Take it from me, someone who lives on scene (Shanghai) and has been through scores of Chinese factories: I have no idea.


No family without its own metallurgy lab can reliably tell safe toys from risky ones. This is a useful reminder that while market forces are marvelous, they're not the answer to all problems. (Let's spell it out: a strictly market-based answer would mean waiting to see which kids got sick, hoping parents could figure out why, and assuming that their knowledge would guide future parents' purchases.) Public health regulations, enforced in both China and America, are a crucial part of the answer.


But I know who's responsible at the moment: less the Chinese manufacturers than the American "outsourcing" purchasers. China is a big, sprawling, under-regulated, and still very poor country. Its factories can produce first-rate products: if you own any hardware from Apple, Sony, Siemens, HP, Bose, or any fancy-sounding brand name, chances are it came from China.


When those products are good, that is because the brand-name company insisted that they be good. This is essentially the saga I laid out in my recent Atlantic article on Chinese factories. (Article itself subscriber-only; free slide-show here.) The companies I wrote about came to China because its suppliers were fast, and cheap. But to make their output good, the purchasers invested the necessary time, money, and effort.


Purchasers just looking for something cheap from China will get it -- cheap in every sense of the term. That's not China's fault: it's early stage industrialization. Britain's factory life was dirty, slipshod, and dangerous in Charles Dickens's era, and America's was in the day of Upton Sinclair. And, frankly, American consumers just looking for something cheap will get it too.


So avoid Chinese toys if you feel you must. But let's not make this the basis for a big fiesta of anti-China-ism. The factories here can be perfectly safe -- as the best ones are, when middlemen and consumers around the world are willing to pay the price. And before you imagine a giant Chinese plot to poison Americans, think of the people who pay the greatest personal price for unsafe food and products: the average Chinese citizens who eat and use this stuff every single day. Along with me.

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