A Quadruple Dollop of China Stories

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 8/13/2007 10:55:00 AM
There are four good China stories of recent vintage that I'll briefly sketch here. The first one is rather tragic as it concerns the suicide of a toy factory owner after his products were banned for export in the aftermath of it being discovered that they used lead paint. From the Associated Press:
The head of a Chinese toy manufacturing company at the center of a huge U.S. recall has committed suicide, a state-run newspaper said Monday.

Zhang Shuhong, who co-owned Lee Der Industrial Co. Ltd., killed himself at a warehouse over the weekend, days after China announced it had temporarily banned exports by the company, the Southern Metropolis Daily said.

Lee Der made 967,000 toys recalled earlier this month by Mattel Inc. because they were made with paint found to have excessive amounts of lead. The plastic preschool toys, sold under the Fisher-Price brand in the U.S., included the popular Big Bird, Elmo, Dora and Diego characters.

It was among the largest recalls in recent months involving Chinese products, which have come under fire for globally for containing potentially dangerous high levels of chemicals and toxins.

The second story concerns the widespread use of bribes in China. It's often forgotten that China is still a developing nation subject to governance issues despite its spectacular growth figures. What I--and probably the rest of the world--would like to know is why Chinese growth has taken off in spite of commonplace bribery. Perhaps bribery is more tolerated when the victims are in China as opposed to abroad as the tragic first story suggests. That is, corrupt officials may tolerate harming mostly powerless local consumers to some extent but not foreign ones since the latter can greatly damage the reputation of "Made in China." Nevertheless, official campaigns to stem corruption have been met with innovations in bribery. From the LA Times:
As the government has intensified its fight against corruption, bribers apparently have become more creative. Early last month, China's Supreme Court outlined new bribery definitions.

Among the innovative tactics under scrutiny lately: moon cakes embedded with diamond rings and jewelry-bedecked "golden books," usually turgid biographies of top Communist Party leaders.

Other methods involve executives who purposely lose to officials at high-stakes mah-jongg games, rig lotteries or sponsor their children at overseas universities.

"People always find creative ways to play games," said Ren, of Tsinghua University, adding that the focus should be on prevention rather than attacking the symptoms. "As a Chinese saying goes, 'When evil is 1 foot tall, the evil spirits will be 10 feet tall.'"
Meanwhile, the third story concerns China's new, comprehensive system of tracking its citizens by issuing them identity cards laden with much personal information. This story can cut both ways. On the good side, issuance of these cards may be deliverance on a promise to amend Hukou, China's "caste system" which discriminates against migrant workers who move from rural areas to urban areas where they cannot avail of state benefits such as health and education. On the other hand, this could be the ultimate "Big Brother" solution in a repressive police state. From the New York Times:
At least 20,000 police surveillance cameras are being installed along streets here in southern China and will soon be guided by sophisticated computer software from an American-financed company to recognize automatically the faces of police suspects and detect unusual activity.

Starting this month in a port neighborhood and then spreading across Shenzhen, a city of 12.4 million people, residency cards fitted with powerful computer chips programmed by the same company will be issued to most citizens.

Data on the chip will include not just the citizen’s name and address but also work history, educational background, religion, ethnicity, police record, medical insurance status and landlord’s phone number. Even personal reproductive history will be included, for enforcement of China’s controversial “one child” policy. Plans are being studied to add credit histories, subway travel payments and small purchases charged to the card.

Security experts describe China’s plans as the world’s largest effort to meld cutting-edge computer technology with police work to track the activities of a population and fight crime. But they say the technology can be used to violate civil rights.

The fourth story concerns a theme I've been following closely, China's growing relationship with Africa [1, 2, 3, 4] and its vaunted principle of non-interference in others' affairs. Is China yet another fairweather friend like the Westerners who came before more keen on exploiting Africa's vast resources than on the continent's development? Here is the case of China in Chad, Sudan's neighbor to the west and a place where Westerners have feared to tread (yes, even those mad dogs and Englishmen). From the New York Times:

Chad is as geographically isolated as places come in Africa. It is also among the continent’s poorest and least stable countries, the scene of recurrent civil wars and foreign invasions since it gained independence from France in 1960.

None of that has put off the Chinese, though. In January, they bought the rights to a vast exploration zone that surrounds this rural village, making the baked wilderness here, without roads, electricity or telephones, the latest frontier for their thirsty oil industry and increasingly global ambitions.

The same is happening in one African country after another. In large oil-exporting countries like Angola and Nigeria, China is building or fixing railroads, and landing giant exploration contracts in Congo and Guinea.

In mineral-rich countries that had been all but abandoned by foreign investors because of unrest and corruption, Chinese companies are reviving output of cobalt and bauxite. China has even become the new mover and shaker in agricultural countries like Ivory Coast, once the crown jewel in France’s postcolonial African empire, where Chinese companies are building a new capital, in Yamoussoukro, paid for by Chinese loans.

Surging Chinese interest in this continent has helped bring about what many Africans believe is the most important moment since the end of the cold war, when democracy was spreading in Africa and Western nations spoke of a “peace dividend” that might ease African poverty.