Asians Say Trade Complaints Bring Out the Bully in China

Days after the Philippines announced in July its concerns that White Rabbit candy produced in China was contaminated with formaldehyde, the Chinese government enacted a recall of banana chips from the Philippines.
Days after the Philippines announced in July its concerns that White Rabbit candy produced in China was contaminated with formaldehyde, the Chinese government enacted a recall of banana chips from the Philippines. (By Aaron Favila -- Associated Press)

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By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- After hearing about dangerous Chinese products elsewhere, Indonesia this summer began testing popular Chinese-made items on its own store shelves. What it found has added to the list of horrors: mercury-laced makeup that turns skin black, dried fruit spiked with industrial chemicals, carcinogenic children's candy.

The Chinese government called up in August saying it had a possible solution. Husniah Rubiana Thamrin Akib, head of Indonesia's top food and drug safety agency, was pleased and welcomed her counterparts to her office.

But according to Husniah, the Chinese suggested Indonesia lower its safety standards. Husniah said she was "very upset and very surprised." "I said to them, 'I respect your standards for your country. I hope you respect ours,' " Husniah said.

In dealing with product safety complaints from the United States, China has sought to convince a concerned American public that it has reformed and is doing all it can to ensure the safety of its products. But its dealings with other, less-developed countries or those in vulnerable political positions are a different story, according to Husniah and officials in the Philippines and Malaysia.

Indonesian officials accuse China of pushing shoddy products and inferior standards on poor countries that have no choice but to depend on it for cheap goods, aid and investment. They say that China, in closed-door meetings, has refused to share basic information, attempted to horse-trade by insisting on discussing disparate issues as part of a single negotiation and all but threatened retaliatory trade actions. The Chinese respond that their products have been the victim of unfair trade actions.

In the Philippines in July, a state-owned Chinese company threatened to sue for defamation after the Philippine government released a public warning saying a popular brand of candy was contaminated with formaldehyde. In Hong Kong, China pushed the territory to reconsider its recall of toothpaste contaminated with a chemical that other countries said might be poisonous but that China argued was present at levels safe for human consumption. It then ordered Hong Kong to submit a report on how and why it called back the toothpaste.

In Malaysia, a ban on fungus-infested nuts and dried fruit with a carcinogenic sweetener from China was met with a Chinese alert on litchi-flavored yogurt from Malaysia that it said didn't meet labeling requirements.

Malaysia has long had a history of food safety issues with Chinese products. With each alert from Malaysia, the Chinese Embassy requests an explanation. "When they call us, we have to accept they are coming to us," said Abdul Rahim Mohamad, director of food safety and quality at Malaysia's Health Ministry.

Chinese food-safety officials argue that the recalls and bans by other countries amount to technical trade barriers that attempt to legitimize what would otherwise be unfair trade practices.

"I don't really believe that Chinese products fail to meet their basic standards. That's not true. There is competition between Chinese products and those from their countries," said Gao Yongfu, a law professor who is the assistant to the president of the Shanghai World Trade Organization Affairs Consultation Center.

This is a powerful argument in Asia, where many countries are not only big customers of China but also its competitors. Last week, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in a meeting in Manila, agreed to strengthen product standards by increasing communication.

The food-safety conflicts in Asia provide a window into how big a role science, or standards, play in trade politics.

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