Has there ever been a more unifying moment in American history than the great Aqua Dots Crisis of 2007? If there is any single consumer product that can shore up American solidarity, surely it is a Chinese-made date-rape-drug-infused toy. Not much else—save, perhaps, a Duncan Hunter candidacy—can bring together sexual moralists, anti-consumerists, protectionists, anti-sweatshop activists, China hawks, buy-local-environmentalists, and legions of suburban parents.
There was always something about neon-colored fusible beads that screamed “hard drugs,” but it turns out we have an anthropomorphic wooden train and a defecating plastic dog to fear as well. If you’re old enough to own a lead-coated Press-n-Go Elmo, you’ve been informed that a dark entity dubbed “China” is hawking poisoned playthings at your local toy store. As of December, Mattel executives had asked for millions of their toys back.
We may not all perform the same pageants or sing the same carols in this fragmented age, but we’re all exposed to remarkably similar newscasts that limn the perils of Holiday shopping. On camera this Christmas season, reasonable-sounding American consumers regularly express a desire to avoid inadvertently killing their children. They seem alarmed, but considerably less alarmed than, say, the people interviewing them. “A parent has to be scared right now to buy anything!” exclaims Lou Dobbs at the end of a five minute segment that, incidentally, sets shots of a toy store against Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue.”
If you’re inclined to confuse peaceful exchange with forceful invasion, China’s domination of the toy industry will indeed seem alarming. Between 70 and 80 percent of toys sold in America pass through China. An analysis by Canadian economists Hari Bapuji and Paul Beamish found that as of September .05 percent of these Chinese-made toys had been recalled. That’s a lot of toys, and it is an increase even when considered in the context of the increase in Chinese toy imports overall. But it’s also a smaller percentage of toys than was recalled from non-China countries as of September, according to the same analysis. Bapuji and Beamish find that 0.7 percent of non-Chinese toy imports were recalled, many from countries far less likely to be demonized, such as India and South Korea.
Can only Westerners be trusted? Hardly; nearly three-quarters of the toy recalls are attributable to American and European designs. The Barbie and Tanner toy mentioned above, for example, features a plastic dog that defecates after a child stuffs putty-like biscuits into its front orifice. Barbie’s pooper scooper harbors a small magnet between pieces of blue plastic. The magnets, which can cause severe intestinal damage if swallowed in multiples, are a component of the directions Mattel gave the factories with which it contracted. Blaming China for these flaws is something like blaming an ugly building on a bricklayer.
The concerns about lead paint, by contrast, are directly attributable to factories in Guangdong. But even here, blaming “China” evokes a Fisher-Price vision of a world delineated into brightly colored, non-overlapping geometric shapes. As Hasbro CEO Alan Hassenfeld puts it, “Companies manufacture, import and sell products; countries do not.” To take just Mattel’s August 2 recall of Fisher-Price toys contained dangerous amounts of lead, the factory that Mattel dealt with directly—Lee Der Industrial—appears to be honest. The paint suppliers Lee Der contracted with also appear to be honest. The culprit was three links down the chain, involving a crooked supplier of pigment to one of the paint companies supplying Lee Der. Brands lost touch with their complex supply chains. The trail of guilt runs along those chains, and does not extend far beyond them.
Pundits have pointed out that kids would have to suck on a Polly Pocket for an exceedingly long time to get seriously sick from low levels of lead paint. But Aqua Dots have rendered children seriously ill, and parents are obviously right to be discerning about the products they put in the way of kids whose M.O. involves shoveling vinyl Dora the Explorer figurines down their throats. Extreme risk aversion it may be, but risk aversion is a luxury of a wealthy society. This is less a story of overreacting helicopter dads than one of economic nationalism run rampant.
“Before it’s a marketplace, Mr. CEO, [America] is a nation,” Lou Dobbs sputtered in October. But the marketplace is both bigger and smaller than America. It’s a nexus of individuals and firms existing over and above a system of nations, which makes it difficult to blame 1.3 billion individuals for a lead-covered plastic truck simply because they live on the same contiguous territory. Beijing may not be hosting the games until next year, but it’s always the Olympics in Lou Dobbs’ head: A blond, blue-eyed athlete decked out in stars and stripes wrestling with a wily, insidious Fu Manchu.
As with other goods they are instructed to avoid, like video games and explicit music, parents seem capable of assessing potential harm for their children. Worldwide, Guangdong exports dropped in September and rebounded in November, when the slew of recalls started to slow. Perhaps parents feel comforted by Mattel’s promise to check every batch of toys, the Toys “R” Us pledge to retest products on toy shelves, or the vague awareness that more than 99 percent of toys from China have emerged untainted.
Or perhaps they’re just keeping track of the body count. As of December, Mattel’s recalls had claimed a single life: the 52-year-old Zhang Shuhong, owner of Lee Der Industial, who hanged himself in August.
Kerry Howley is a senior editor at Reason.