From the NYT Archives: The Yellow Peril, 1906

Now that the TimesSelect wall is down, the historical fascinating New York Times archives from 1851-1910 are available for free, though all in PDF. Note to your “advanced search” sucks. Fix it. This piece seems to be an unintentionally ironic work.


Author Unknown

August 29, 1906, Wednesday

Mention of the Yellow Peril used to be connected with the vision of vast and armed Oriental hordes moving under the direction of some new Genghis Khan or Tamerlane, and spreading ruin throughout the world. But looked at from the modern point of view, the perilous features of the spectacle seem much modified; in fact, they are winnowed away altogether. Armies, to be sure, are already preparing to come out of that country with their Captains of tens and of hundreds and of chieftains of higher multitudes; but they are to come with instruments and intentions of peace, being the ministers of industry instead of destruction. It will no doubt come about that these armies will be drafted at will, conducted on their missions to the ends of the world, and brought back home again when their work is done and their peaceful campaigns brought to a close. They will bring their savings with them, and that will make them property owners and employers of labor all the rest of their lives. Handling these forces of labor on a great scale is a new business, but there is no great difficulty learning it.

The regulations prescribed for the Panamanian contractors to supply Chinese labor for the canal, settling down with precision their obligations to the laborers, to the Republic of Panama, and to the canal organization with this country behind it, seems to cover the ground with justice and good judgment, and may be regarded as the foundation of a code to rule in similar operations hereafter, and gradually shape itself to all their requirements. With a population of 400,000,000, more or less, roughly speaking a third of the inhabitants of the globe, potentialities of labor are locked up there to put a new face on mundane things and usher in the millennial possibilities which time has been dreaming about so long without coming to their realization. One can picture the ancient empire, sending out in processions its yellow hosts generation after generation and age after age, leaving giant monuments of labor on their track, instead of the brand and ravage of war which the politicians have thought now and then that they discerned alarming prospects of. Possibly in the industrial achievements of this age the organization and handling of Chinese labor, bringing it to bear on the right spots at the right time, and sending its armies home when their work is done, with a record of benefits and on both sides, no permanent infiltration of unwelcome Chinks into our society, and everybody satisfied, will stand as one of the greatest on the record. What we may call the Panamanian-Chinese Code, or the beginning of one, is likely to rank in the aftertime as an institute of high and permanent importance, its regulative prescriptions beneficently influential century after century and from end to end of the world. Moving and returning armies of labor outnumbering the legions of Rome and carrying the spade further than the latter ever carried the pilum, is probably the true solution of China’s problem, not obscuring the yellow note in it, but taking away all peril which in the surmise of a timorous diplomacy used to be braided in with it.

The Return of Fu Manchu – Chapter Two: Poison Pajamas!

Tucker, let me ask you a question, is it me or are the Chinese trying to kill us? First it was toxic toothpaste. Then they sent over a batch of lethal toys drenched in lead for our kids to play with. Then it was bad tires for our cars. Now the evil Chinese regime is hitting us where we sleep. A new study shows that some pajamas made in China contain levels of Formaldehyde 900 percent above what is considered safe.

The discovery was made when pajamas worn by two different children in New Zealand and made in China, literally caught on fire. So, if you are wearing Chinese pajamas right now, take them off slowly before you combust spontaneously.

Tucker, I don‘t know. I know your kids wear exclusively Chinese pajamas, so this one hits home for you.

CARLSON: Not only Chinese pajamas, but Chinese pajamas made by political prisoners about to be executed so their organs can be harvested. Yes.

- Tucker, August 21st, MSNBC (h/t Weifang Radish)

HAHAHAHAHA! Oh, that Tucker Carlson. Oh, I shouldn’t laugh: “his bowtie knows where you sleep”.

Pet food, shellfish, tires, pajamas, action figures – this was an exciting summer in the world of Chinese exported goods. CNN didn’t just have Tucker Carlson cracking jokes about the Yellow Imported Hordes that threatened Americans from every Walmart. No, they also had John Vause, who has reported from Baghdad, talking of how he dreads eating anything in China, and consider this bit of cognitive dissonance:

Even drinking a glass of water instills fear: A recent government report found half the bottled watered in this city was counterfeit… In a Communist country where corruption is rampant and the press appears only free to go after the little guy, I believe the deep systemic problems go unreported

