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'Brand China' on Trial

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
October 17, 2008


From the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 to the dazzling Beijing Olympic venues of 2008, the improvement in China's global image has been stunning. China impressed the world further in September when it became only the third country in the world to complete a spacewalk (AFP). But amid such successes, the "Made in China" brand has also taken some blows. Milk contaminated (BBC) with the industrial chemical melamine has killed four infants and made more than fifty thousand babies in China ill. The European Union banned Chinese baby food with milk traces, while several multinational food groups have issued product recalls (FT). The Economist notes the latest scandal is an embarrassment to China's leaders. CFR China expert Jerome A. Cohen writes in the South China Morning Post that the scandal has left a sour taste for foreign investors.

China's success in manufacturing has determined its place in the world, wrote James Fallows of the Atlantic in July 2007. But following a series of reports about lax safety, China's factories now threaten the country's image. The most troubling cases involve lead in toys; contamination in the drug heparin, a blood thinner; melamine in pet food; and pesticide in frozen dumplings. The Chinese government has taken several steps to improve product safety. In July 2007 the government executed the food and drug agency chief, who was convicted of accepting bribes in exchange for letting fake medicine into the market. A draft food-safety law, which promises tougher penalties, including possible life imprisonment for makers of unsafe products, is under consideration in China's legislature.

As China has risen on the world stage, it has developed what some experts call a brand of authoritarian capitalism, and is now competing with U.S. and European liberal democratic models. Some academics, like Kishore Mahbubani of the National University of Singapore, argue that with the West increasingly seen as incompetent (ForeignAffairs) in handling key global issues, countries like China are raising their profile. At a CFR meeting in June, James K. Glassman, U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, said the China model is attractive in places like Africa, and countries like Vietnam, "because it allows people in power to stay in power by making people happy on the economic side, and yet keeping a lid on the freedom side."

Rights watchdogs have accused the Chinese government of heavy-handedness in the way it deals with separatists in the autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. That, and its periodic tough posture with Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province, undermines Beijing's attempt to cast its dramatic emergence as a "peaceful rise." In particular, China's dispute with Taiwan prompts conflict with the United States, including a recent threat by Beijing to cut some military ties (Telegraph) with the United States in protest over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

China's leaders have sought to emphasize that they still need to sort out many domestic issues. In a recent interview on CNN, Premier Wen Jiabao said China "remains a developing country" with the problem of unbalanced development among different regions and between China's urban and rural areas. Yet human rights groups remain concerned about the government's clampdown on freedoms; Human Rights Watch says the hosting of the games was a setback for the respect of human rights in China. But Chinese officials say they remain committed to human rights. In a Washington Times op-ed, Helle Dale of the Heritage Foundation, argues that embracing democracy would change China's image and allow the "talents, strengths, and ingenuity of the Chinese people to flourish freely."

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