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Brand China's Trial

October 20, 2008

Jayshree Bajoria
Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)
October 17, 2008
Chinese parents holding their children who were fed tainted milk wait
for examinations at a hospital in Suzhou City, China. (Imaginechina via AP)

 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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