Didn’t he just say it was the unresponsive Communist government that told him about the water? But like Tucker Carlson and his fellow correspondent, it must all lead back to Fu Manchu, erm, Hu Jintao. As the China logistics blog All Roads Lead to China points out, Vause was part of a half hour special on CNN titled “Made in China”, summarizing:

In the end, and besides the fact that the reporters are constantly adding elements of fear into the story, what I find most negligent about this report is that no one (except the guy on the street) mentioned the role that private business has in this. There was no acknowledgment that the importer of tires suspected 2 years ago that the tires were bad, there is no attempt to frame the actual problems in a responsible manner (the tires did meet highway safety standards), and there is absolutely zero attempt to responsibly report the statistics. Sure 80% of all toys in the U.S. are imported from China, but CNN really needs to distinguish between foreign products made in China and Chinese branded products made in China.

It’s just too easy to make this about “The Chinese” and “The Communist government”. As if a different form of government would change the immense pressure of so many millions of people are competing with one another to make a buck, in most cases to become not rich, but less poor. Never mind the tire importers responsibility. Never mind that a Canadian study at the same time found that “of the 550 toy recalls since 1988, 76.4 per cent were due to problems that could be attributed to design flaws”, meaning that foreign companies manufacturing in China share responsibility. Never mind that Mattel is still trying to figure out what supplier downstream provided the lead paint, when even the small firm I once worked for doing quality control had the good sense to source their own components and not leave it to their end assembly factory. For years its been no secret that some Chinese companies will substitute cheaper parts when possible. Sometimes its to skim profits, other times its because they simply have no idea of the consumer issues involved and think they’re passing on savings to you. As blogger Bunnie says: “In the end, there is no substitute for going out to China and getting directly involved in the quality process.” Or, put another way: “They [Mattel] did not do their own due diligence,” said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the consumer group U.S. PIRG.”They relied on Chinese subcontractors – that doesn’t cut it.”

The New York Times David Barbosa described accurately what American audiences are often being fed:

Each week, it seemed, brought news of another faulty Chinese product; and with it, growing concerns about unscrupulous Chinese businessmen: cutting corners; pouring cheap, sometimes lethal, ingredients into their products; endangering consumers around the world, even children, to make a bigger profit.

As All Roads pointed out, the focus is mostly on the Chinese side, not so much the American side. Both American and Chinese companies are under pressure to provide cheap goods because, well, Americans are addicted to them. There isn’t exactly a movement in the United States to have less stuff.

But its so much more profitable and fun to invoke the spectre of “China trying to kill us”, and that all these goods are far more dangerous than they really are. As Spiked Online points out:

Apparently it is ‘continuous sucking on such toys and putting them in the mouth for days at a stretch that is hazardous’. Children often suck on toys, but not for ‘days at a stretch’. A guide to ‘dangerous toys’ in Time magazine pointed out that ‘lead can’t be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, so a child would have to chew the paint off a toy and eat a significant amount of it before getting sick’

Now I know some three year olds who might chew on a Thomas the Tank Engine for a week, but its pretty unlikely. Moreover, lead paint or not, parents ought to be concerned if their child gnaws like a rodent on their Barbie dolls that much. The statistical probability of your kid being the one in flammable pajamas approaches zero, but that doesn’t make good copy. Speaking of statistics, consider that so far “the value of recalled toxic and dangerous Chinese goods to $430 million since June 6, from $152 million a year earlier”. In that time, Chinese imports to the U.S. have valued somewhere between $150 and $176 billion. If my math is correct, that means something like less than .3% of Chinese goods have been recalled. Go back and cruise through some of Bunnie’s recent posts on sourcing and assemblying his Chumby (looks fun) gadget. He talks about the factory workers he meets in posts titled Skill and Craft. It’s a good reminder that plenty of Chinese factories and workers care about their work, and the benefits of being hands on with your own supply chain and factories.

Meanwhile, there continues to be reports saying this like: Maybe the recent wave of Toys-made-in-China bashing is paying off. The Chinese government finally agreed to eliminate the use of lead paint on toys exported to the United States. Yes, according to Forbes,

Instead of reacting defensively or merely resorting to slogans to “lift export quality,” Chinese officials sat down with their American counterparts and signed an agreement Tuesday to ban the use of lead paint on toys exported to the United States.” This is ridiculous. China has had stricter laws on the books against lead paint than the U.S. for a while (though Forbes reports, erroneously, that lead paint is legal in China).

