Mattel and China Differ on Apology

Thomas A. Debrowski, left, a Mattel executive vice president, meets with China's product-safety chief Li Changjiang to discuss toy-safety issues.
Thomas A. Debrowski, left, a Mattel executive vice president, meets with China's product-safety chief Li Changjiang to discuss toy-safety issues. (By Andy Wong -- Associated Press)
By Renae Merle and Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 22, 2007

After weeks of uproar and suspicion about the safety of Chinese-made products, an executive of the Mattel toy company met with China's top product safety official yesterday to issue an apology. Just what the apology meant, however, was caught up in translation.

Mattel says that Thomas A. Debrowski, its executive vice president for worldwide operations, was in Beijing to repeat what the company had already said in Europe and the United States, that it was sorry for the recall of millions of toys, and that it was doing all it could to prevent further problems.

The Chinese press heard it differently. The state-run New China News Agency said Debrowski "apologized personally Friday to a senior Chinese official for the massive recall of Made-in-China toys due to design flaws committed by itself." Other media outlets said Debrowski apologized for harming the reputation of Chinese firms.

To an American ear, the news agency reports sounded as if Debrowski was making an apology for any blame placed on China.

In the United States, however, Mattel said in a statement that some reports of the meeting had been "mischaracterized."

When Debrowski said, "Mattel takes full responsibility for these recalls and apologizes personally to you, the Chinese people, and all of our customers who received the toys," the company said he was telling Chinese product safety chief Li Changjiang what had been said elsewhere, including that a majority of the problems had been associated with design issues, not Chinese manufacturers.

The majority of Mattel's recalls, 17.4 million units, were associated with the firm's long-standing problem of strong magnets falling out of toys and endangering children who could swallow them, Mattel said in a statement. The rest, 2.2 million, Mattel blamed on Chinese firms that used lead-based paint, which is prohibited in the United States.

Mattel, of course, has every interest in maintaining a good relationship with China, even as it must shore up the confidence of its customers. The El Segundo, Calif., toymaker receives 65 percent of its toys from China and has made significant financial investments in the Asian country. Mattel's stock closed yesterday at $23.94 per share, up 38 cents.

The recall of nearly 20 million Chinese-made toys, including some Big Bird and Elmo products, and Barbie accessories came at a sensitive time. Chinese products had already had plenty of negative publicity, starting with the recall of tainted dog food, followed by recalls of toothpaste and then seafood with a banned antibiotic. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission yesterday added Chinese-made cribs to the list, announcing the recall of 1 million of the products that pose a suffocation hazard. The crib problems were not linked to Chinese manufacturing but to design flaws. Still, the words "Made in China" were reported.

The recalls have led to a series of congressional hearings where China, along with U.S. regulators, were cast in a negative light. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) has proposed suspending imports of food and toys from China. "There has been a cascade and that's caused a U.S. consumer perception crisis of China, not all of it justified," said Drew Thompson, director of China studies at the Nixon Center.

"China has received a lot of blame for the recalls in the West," said Hari Bapuji, assistant professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada and lead author of the report, "Toy Recalls -- Is China the Problem?" "They do have problems, there is no doubt. But I think the blame they received was larger than their share of their responsibility for the problem."

In an earlier statement in China, Mattel had said that its recalls for lead-based paint had been "overly inclusive" and included toys that met U.S. standards. A Mattel spokesman could not say how many of the toys did not need to be recalled.

Mattel is "dependent on Chinese industrial capacity for its toys," said Eric Johnson, a management professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, who has studied the toy industry's migration to China. "They have significant investment of their own capital" in the country "and don't want to lose it. I suspect that Mattel has a vested interest in expanding into the Chinese market as well."

The news agency report was the latest in a series of statements from the Chinese government that suggest a new public relations strategy is underway that plays up evidence China was being treated unfairly. On Sept. 7, for example, after a meeting between Indonesian and Chinese officials over Chinese candy that allegedly contained excessive levels of formaldehyde, China said, "Indonesian authorities yesterday acknowledged that formaldehyde exists naturally in food" and regretted its earlier criticism. In turn, China promised to re-evaluate its decision to ban Indonesian seafood.

The prospect of a potential Mattel apology to China was criticized by some in Congress. "While I'm not going to argue with a U.S. company's apology for recent toy recalls, most would agree that China should be apologizing as well to consumers around the world for exporting shoddy products and dangerous food," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has been critical of China's regulatory and export systems.

By emphasizing a public apology by Mattel, China gains a public relations advantage, experts said. "This is all about saving face and a private apology wouldn't have done that for China. They really needed this public apology," Johnson said.

Correspondent Ariana Eunjung Cha in Shanghai contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company