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article imageChina introduces product recall system in record time

By Paul Wallis     Aug 31, 2007 in Business
China has moved very fast to get its product quality regulations operational. The recent plague of problems with unsafe or toxic exports has been a severe reality check for Beijing.
It’s also been a profoundly embarrassing, infuriating, experience for a nation trying to build on its successes, and a real danger to trade.
China’s executive government has been trying to defend China’s exports publicly, but the Chinese press has been full of some very irritated high level comments. The problems were created by genuine ineptitude in the production process, and the domestic part of this exercise relates to ensuring that producers know they aren't exactly being "asked" to clean up their act.
The provisions of the new regulations would be familiar to most Westerners. It’s clear that some standard practices have been adopted, which will be a relief to businesses wondering if they would have to become familiar with yet another national set of laws. The regulations are apparently thorough, and impose a requirement for timely notification and investigation of product safety and quality issues.
The speed of the reforms is something new. According to Xinhua, there was a news release on a white paper regarding food safety on August 17. On August 27 the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) announced the promulgation of regulations for food and product safety. In the period between those dates a national campaign to improve the quality of goods and food safety was introduced at Cabinet level.
(The Xinhua piece has the articles relating to this regulatory world speed record attempt on the same page, below the main article.)
Those familiar with the bureaucratic process will be aware that this is an incredible speed for action at executive government level. In fact, it’s been so fast that the notification process in quality control doesn’t yet have a formal method for notification. That means that what qualifies as a legally acceptable “notification” can be disputed, but the intention of the regulation is quite clear.
(Actually that sort of ambiguity might be intentional: what qualifies as proper notification could be quite relevant in a prosecution. A phone call, for example, wouldn't be a real notification. Producers would probably have to make a documented notification to support any claim they were complying with the regulations. )
The antithesis of a competent reaction to these very serious problems would have been a lengthy bickering between vested interests, and a show of great indignation at any suggestion there was a problem. China has been doing a lot of trade-related legislation lately, and somebody has definitely put their foot on the accelerator.
The scope of this regulatory regime is massive. As the head of AQSIQ said, the recall systems are “common international practice”, but “supplementing” of a legal framework which failed to achieve anything of note in the many incidents of unsafe goods and food is debatable.
The Xinhua article mentions that the government took its actions regarding the product recall after major international and domestic concerns about frequent problems with product safety and quality. Actually there haven’t been too many reports of Chinese domestic concerns, in fact I don’t recall seeing one. Possibly a slip of the text, there.
As a long time watcher of China and a slightly obsessive Sinophile, it occurs to me that the old style PRC was rarely capable of anything resembling prompt action at executive level. The Cold War era cadres were far more verbose than effective. Anything resembling competence, let alone efficiency, was largely illusory.
Speeches supporting and defending the glorious decision to build a new tractor could take weeks, usually while people starved. It is not anything like an overstatement to say that dogmatic ideological speeches in China could literally bore rocks to death, in their heyday. Rhetoric has probably killed more people in China than anywhere else on Earth, historically. Even the Cultural Revolution was as much a gabfest as a bloodbath.
Now, national regulations for the whole of China’s industrial and agricultural production are happening in less than a month. This level of government efficiency is something quite new. If all of this regulation is effective and does what it’s supposed to do, it’s something miraculous. One of my theories about China is that it’s long overdue for a brilliant period in its history.
Another is that Machiavelli wouldn’t have got a job sweeping streets in old China, because he’d have been far too predictable.
We will see what this new approach can achieve, one way or another. I hope, for everyone’s sake, that it does work. While we’re waiting, why don’t we see what our own saintly, tax-fearing, producers have been doing? China isn’t the only country selling substandard goods.
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