What China Needs is a Ralph Nader

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 20:35
Posted in category The Big Picture

Now, before anyone bemoans the role that Ralph NAder played in Florida 8 years ago, the article China says dairy firm knew of toxic milk for months highlights the need in China for a consumer advocate who can catalyze and rehaul the way that product failures in China reported, managed, and prevented.

According to the article:

Sanlu Group, the dairy firm first found to be selling melamine-contaminated goods, began receiving complaints of sick children as early as last December, state television said, citing a cabinet probe.

and this is where a Nader would come in.

Rather than send their complaints to the company, where they could be buried for almost a year, a consumer rights organizationbetter business bureauCDC – or other party would be able to look into the problem as a third party to ensure that consumer health and safety would be protected.

It is a step that the US and other countries have all taken as part of their development, and as SEPA gained ministerial status following the Wuxi algae incident, I feel that this case will catalyze a similar process at the highest levels of China’s central party.

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8 Responses to “What China Needs is a Ralph Nader”

  1. Richard Gould says:

    September 23rd, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    Rule of law would be good, too. Imagine the amount of lawsuits that would be flying if this happened in the U.S. I heard there’s a class action lawsuit pending in Beijing–if that succeeds, it will be a huge step in the right direction for China.

  2. Rich says:

    September 24th, 2008 at 12:08 am

    Richard,

    I am not a lawyer, so perhaps I am not able to answer this in the best way… but they have rule of law. What is missing is enforcement of law, but more to the point, the mechanism by which problems/ issue are identified is also weak.

    Were the consumers from last December able to go to a third party, then that party could (1) alert officials to the problems – and thus catalyze the laws related to public safety and food contamination (2) Catalyze public awareness to ensure that others did not purchase the goods.

    We will see what takes place over the next 3-4 weeks (sure to be a very public showing), but my guess is that in addition to seeing milk executives being held accountable publicly.. I would also venture to say that a new “system” will be announced as well.

    they have allowed Ma Jun to load a map of China’s air/ water polluters, and I will be interested to see if a website (like the one the US created for imported goods) will be launched… it could have huge implications for the future.

    of course – another key area will also be the class action suits, and the pressure of the courts, and I will look forward to seeing if the Beijing suit gains support. this step could really have implications for the future.

    R

  3. Tim says:

    September 24th, 2008 at 12:58 am

    Rich,
    China has a ‘Rule by Law’ tradition that is, in some areas moving towards ‘Rule of Law’. The difference being that under Rule by Law, the government uses laws as a mechanism to impose its authority. Under Rule of Law the government is not above the law. Unfortunately, the Judiciary still takes a back seat to the government here. Enforcement is a problem as well but that is a different issue.
    http://www.oycf.org/Perspectives/5_043000/what_is_rule_of_law.htm (may need a proxy)
    http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/ID18Ad01.html
    I’d agree that the country needs third party consumer groups, but a mature and independent judiciary, and the willingness and capability to enforce laws, would need to be in place first before 3rd parties would be very effective, especially since neither the state of local governments like third party watchdogs such as independent unions or consumer groups (they do exist in China but they are not independent).

  4. Rich says:

    September 24th, 2008 at 1:18 am

    Tim,

    All fair points, however I think that in China a third party (if it were considered given a level of legitimacy and was viewed as credible) could be effective in a case like this just in providing a place for people to lodge complaints that could then be investigated… and then (depending on the investigation) elevated to the proper authorities.

    Keep in mind that the best groups for this would have to be (1) independent of everyone (2) credible in the eyes of consumers (3) trusted by government agencies

    It is something we are seeing in the environmental and labor sector through NGOs, and even without full judiciary support things are changing. Still a long way to go…. but steps in the right direction.

    Anyway – what is a good proxy these days? my favorites have been knocked out.

    R

  5. Richard Gould says:

    September 24th, 2008 at 5:59 am

    Rich–

    I’m not a lawyer either. In my admittedly limited knowledge of recent Chinese case law, I am not aware of too many successful class action suits filed against Chinese companies within the PRC. Anyone have any insight there?

    As far as a consumer rights’ group–I agree that this would be beneficial. Consumers certainly need someone to lobby on their behalf, especially when the government clearly drops the ball on quality control inspections (or decides that certain companies should be “exempt”).

    Couple that with a strong, independent judiciary and it would make for a much better system. I believe Mr. Nader first began drawing attention to the issue of car safety after investigating a slate of lawsuits filed against Chevrolet

    A free and independent media plays a role here too, but that is another issue.

    As far as proxies, try setting up Jondos or Tor–sort of hassle but access is consistent.

  6. Rich says:

    September 24th, 2008 at 8:51 am

    Richard.

    Agree on the role of media, and I think a lot of steps in that area have been taken (Wuxi, Xiamen, Chengdu, etc all saw open local coverage). Maybe a more investigative reporting is still in need though??

    Jondos. thanks!

    R

  7. Dan says:

    September 26th, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    The problem is that even when plaintiff’s win in cases like those which may be brought against Sanlu, the amount they win is so small, relatively, that in many instances, the company derives greater economic benefits by producing unsafe product. Of course that is not the case with Sanlu, which is almost certainly never going to recover, but damage like that is still pretty rare.

  8. David says:

    September 30th, 2008 at 6:27 am

    Is there such a thing as a Chinese “Consumer Reports” magazine or website in China. While this does not fill the role of advocacy or certification, it could provide trusted transparency in terms of product quality, etc.