Photo of paper
Most of the news in Beijing today focused on the Olympics, but Page A5 of the Beijing News was fully devoted to product safety. (Note the graphic in the lower right. The duck in the background signifies toys covered in lead paint.)

I’ve been paying attention over the summer to the story about tainted Chinese products, and I think it’s interesting to see how Chinese reporting contrasts with the Western news. Here’s a rundown of what I’ve noticed:

• Chinese stories about tainted food tend to focus on it as a domestic issue, alerting readers to dangers, for example. I think this is completely understandable because it’s what affects readers most. But the stories say the government has been working to address this problem for a long time — “years,” usually. This is kind of strange, because the articles touting the government regulations haven’t been around for a long time, and there obviously is still a problem. So either the government hasn’t been doing such a great job, or these efforts haven’t been considered very important until recently. Hmm.

• When the conflicts with Western countries are mentioned, it’s usually in the context of Chinese efforts to ensure product safety and punish the few bad eggs responsible for problems. Chinese media emphasize that most items coming from China are safe, whereas Western media emphasize that almost everything found to be unsafe has been made in China. In the newspapers here, the incidents involving toothpaste, medicine and the like are sometimes referred to as “alleged,” and the Western media are blamed for sensationalizing the problem. (By the way, I tend to think most of the stories in the U.S. are reasonable, but I also think some of the U.S. reporting reflects a nervousness in America about Chinese growth and our dependence on Chinese products.)

• The Chinese stories frequently are accompanied by a smaller story about some sort of tainted product coming from overseas, almost in the style of an “equal time” policy. This sort of backlash is particularly interesting, I think, in the way it affects American companies. Gregory Gilligan from McDonald’s, who spoke to us earlier this summer, said that since these scandals broke, he’s been spending a significant amount of time reminding Chinese government officials that most of the food McDonald’s uses is made in China.

Sure, I don’t have a statistical analysis of this, and my limited understanding of Chinese allows me to spot only the most obvious product-safety stories in the non-English media. But if you don’t believe me about this, you can see some English-language stories here, here, here and here.

I think this tainted-food story is a perfect microcosm of the workings of the Chinese government. Officials are panicking about the ramifications of these scandals, both in terms of business and global standing, even as they attempt to maintain secrecy and deny the very existence of serious issues. I find it fascinating. Of course, I’d find it even more fascinating if I weren’t so focused on my newfound fear of buying toothpaste.