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What Are We to Make of Junky Chinese Imports?

There are a lot of things to think about, and a lot of ways to assess the stream of flawed and dangerous Chinese imports, the accumulation of which has lately captured the public and media imagination. (We touched on the issue briefly here; a new book by Sara Bongiorni, A Year Without “Made in China”: One Family’s True Life Adventure in the Global Economy, is suddenly very au courant.)

What are the big-picture thoughts to take away from this? The opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times today offer vastly divergent ideas, neither of which will be surprising to the papers’ regular readers, but which, taken together, show just how much there is to think about the China effect.

The Journal piece is by Jeremy Haft, himself the author of a new China book: All the Tea in China: How to Buy, Sell, and Make Money on the Mainland. His OpEd is called “The China Syndrome,” and its thesis is well delivered in its lead:

What could be reassuring about killer Chinese toothpaste, toys and tires? Hard to believe, but there’s a silver lining. The rash of product recalls reveals that China is not the manufacturing juggernaut we fear — and that America has an edge we tend to overlook.

Haft goes on to chronicle a variety of reasons — inefficiencies, corruption, lack of oversight, etc. — that foretell a continuing trend in Chinese trouble.

The Times piece is an unsigned editorial headlined “Killing the Regulator.” It, too, takes note of various Chinese shortcomings and it, too, searches for a silver lining in the trouble. But, instead of sounding a rallying cry for American businesses to exploit Chinese weaknesses, as the Journal piece implicitly does, the Times piece calls for more regulation — first from the U.S. side, until China gets its house in order:

What China needs is an effective and transparent regulatory system and a clear understanding that its export boom will suffer if it continues to sell tainted food, toys and toothpaste. Until that happens – and there is no guarantee that it will – American regulators will have to do more to screen Chinese imports to protect American consumers.

Whereas the Journal piece ends on an up note — “Remember, these recalls tell us as much about China as they do about America,” Haft writes. “The silver lining is our inherent strength” — the Times piece concludes with a dark, dark view of the future, courtesy of the President:

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has spent the last five-plus years emasculating the American regulatory system. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has seen its budgets repeatedly cut. The Food and Drug Administration has not received the resources it needs and today inspects only a minute share of all imported food.

It is hard to imagine anything good coming out of the China export scandals. But perhaps they will persuade Congress’s new Democratic leaders that America also needs a stronger and more transparent regulatory system.

As I’ve written before, reading the two newspapers’ opinion pages is as entertaining as listening to one of those excellent arguments that temporary husbands and wives have on Wife Swap. In this case, as least there’s a lot worth arguing over, and a lot at stake.