After Silence, China Mounts Product Safety PR Offensive

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 14, 2007

BEIJING -- Scanning the headlines in the Chinese press, it's easy to conclude that the global brouhaha over product safety is not about China -- but about America.

Investigative reports in the state-run media delve into the case of an exploding cellphone purportedly made by U.S.-based Motorola that allegedly killed a young man. They warn consumers not to use contact-lens solution produced by U.S.-based Advanced Medical Optics, which has been linked to rare cases of blindness. And they play up recalls of U.S. beef.

Faced with mounting international concern over the safety of some of the products it exports, the Chinese government -- often perceived as defensive and clumsy in how it handles public relations -- is firing back.

In Washington, China has put together a team of lobbyists who have been practically living on Capitol Hill for the past few weeks. In Beijing, the government has taken the unusual step of seeking advice from outsiders, including public relations powerhouses Ogilvy and Edelman, about how to get positive messages out to Chinese and American consumers.

The result has been an aggressive campaign to save the "Made in China" label by presenting an alternate view on consumer safety and globalization. The message is that China isn't the only country that has had problems with the products it exports. China, as government officials have been pointing out in recent days, rejects U.S. imports at a rate that is just a little less than the 1 percent of Chinese products rejected by the United States.

"China feels it is getting beaten up for things that are happening on a reciprocal basis to them," said Scott Kronick, head of Ogilvy's China practice.

At the same time, the Chinese government is trying to show that it is taking seriously recent recalls by making examples of individuals and companies that allegedly contributed to the problems. The recalls have included pet food laced with an industrial chemical, toys coated with lead paint, defective tires and toothpaste made with toxic chemicals.

The government has played up the fact that Zheng Xiaoyu, country's former chief food and drug regulator, was executed this week and that 180 factories that put industrial chemicals into food have been shut down.

The approach represents a radical shift from how China has disseminated information in the past. Since the Communist Party rose to power in 1949, the job of propaganda offices has been largely to promote such slogans as "Serve the People" and "It is Good to Have Just One Child," which were written on chalkboards on almost every block.

Now the propaganda offices are being pushed to respond to breaking news and criticism from foreign governments and consumers half a world away.

When questions about Chinese food safety arose in March, following the death of scores of pets in the United States, the Chinese government's response was silence. Then it was denial, as officials brushed off the accusations as fabrications and called them another salvo in a growing trade war between the two countries.

But in recent days, the government has gone on the offensive. It is issuing almost daily statements saying how much it is doing to improve food and consumer safety. On July 3, it reported it was stepping up anti-corruption efforts. On July 4, it said it would ban firms that advertise medical claims that have not been approved by the government. On July 5 it said it was working on the country's first food recall system.


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