“According to the Xinhua news agency, in the first seven months of this year, 3631 small scale enterprises producing toys mainly for the US market have closed down due to a decline in the demand for China-made toys from the US. These enterprises… constituted 52.7 per cent of all toy-making companies in China— Source “South China Morning Post” and AFP.” (South Asia Analysis Group)
China’s 2007 lead toy scandal, its 2007 diethleyne glycol poisoning scandal, and its melamine in milk scandal all highlight problems of accountability in China’s sourcing system, as well as the dangers of unsupervised small (and often-times unbranded and therefore often unaccountable) producers whose goods are purchased by players higher up the value chain.
The fallout from these negative news stories might have some chance of encouraging greater CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) in the industries affected, but in a decelerating economy, it seems unlikely that Chinese companies will choose increased quality and differentiation practices rather than cost-focused strategies.
However, if the companies do have cash, they might see benefits in investing in something other than labor which has become more protected and expensive due to China’s 2008 Labor Law. Supply-chain management, RFID tagging, and greater computerization and modernization of systems can do much to raise accountability that retailers, such as Wal-Mart are increasingly demanding.
What does China Need to Ensure Quality?
* “No law places clear responsibility on food enterprises for the production of safe products,” according to a UN Report (AP, Oct 08). “[R]esponsibility for food and drug safety [as of 2007] involve[d] as many as 17 government agencies, ranging from the Ministry of Health, which sets hygienic standards, to the Public Security Bureau, which has power to investigate criminal cases” (NYT, July 07).
* Stronger oversight and more accountable expert-overseers. Increased cadre-responsibility.
* Allowing less restricted news reporting on real scandals. Permit people to spread information in an uncensored way about which foods are damaged and which are not.
* China could benefit from better tort laws that allow people to directly sue companies for damages. This will reduce the likelihood that a “big brother” government bureaucrat protects and enables some exploitative factory owners who are good friends of people in the overseeing administrative agencies (See Note 1).
* Consolidation in factories and in agriculture. The new Farm Land-Use Law might encourage and promote this chance for Chinese producers to move along the value curve and achieve greater economies of scale. The average Chinese farm has less than two acres (WSJ), and in total there are about 200 million farms (NYT). “China [also] has around 450,000 registered enterprises engaged in food production and processing but most — about 350,000 — employ just 10 people or fewer.” (AP and NYT).
* Greater business investment in technology and modern agricultural and manufacturing practices. The big players, the Lenovos, Haiers, Galanzes, etc. already recognized the value of modernity. It’s time other less-modern economic sectors caught up.
Mixed Results With A Slowing Economy
China’s economic growth is slowing to around 9-9.5% this year, and its economy may only grow at 8.5% next year; however, if it can achieve that growth, the country will continue to have vibrant industries. The more efficient and better capitalized export manufacturers will survive in a low-priced commodity world (less than $100 oil) since the China Price continues to be relatively low despite imposition of new labor and environmental laws.
Will the better capitalized and managed export manufacturers take this downturn as a chance to invest in capital improvements to increase quality and efficiency? Will they drive down costs not by racing to the bottom and paying workers less, but by hiring fewer workers and improving the manufacturing process?
Sometimes there is great pressure for companies, especially state owned companies to value employment over efficiency. However, the January 2008 labor law, which makes it more difficult to lay off workers, may encourage companies to draft strategic plans based around equipment rather than manpower.
It is difficult to generalize about the overall Chinese manufacturing economy, but previously when market forces encouraged chaff to be weeded due to oversupply, as documented in Donald Sull’s excellent book “Made in China,” more quality-conscious manufacturers emerged.
Sull described how the white goods giants Haier and Galanz emerged from a crowded field of hundreds of low-quality manufacturers back in the 1980s and early 1990s. Both decided their product strategy would be differentiation. They made higher-end, defect-free goods and improved their production processes.
Through investment and consolidation with some well-positioned competitors during supply-glut-driven downturns, both companies gained success and dominated their markets. The lesson learned by them, and taught to other Chinese entrepreneurs through books and lectures is clear; quality sells, and accountability and branding ultimately leads to greater success than anonymity and “selfish-off-the-books, off-the-records and under-the-table economic safety”.
Quality appears to be the route to success for Chinese businesses. China Journal pointed out on Oct. 27th that “in marked contrast to the firm’s survey of American consumers, who ranked price as a top concern, Chinese consumers place greater emphasis on service,” perhaps because they have been “burned” too many times before by faulty merchandise. American consumers can afford to value price over quality because American goods (arguably) are safe if they are sold– in China that is not always the case. With discretionary income comes greater sophistication and value of “quality” over “cheapness.”
While in China (before the melamine issue blew up), I attended a lecture and spoke with Xu Erming, a deputy dean at Renmin in which he discussed Chinese dairy manufacturing, consolidation, and improvement of quality milking procedures. Despite the recent scandals, it is important to realize that milk’s quality and quantity ballooned exponentially since the late 1990s when cows were not even healthy enough to be milked en-masse. Product pipeline oversight today is much better than even five years ago. With time, consolidation, investment in capital expenditures for tracking the product, and increasing sophistication (agricultural and business-wise), China’s industries will increasingly see quality improvements.
Successful Chinese industries will move down the path of accountability simply to survive as labor costs increase. The “easy” and “dumb” money in China has already been made; real Chinese entrepreneurs realize the need for quality and will increasingly work toward increasing it.
Are Western Companies Also At Fault?
Blame for poor quality does not rest on Chinese manufacturers alone, so it is important to examine more globalized trends that can help China’s product quality improve. As foreign purchasers realize they need to spend more money to get quality in order to avoid recalls and negative publicity, they will create a system (as Wal-Mart has) where they do not encourage producers to indiscriminately cut costs.
Or, poor quality toy makers will depart for elsewhere in Southeast Asia where labor regulations may not be as stringent. Still, it is likely many toy manufacturers will remain in China since elsewhere there are more severe difficulties in stability, resources, economies of scale, and infrastructure.
Quality in China’s industries depends on foreign companies’ oversight as well as internal regulatory measures. Scandals hopefully will result in less cost-cutting since few companies want the negative publicity and customer shyness that accompanies scandals.
The ultimate future of China’s quality is murky. A sudden policy turnaround favoring uncensored news reporting seems unlikely, and development of class-action tort damages is even less likely since to allow mass lawsuits would be much too similar to Beijing tacitly approving “mass incidents” which challenge the government’s legitimacy.
However, consolidation of industries, self-regulation by foreign purchasers, and greater funding and improvement of government regulation does seem likely in the next one to two years.
Ultimately, systemic problems affecting Chinese quality will continue to plague certain low-margin parts of China’s industries, but China appears to be taking practical steps to resolving shortfalls in its quality-control systems.
Note 1: I agree that the “Chinese” solution of the government doling out compensation can rectify some damage. However, if the “Chinese characteristics” of a society are to be respected at the same time Justice is ensured, the government needs to rectify bureaucracies and hold people accountable to encourage others to proactively comply with regulations.
Mere ex-post administrative oversight may catch some culprits, but could just as easily protect other culprits who have better connections, better guanxi, better friends in the regulatory system.
Additionally, bringing government-pursued cases into the sunshine of public oversight will do much to ensure that the Chinese people can see justice is being pursued and that the Party truly cares about their interests.