dodgy goods than people overseas. Twenty-million-plus toys may have been recalled recently from around the world but, according to the General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, 20 per cent of the toys made for the local market are unsafe. At least 10,000 children are injured every year on the mainland by dangerous toys.

But if members of the public are happy to give voice to their concerns in anonymous surveys, then they seem less keen on protesting to the companies that flood shops with shoddy or defective goods. This week, the deputy secretary-general of the mainland's consumers' association noted the reluctance of mainland consumers to complain about substandard products.

In part that's because there's little incentive for them to make complaints. The mainland's law on consumer protection hasn't been updated since 1993. It's just 14 pages long, and worded so vaguely that it's difficult to hold a company liable.

A few advocates do champion consumer rights, but many people aren't even aware that the China Consumers' Association exists. Much of the fault for that lies with the media but, given the restrictions they operate under, it's hard to blame them. The fallout from the recent bogus report on cardboard-filled steamed buns in Beijing has put a further chill on editors thinking of running stories on food and product safety.

It is, though, the perfect story for China's 162 million netizens to pick up on. Their failure to do so is both disappointing and puzzling. After all, it's not as if they don't like complaining or launching online campaigns. Last week, millions of them were involved in the latest debate on the subject of whether mainland women are attracted to foreign men because of their qualities, or because they offer a potential passport to a better life.

The debate was sparked by an American man who'd posted on the Web photos of some of his conquests, one of whom was the personal assistant to the chairman of Electrolux in China. That prompted countless xenophobic rants from netizens. How much better it would be if they channelled all that rage into standing up for the rights of mainland consumers.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist