“Amber Donnals was sitting on her porch when she heard an explosion, followed by screams. She turned to see her son, Bryan, 6, running toward her, his clothes on fire and flames shooting up at the rear of the Donnalses’ mobile home. He’d been riding his newly minted, Chinese-made ATV… when suddenly it sped up and raced out of control … The red, 110cc four-wheeler barely missed a propane tank before crashing into the trailer and catching fire.
– St. Louis Post-Dispatch”
Possibly this is the most suitable story to start a new chapter on Chinese products that Peter W. Navarro and Greg Autry could ever choose for their book “Death By China: Confronting The Dragon–A Global Call To Action.” The third chapter, titled “Death By Chinese Junk: Strangling Our Babies In Their Cribs,” provides many more appealing examples—enough to cause parents hesitation in letting their children play with dangerous Chinese toys, furniture, and more.
According to Reuters, in 2007, Mattel Inc. had to recall 1.5 million Chinese-made toys worldwide due to excessive amounts of lead contained in their paint. Lead paint, which has been associated with health problems in children, including brain damage, has been irresponsibly used for Mattel’s Fisher-Price toys, ranging from popular preschool characters like Elmo and Big Bird to dozens of other items.
If someone queries that the above cases are “stories of the past,” recent news about hundreds of toxic toys and hazardous infant walkers from China seized at Houston seaport in 2021 alerts us that the threat has never disappeared.
Current situation: ‘This is a flood’
According to a 2017 report by the U.S.-China Economic Security Review Commission (USCC), Chinese consumer exports to the United States continue to pose product safety risks. As the largest foreign supplier of consumer goods to America, China represents a disproportionate number of U.S. product recalls. In 2014, Chinese goods made up 23% of all goods in the United States under the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) jurisdiction but represented 51% of all product safety recalls posted by the CPSC. Since 2012, the majority of all CPSC-posted safety recalls have been Chinese products.
Similarly, Chinese products top the list of dangerous goods found across the European Union, reports Deutsche Welle (DW), Germany’s international broadcaster. In 2013, EU’s Consumer Policy Commissioner Neven Mimica pointed out that two-thirds of the notified products originated in China, with the rate up from 58% a year earlier.
It should be noted that the figure of unsafe Chinese products identified is possibly far less than the actual number of dangerous items successfully crossing the American or European borders. Due to the limited capacity of the U.S. safety agencies and Chinese manufacturers’ considerable resources and poor ethics, it is hardly possible to identify and prevent all defective imports or make exporters bear the responsibility in all cases.
For example, in 2015, a massive 4.5 million Chinese hoverboards entered the United States before safety standards could be drafted for these products. Many of these hoverboards caught fire, causing millions of dollars of property damage, says USCC. In addition, Taishan Gypsum, a Chinese firm associated with tainted drywall sold in the United States, evaded participation in court proceedings against it until a U.S. judge prevented it from conducting business in the United States.
Particularly regarding toys, in November 2019, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) revealed that government officials are facing a ‘flood’ of dangerously contaminated Chinese toys. Tens of millions of units were blocked from sale after tests exposed illegal levels of toxic chemicals. 88% (219 out of 248 models) came from China. Contaminated products included Halloween masks found in Germany, which strikingly contained up to 43% phthalate by weight; plastic medical play sets found in Poland; toy chemistry sets found in France and more.
These toxic toys could threaten children’s health via reproductive disorders, delayed puberty, and numerous behavioral disorders. The European Chemicals Agency concluded that the situation is not sufficiently controlled.
“Toxic toys are clearly a major problem for officials. The numbers are appalling; this is a flood. Where inspectors get the resources they need, they do a great job. But we wonder how many go undetected,” said EEB chemical policy manager Tatiana Santos.
Case study: Toxic tricycles
In their book, as mentioned earlier, Peter W. Navarro and Greg Autry show an example of the dilemma faced by American companies when doing business with Chinese manufacturers.
This so-called “Trike Story” starts following the Chinese product quality scares of 2007 when a vendor to a major urban school district decided to examine its Chinese-manufactured products. Indeed, these tests revealed the toxic tricycles that were powder-coated with paint containing a high level of lead.
“According to a purchasing manager for the company at the time, the company put a “stop ship” order on all of the products to prevent them from going out to additional customers. The company then sent out its remaining inventory to a local vendor to have the powder coating stripped from each bike and the tricycles refinished. That was exemplary corporate behavior,” stated the book.
“What was not exemplary was this “sin of omission”: According to the purchasing manager, the company failed to inform the school district of the tricycles that had already been shipped. To her knowledge, none of these bikes was ever recalled.
“In fact, a recall would have been devastatingly expensive to the vendor and damaging to the long-term customer relationship. What this story, like so many others, illustrates is that when a reputable U.S. firm goes into business with a Chinese manufacturer to save money, it will often find itself catapulted into a compromising position. At least based on this story, you shouldn’t count on American companies to always ‘do the right thing,'” the author concluded.
‘Nightmare’ working conditions at Chinese factories
Purchasing cheap Chinese products is harmful to our little children if they contain toxic elements and are sinful to Chinese workers who have to work under awful conditions.
CNBC in 2018 reported that an investigation into Chinese toy factories has alleged that workers producing toys for Hasbro, Disney, and Mattel were being subject to “nightmare” working conditions in the run-up to Christmas.
The report, titled “A Nightmare for Workers,” reveals findings from campaign groups China Labor Watch, ActionAid, CiR, and Solidar Suisse, who sent undercover investigators to four factories that supplied toys sold at Walmart, Costco, Target, and other international retailers.
Investigators found that employees were working up to 175 overtime hours per month in peak season, even though Chinese labor law restricts monthly overtime to 36 hours.
