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WSJ Oped

February 9th, 2010

Wall Street Journal published a piece I wrote for their Opinion Asia section. One of the points of the article is to provide a distinction between quality problems out of Japan and those from China.

Even as Toyota is getting much press for its problems with accelerator pedal assemblies, I find the melamine case far more disturbing, because (a) it involved an artful attempt to circumvent third party controls, (b) it was an activity practice by a large group of unscrupulous actors, and (c) because those who were engaged in the most recent milk powder cases knew precisely the harmful health effects of melamine.

Making matters worse has been the government’s wrongheaded response. Beijing reacted to this year’s melamine scandal with a heavy-handed cover-up. Chinese journalists have been warned not to report details surrounding milk cases. Parents of children sickened by melamine-tainted products who have attempted to organize themselves to protest or seek compensation risk being sent to jail for “social disruption.”

China’s state-directed legal system has failed to provide justice to victims. The government meted out severe punishment to only a small number of perpetrators engaged in the distribution and production of poisoned milk—two were executed—and a far greater number were let off the hook. China’s response to past scandals has been to protect industry with a government shield, so no one should be surprised when fraud recurs in such an environment.

At this time, many are looking at what’s happening to Toyota and saying, “Japan has problems, too.” The suggestion in this article is that such a view is misguided. Even with Toyota’s major recall, Japan ought to be seen as an example for all that China might accomplish in the next few years, and here I am thinking about a culture that values quality for its own sake and an incredible attention to detail, an economy that values building market share and long-range opportunities over get-rich-quick schemes.

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