The standard of the mainland's exports was a problem, but more attention should be paid to the growing phenomenon of cheating with fake domestic products, outspoken consumer-rights advocate Wang Hai said yesterday.
Wearing his trademark sunglasses - an accessory the 34-year-old Qingdao native says 'has made my job easier' since he brought his first fake-goods lawsuit 12 years ago - Mr Wang spoke amid mounting criticism from foreign buyers, especially in the US, about the safety of mainland products.
'Although overall product quality has improved over the past years, cheating is growing in China,' he told a briefing at Beijing's Foreign Correspondents' Club.
Acknowledging that the central government was committed to improving product quality, Mr Wang said local administrations often had a different agenda.
He listed several reasons for the continued emergence of cases involving substandard and fake products - low fines imposed on corporations, the tendency of local governments to protect the interests of corporations investing in their economies, and a lack of funds and resources for extensive inspections and tests on consumer goods.
The imbalance of power between consumers and manufacturers was another big problem.
Mr Wang said safety standards were mostly set by the enterprises themselves and consumer laws were suggested by industry associations because this saved administrative costs.
As government bodies did not report on their investigations, nor did they accept sample tests from consumers, the door was shut to external supervision. More problematic was the practice of relying on tests carried out on products by manufacturers.
'Corporations have taken over the discourse. Consumers have been placed in a passive position right from the beginning,' Mr Wang said.
He said cheating had also taken on new forms, such as exaggerated advertising - like claims about the time needed for a beauty product to whiten a person's skin or misrepresentation of a product's ingredients.
Multinationals had also adopted these practices, said Mr Wang, who brings dozens of cases each year against these global players.
He said the fundamental problem was the difference in standards adopted by the mainland and that of the west. In his view, the recent, harsh criticism of mainland exports standards was a good thing because it should have a positive impact on product quality.
'The government is not doing enough. They should use this opportunity to raise product standards and close the gap,' Mr Wang said.
In terms of the overwhelming incidence of harmful food cases, however, Mr Wang said most manufacturers were ignorant of the harm they were doing and were only trying to lower costs.
Despite launching his advocacy career in the courts, Mr Wang said litigation was still a difficult route for consumers because of the amount of money and expertise involved.
The heir to a family-owned factory, Mr Wang became an advocate of consumer rights by chance in 1995, when he learned of a law allowing consumers to seek compensation twice the price of a product found to be fake.
Since then Mr Wang has engaged in more than 1,000 cases. He has also widened his efforts against substandard goods and dishonest advertising, from local businesses to multinational companies.
Once hailed as the nation's 'fake-goods hero', some doubted his intentions after he turned his cause into a business. Critics claim he blackmails firms or helps those with a bad reputation take revenge on competitors, claims he said 'stemmed from misunderstandings'.
In addition to his two companies, he has also set up a non-profit organisation and website to help apartment owners and general consumers take action to protect their rights. His next step will be to set up a truly independent consumer association to further advocacy work.