Workers were also not being provided the legally required 24-hour safety training before starting work, leaving them unaware of how to protect themselves from toxic chemicals, says CNBC. In addition, they lacked the necessary safety equipment to prevent contact with those chemicals.
According to Solidar Suisse, workers usually handled chemicals such as benzene, associated with poisoning and leukemia (i.e., a group of blood cancers that generally begin in the bone marrow and result in high numbers of abnormal blood cells).
In addition, workers were also being forced to sign blank employment contracts and were supplied poor living quarters, often housing eight people in one room with unclean facilities and no hot water.
Forced labor camps
This story is alarming but far less heartbreaking than the horrible conditions at the forced labor camps run by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Last year, because of forced labor by the CCP against Uighurs in Xinjiang Province, several major brands, including H&M, Nike, Adidas, and Burberry, expressed concerns over cotton produced in the region. This incident is new, but slave labor in China and the tactics used by the CCP to conceal it have existed for at least two decades.
According to Minghui.Org, before the collapse of the forced labor camp system in China in 2013, there were over 300 labor camps in the communist country. Over 95% of people held in the labor camps were Falun Gong practitioners who were illegally persecuted for their beliefs. More than 100,000 practitioners are kept in about 700 prisons in China.
“Nearly all detained practitioners at these facilities were forced to do slave labor. The products include all kinds of daily articles, such as toothpicks, chopsticks, medical cotton swabs, injection bags, food bags, cell phone cases, soccer balls, footballs, stamp albums, candy, moon cakes, car mats, winter coats, embroidery, leather bags, ornaments, and crafts.
“According to reports from Minghui, detained Falun Gong practitioners, from 16-year-old to 70-year-old, were forced to work somewhere between 12 and 19 hours a day. When they failed to finish their tasks on time, they had to work overtime to catch up.
“Ms. Liu Youqiing, a practitioner in her 50s, was forced to work at Wuhan Women’s Prison. She was forced to sit on a small stool unraveling fabric from morning to evening. The workload was heavy, and she could not finish even by midnight. As punishment, the guards forced her to stand about three steps away from a wall and lean against the wall supported only by her head as torture. She unraveled fabric like this for 18 days, and the guards did not let her sleep in bed even for one day.
“A lot of food products were made with slave labor. When one practitioner detained at Yunnan Women’s Labor Camp refused to process cookies, the guards asked why. She said the food produced did not meet even the most basic sanitary requirement. “Look at the bags of flour that are stacked on the ground with machines full of dust. The toilets have feces and urine all over, and one could barely go in. After using the bathroom, there are no towels to dry the hands,” she said, “If we do not want to eat these cookies ourselves, why do we want to cheat others? I am a Falun Gong practitioner following the principles of Truthfulness – Compassion – Forbearance. I cannot do that.”
“It is well known that Chinese prisons produce goods for exportation. There is hardly any cost and the labor is free. There have been reports that towels used for cleaning in funeral homes were transported to prisons to produce gloves.”
These heartbreaking stories have become more vivid to the outside world than ever after the incident of Julie Keith, a U.S. woman who discovered an SOS letter in her Halloween decorations, a gift for her daughter’s birthday party. Sun Yi, the man who wrote the letter, had been forced to manufacture polystyrene headstones in the Masanjia labor camp. “Like many others, he was forced to stand with his wrists handcuffed to a bunk bed in an effort to make him recant [Falun Gong]. However, if he fell asleep, his legs would give way, and the handcuffs would cut into him like knives,” reported BBC.
The evil cause
Learning about the terrible conditions endured by many workers fabricating Chinese export goods, it is not difficult to imagine why some Chinese employers-exporters and even rulers do not hesitate to poison American, European, and other countries’ children with toxic toys. As they do not care about their people, how could they ever care about foreigners?
Toxic products, including dangerous toys and poisonous food, have become prevalent in China. Using the words of Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party, this phenomenon “has everything to do with the single-minded pursuit of material gain that comes in the wake of the destruction of the culture and consequent degeneration of human morality.”
“Traditional culture respects life, requiring the utmost care in handling anything that involves human life. Therefore, the CCP urges that revolt is justifiable and struggling against human beings is full of joy. However, in the name of “revolution,” the Party could murder and starve tens of millions of people to death. This has led people to devalue life, which then encourages the proliferation of fake and poisonous products in the market.”
When even basic moral standards are also eroded, it is hard to believe anything declared by China’s communist officials, such as former Commerce Minister Bo Xilai, when Mattel Inc. recalled 1.5 million toxic Chinese toys (2007). According to Reuters, Bo Xilai affirmed: “Over 99% of China’s export products are good and safe.” And the Chinese authority at that time fought back against consumer concern by vowing strict quality controls and blaming foreign media for “alarmist” reporting that could stoke a protectionist backlash.
It is noteworthy that Bo Xilai was later sentenced to life in prison. The court announced that Bo was guilty of accepting bribes to the tune of 20 million yuan ($3.2 million), embezzling 5 million yuan ($816,000), and abusing his power in the case of his wife’s murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. Furthermore, according to China Tribunal, on November 11, 2009, Bo Xilai was indicted in Spain for genocide and torture of Falun Gong practitioners under the exercise of universal jurisdiction. It is thus hard to believe that this man could have been reliable and taken care of foreign children.
In conclusion, in general, Chinese toxic toys in particular and low-quality products bring health and security-related problems to consumers and challenge our moral courage. An economic benefit may drive Western companies to seek low-cost Chinese manufacturers. Still, in the long run, losses are immeasurable in terms of jobs, technology, ethics, and even human lives.