Don’t forget to brush with antifreeze, Jimmy!

May 22, 2007, 7:23 PM UTC
Fortune


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Capitalism is a hard system to learn. For a lesson in some developmental issues newly emerging free-market economies may face, it’s possible one may be required simply to think about China for a few moments.

Before we do, I hasten to state that all the parties involved in the issues I’m about to raise deny any wrongdoing and may, in fact, be totally innocent of anything other than bad marketing, bad luck or bad press.

But those who enjoy spotting trends and patterns in the chaotic world around us may at least pause for a moment at this conceptual kiosk.  

For a long time, it’s been clear that, when it comes to intellectual property rights, the Chinese are as communal as an ashram of Internet hipsters. The content belongs to the people. Right on. Like that.

Then came the whole tainted pet food thing, in which once again, it appears, subject to further investigation, a Chinese entity is implicated. Who would make the decision to ship a non-edible substance as a way of cutting down the cost of fabricating dog food? Someone lacking in judgment, perhaps? A mistake, possibly. A person under a lot of pressure to make the third quarter numbers, maybe? The kind of pressure we don’t know about over here, even on Madison Avenue?

Now today’s New York Times reports that Chinese authorities are investigating whether some companies there loaded a toothpaste meant for children with diethylene glycol, which is a component in antifreeze and is poisonous to everyone but cars. More than 36,000 tubes of Mr. Cool Junior in bubble gum and strawberry flavors have been seized by the Dominican Republic. Tubes found in Panama reportedly contain nearly 5% antifreeze. What could be the explanation for that? Someone who doesn’t know the difference between glycerine and diethylene glycol, a guy suffering from some rare form of dyslexia? A badly-communicated order to an underling striving to do six jobs at once? Interestingly, the Mr. Cool Junior has yet to turn up in the United States, having been sent at this point mostly to Latin America. So somebody was clearly thinking about distribution issues and possible consequences. Or maybe not. Sometimes, you know, it’s tough to keep things straight when you’re busy.

To their credit, the Chinese authorities in all cases are in the lead in all investigations, but it just makes you sort of wonder, doesn’t it?

Every business climate has its egregious miscreants. Here in the United States, we produce Lays and Kozlowskis and a foreign policy machine that seems to upset a lot of people around the world. The French sell just about anything to anybody willing to pay the price, and I’m not talking about mustard. The Russians put the occasional isotope in cream-of-mushroom soup and have passed a law legalizing certain forms of assassination on foreign soil. Africa is full of children killing children. So sanctimonious finger pointing is uncalled for.

Still… children’s toothpaste?