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Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2007

Scaremongering about China, as usual


LOS ANGELES — It might almost seem like a game of geopolitical chicken: How far can we go in creating monstrous new fears about China?

We only have to turn the clock back to realize what is happening. The year was 1999, when the Cox Report on Chinese Espionage made red-letter headlines in the United States. The Chinese allegedly were spying everywhere, stealing U.S. technology for warheads and nuclear weapons. That China-born (or maybe just Chinese) lab assistant is probably working for Beijing intelligence. Better get an FBI man on him!

It was a pretty good gig for the U.S. news media. It took longer than I expected for cooler heads to prevail. Today, thankfully, even some of the marquee members of the Cox Commission sadly realize that they were being used for crass political purposes and that the whole deal was the hype of all hypes.

Yes, "Red" China spies on us — and we spy on them. The French spy on us, and we spy on the French. Israel has been known to spy on us, and we spy on Iran. And every nation in the world is spying on someone or other. Let's grow up.

The latest China scare has been of a less technological and a more family-oriented nature. People can easily understand toys lathered over with lead paint. Then there's foul seafood that isn't fit to be eaten even by fish. And then there are allegations about Chinese tires that are bummers and toothpaste that's not fit for human gums — and so on.

Alas, we haven't arrived at the end of the allegation-stream yet. Just the other day came reports of Chinese hacking into Pentagon computers. Exactly who the alleged hackers were in China and what the hack attacks were designed to garner remains vague, to say the least.

And what else are they hacking into these days? Your very private e-mail to a loved one, or our Visa and Mastercard accounts?

The thing about a scare is that it almost always provides very little fact or perspective. Whether it's the red scare under Joseph McCarthy, or the Cox Commission spy scare, or the seafood and Mattel scare today, there is so much media smoke, you can barely breathe, much less think clearly.

Before long, sensible observers will point out that every country tries to hack into the computers of perceived enemies and even friends. We should accept as a fact that the Pentagon and/or the National Security Agency has been doing a nifty number on Chinese military and government computers. (If they haven't, someone should be fired tomorrow!)

Don't get me wrong: Product safety and national security are important issues, not jokes for a comedy show. Every effort — on both sides of the Pacific — must be made to ensure acceptable quality standards. But tension always exists, especially in market societies, between the manufacturer and the place of sale. Safety specialists want quality as high as possible. Big companies want the profit margin as big as possible. There is always going to be a conflict of interests between these two goals.

That's where government should come in. The private sector — the retailers in the U.S. and the manufacturers in China, for example — should practice ethical business conduct, and many of them do. But not all will. What's essential therefore is good governance; we will always need it, for there is no bargain toy or free lunch if the toy is going to give up little parts that your kid can choke on or if the lunch is inedible.

Price is not everything. The Chinese, in their enormous export efforts of the past 10 years, have made a significant contribution not only to their own economy (by creating jobs) but to ours (by keeping prices and thus inflation down). Now is the time to add quality control, and that entails new costs.

There is no free government inspector, there is no free lead-free paint, and there is no nicely priced catfish if it is unfit to eat. The Chinese, for their part, seem to have recognized the grave stakes involved in looking unconcerned. They are reacting, but they could use more help, more sympathy and more cooperation from the U.S.

This means less politicking, less hysteria, less hack politics. It would be very sad to see the superpower of the 20th century and the potential next superpower of the 21st century going separate ways because of yet another unneeded China scare.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a veteran journalist and author, most recently, of "Confessions of an American Media Man."

Copyright 2007 Tom Plate


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