Sidney Hill, Jr.: China PR: a heck of a job

The United States has long had what I consider a strange relationship with China. For decades, American consumers have gorged on goods made in China because the prices are low in comparison to similar items produced in other countries. Many U.S.-based manufacturers also rely on Chinese companies to supply them with parts or raw materials, or even to produce finished goods on their behalf.
By Sidney Hill, Jr., executive editor August 1, 2007

The United States has long had what I consider a strange relationship with China. For decades, American consumers have gorged on goods made in China because the prices are low in comparison to similar items produced in other countries.

Many U.S.-based manufacturers also rely on Chinese companies to supply them with parts or raw materials, or even to produce finished goods on their behalf.

While all this has gone on, our government has continuously criticized the Chinese government about how it treats its citizens—particularly the way it allegedly harasses, imprisons, tortures, or even murders people who protest certain government policies.

But something happened earlier this summer that, in my opinion, adds another level of strangeness to this relationship.

On July 10, the Chinese government executed the former head of the agency that regulates its food and drug industries. Zeng Xiaoyu was convicted of taking the equivalent of $850,000 (U.S.) in bribes for allowing numerous products—many of them medicines—to hit the market without proper testing.

The amount of money involved here is a pittance in comparison to the millions stolen in various corporate scandals in this country. It’s clear, however, that the Chinese government wasn’t just punishing a rogue bureaucrat. It was sending a message to the rest of the world—particularly the American and European consumers who are the biggest buyers of Chinese goods—that it was cracking down on the manufacture and export of substandard products.

The Chinese government also took the very Western approach of hiring Ogilvy Public Relations, an international image consulting firm, to lend advise on counteracting the recent spate of headlines concerning potentially deadly products coming from China. The goal is heading off a backlash against all Chinese goods.

Several proposals calling for trade sanctions against China are floating through the U.S. Congress. What I find surprising, however, is that there has not been a peep about the execution of the former chief of China’s State Food and Drug Administration.

Not even the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), which at one time was a vocal opponent of outsourcing production jobs to other countries, has spoken out on this issue. Jay Timmons, NAM’s senior VP of policy and government relations, did go before the Senate Commerce Committee to suggest the United States should exert pressure on China to improve product safety.

He also pointed out, however, that a healthy trading relationship with China is in both countries’ best interests. “Using safety to achieve disguised protectionist aims will undermine the seriousness of these [safety concerns] while strengthening the hands of those abroad who seek any justification for economic retaliation,” Timmons said.

He’s saying we have to be careful how we approach China about these issues because we don’t want them using anything we say or do as an excuse to prevent American companies from selling our goods in their market. That makes sense.

But doesn’t anyone think it’s appropriate to at least ask whether executing government workers is a proper response to this problem? If not, the PR agency the Chinese government hired is doing a heck of a job.