Free Trade

Patriot Games

Is all of China trying to poison American toddlers?


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.

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  1. shots of a toy store against Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue.”

    In scary D minor to boot. Keith Olberman uses the same hackneyed composition for his equally hackneyed “Worst Person In The World” segment. It’s the Old Reliable of scary music. Incidentally, all be buying all the naughty kids on my list colorful Chinese toys. Does that make me a bad uncle? I hope so. Bwaaahaha.

  2. defecating plastic dog to fear

    Well, you have to admit that this is a little more messy than Dr Phil’s dolly that pees herself (comes with a potty chair).

  3. How long have we had government regulations on toy manufacture? Probably over a hundred years. And they’re STILL not working?

  4. more than 99 percent of toys from China have emerged tainted

    Damn those Chinese!

  5. or the vague awareness that more than 99 percent of toys from China have emerged tainted.

    And it appears that Lou Dobbs has even invaded Howley’s mind, leading her to subconsciously put tainted for untainted…

  6. For all of you you worried and harried parents out in ReasonLand, I would like to remind you of one of our domestically produced, toxic free, chidhood favorites. IOW, Dicky the Stick?. Buy one today!

  7. I don’t really care where the toys come from; I’m just thankful that for a change I’m being informed about the potential danger some of the products present. I just wish I was granted the same courtesy when it comes to potentially carcinogenic food.

  8. Thanks UM! Fixed.

  9. LOG!!!!!

    (excellent article!)

  10. Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue.”

    Actually, Bach didn’t write that piece. I don’t know why it was ever attributed to him, it doesn’t sound like anything he is known to have written.

    Back OT, I agree that this whole GHB thing is overblown. I went to the KB in the mall and licked half the toys there, and didn’t even catch a buzz.

  11. Whats the odds that this issue is about shortcuts on expense and China is using the cheaper method because Walmart wants it that way. By saying Walmart, I really mean the consumer. I’m not saying Walmart wants tainted toys, but they do want the cheapest toy manufactured, and China incorrectly thought this was a viable way to acheive that end.

  12. Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue.”

    Cultured and classy person that I am, I know this as “The Theme From Rollerball.”

    This version of the piece appeals to me on so many levels.

  13. If those guys saw the stuff my kids play with and do, including collecting dead coyote rib cages, sword fighting with pointed sticks, climbing up Darth Vader rock and perching on his helmet like birds (lots of bird poop up there), not to mention the dirt clod wars, they’d be happy to swap out the tainted Chinese toys.

  14. I, too, have lots of class. It’s all low.

    Thanks, Stevo, for a little culture to brighten up our morning.

  15. “IOW, Dicky the Stick?. Buy one today!”

    Or buy his big brother, “Log”. Everyone loves log.

  16. The fear of Chinese source toys and other products springs from the very rational awareness that China still lacks both the free-market mechanisms and the legal rule of law necessary to safely manage complex manufacturing. It’s quite possible for someone in the Chinese supply chain to pull a fast one, pocket the profit and then disappear behind a veil of state sponsored cronyism without either the Chinese or foreign partners they ripped off having any recourse.

    People understand this and rightfully fear the consequences. The fact that the problem today centers in China has nothing to do with it. Similar problems dogged Japanese products in the 60’s and Korean products in the 70’s.

    Fortunately, market forces create evolutionary pressure towards integrity especially in luxury items like toys. Like all other societies before them (including ours) the Chinese will have to create reliable institutions to ensure people fulfill their implicit and tacit contracts or face economic ruin.


  18. Shannon Love,

    That’s pretty much my take on the hullabaloo as well. The Chinese will take a hit this holiday season and will llkely take self interested steps to improve their marketability. It’s not that hard when you think about it.

  19. I don’t understand why US companies buying these toys don’t have some minimal safety/acceptance testing in place. Sample some small percentage of each shipment (

  20. Lost everything above after my less than sign –

    less than 1% for lead or whatever

  21. AnonCowHerd, when you use the < sign, followit with a [space]. The HTML doesn’t get discombobulated. See < what I mean?.

  22. From now on, I am only going to play with toys that were produced within 100 miles of my home.

  23. I’ve solved the whole problem. This Christmas my kids will each get an American-made (or at least assembled) shotgun and a case of 250 shells.

  24. LarryA

    I dunno, old boy, the way things are going in the American firearms industry, can you get an American made shotgun anymore? 🙂

  25. I deal with Chinese suppliers all the time for auto parts, and we find a tremendous variability there – some good & some bad. However I’ve experienced a lot of the same variability with American-based suppliers as well.

    I’m more concerned now about a report I heard on the radio this morning that some consumer group tested a bunch of toys off the shelves at stores and found 35% had lead levels ‘above safe limits’. Anybody know the scoop on that?

  26. If any of this Chinaphobia is responsible for my not being able to complete my collection of “Battlestar Galactica” Titanium Series spacecraft, Lou Dobbs is going to have one more thing to answer for.

  27. I’m more concerned now about a report I heard on the radio this morning that some consumer group tested a bunch of toys off the shelves at stores and found 35% had lead levels ‘above safe limits’. Anybody know the scoop on that?

    Well, first question that comes to mind is: What is the ‘safe level’ of lead? Who establishes it, the government? I believe that such benchmarks are a crock to scare people into submission. Most people were suckered into believing they were poisoning their kids with toys.

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