In the middle of August, Zhang Shuhong – manufacturer of dolls, hanged himself. He belonged to a division of a factory in Foshan, South China that manufactured toys for Mattel. In the middle of August Mattel recalled 18 million toys because of a defect with a small magnet piece that could become detached and hazardous if swallowed. Furthermore, on the day that Zhang Shuhong committed suicide, Mattel distributed 436,000 toy cars with lead-infected colors to businesses.
At that time, anti-globalization activists suddenly had something for the summer slump, something to raise their hand and show: money hungry multi-national companies that press global prices. They claimed that these corporations played along with the markets and made gains by compromising the security of their products, exploiting their workers, and ruining the environment. As a precaution and as a reaction to the usurpations by these corporations, some salespersons simply set aside toys made in China, and Zhang Shuhong, who produced Mattel dolls, suffered the consequences. Those opposed to Chinese made products were happy that their case for cheaply manufactured goods had been vindicated.
Last week Mattel officially apologized to the Chinese people. They claimed that the magnet defect was a result of a faulty American design, and not unsatisfactory Chinese production. Furthermore, concerning the lead-infused toy cars, Mattel claimed that the lead content probably did not exceed the prescribed American limits (The Economist, September 29th, issue S.66).
The point of the tragic story of Zhang Shuhong and the factory in China, is to understand how we think schematically and are easily manipulated into believing excuses and justifications that are widely accepted. Instead of making unjustified assumptions the basis for judgment, we should listen to all sides of the argument before coming to a final conclusion. This usually requires waiting to see how situations develop over time. Instead of relying on pedestrian Socialist materials such as “Völkische Beobachter” like the Nazis did or “Das Neue Deutschland”, we should be aware of how we analyze information presented to us.
It’s very easy to think that the Mattel recall was simply another case of “the Chinese again, as always”. We want to quickly and simply find someone to blame and condemn for failures of corporations and markets, and we live in a world where this tendency was once again clear in this situation. In the case of Mattel’s recall, the public was led by wholly superficial knowledge and brazen condemnation, and thus a conclusion was reached dishonestly and became part of a basic assumption concerning a matter in everyday life.
Another example concerns REACH, a European Community regulation on chemicals and their safe use. REACH deals with the registration, evaluation, authorization, and restriction of chemical substances. We are not concerned here whether it was good or bad to bring the program into being, as of now, this question is undecided. What concerns us more broadly is whether REACH is really a harmless policy as it has been presented.
Usually conclusions about such programs are verified through testing. Chemical tests performed on animals are supposed to determine the safety of a product based on its effect on the animal. However, tests on mice or rats apply only to mice or rats. If mice survive in satisfying percentages, then it proves only that- that when a chemical is used on a specific mice population, they survive in satisfying percentages. While these tests may be enough to convince the general public, they are simply the justification for a scientist to place himself before the camera and talk about security. People accept these slipshod studies willingly just as they willingly blamed the Mattel recalls on Chinese manufacturers. Had there been reasoned public debate or real awareness about the actual causes of the recall, the negative effects could have been lessened.