The problem is with enforcement – the same local politics that limits the central governments reach on numerous issues is the problem here as well. The Chinese government can’t prevent local officials from land grabs that result in mass “unrest” that is supposedly a threat to their very existence, or block webpages that contain, supposedly, other seeds of revolt. If we are to believe that these are existential fears for Beijing, and they can’t keep these together, how likely is it they can truly enforce better standards for U.S. citizens, when they can’t even provide them for their own?

More repugnant is that the focus is on improving quality control for exports to the U.S. – no concern, apparently, for Chinese domestic consumers. As Barbosa points out, “China’s lead therefore poses perhaps the greatest risk to the Chinese themselves, and their environment. Chinese children are buying toys that are less likely to be inspected than those going onto US store shelves, and less likely to be subject to the same sort of recall system as in the US.” How will Chinese citizens feel about the U.S. suggesting you can kill Chinese kids, but lay off ours?

There isn’t alot of distinguishing between the various actors in China in alot of these reports. Often, it’s just “China” that is the source of the problem, and little or no mention that many Chinese people are the victims as well. According to Brendan O’Neill at Spiked, it echoes some less than stellar moments in Western history regarding China:

The idea of the Chinese as a pollutant has a long history. Today, the Chinese are seen as an environmental pollutant; in the past, as the American author Jess Nevins points out, they were seen as ‘physical, racial and social pollutants’. In the mid-nineteenth century, Western commentary was full of irrational fears that the Chinese might pollute the white racial pool with their inferior racial qualities, or pollute Western societies with their strange cultural habits. There was, in Nevins’ words, a ‘Western fear of the supposed limitless hordes of Chinese overrunning white countries’ (9). We can see the re-emergence, even the rehabilitation of these fears in the idea that the Chinese are now a ‘toxic pollutant’ whose toys might undermine Western children’s health and IQ levels and give rise to a new generation of cretins in the US and Europe.

This isn’t about China, or the Chinese, or Communism. This is about the Return of Fu Manchu.

Piracy in China: Trent Reznor 1, Howard French 0

Howard French’s recent article China’s Economic Revival Minted in Counterfeit asks “What is there to say about a country where something masquerading as the newest Harry Potter book comes out on the market 10 days before the genuine item?” Apparently, what to say is that because Deng Xiaoping announced everyone ought to become rich, no one in China cares about copyright or intellectual property rights. French then goes on:

I have searched in vain for signs of a serious, sustained discussion of counterfeiting and intellectual property violations in the Chinese press. Yes, there are occasional statements to the effect that intellectual property must be respected, but few have bothered to take a close look at the problem, to acknowledge its extent in China or vigorously debate its consequences.

That must have been a very short search, because I plugged words like “cultural industry”, “musicians”, “piracy” and “income” into Baidu and came up with some serious, sustained discussion, such as this long article on the difficulty of protecting royalties from karaoke, Rock God Cui Jian touching on the issue in a 10 year retrospective on Chinese musicians, excerpts from the meeting WIPO and the State Copyright Bureau, and dozens of others. And that was just in Baidu’s news search. There’s more out there, and some touches on the part of China’s weak IP protection that Howard French and many other Western commentators neglect – namely, that piracy wreaks far more damage on China’s domestic film, music and print industries than it does on other nations. Consider that the piracy rate in China is 90%, compared to 27% in the U.S., or that the cultural industries of the U.S., Singapore and Canada are 18-25%, 24.4% and 40% of GDP respectively. China’s? 3.1%. The title to French’s article suggests that counterfeiting has somehow fueled China’s growth. It seems far-fetched, considering piracy and government restrictions have conspired together to reduce China’s cultural industries to the equivalent of a school bake sale.

Part of the problem with piracy is certainly greed and corruption. As Cui Jian notes:

在某些官员的眼里,艺术家对社会的贡献,是远远低于商人,甚至非法商人的贡献。In the eyes of some officials, artists contribution to the community is far below that of businessmen and even illegal contributions.

他们宁愿忽略艺术,而纵容一些经济上的腐败现象,也不愿意在艺术领域里投入更多的关注,甚至有很多政府文化部门之所以存在,其最根本的意义就是限制艺术家的创作,限制所有具有争议性的艺术形式的出现。 They prefer to ignore the arts, and some participate in economic corruption, also none are willing to invest more attention in artistic fields, and even though many government cultural departments exist to foster the arts, in reality their sole purpose is to stifle artistic creation and the appearance of any controversial art.*

Yesterday I went by my local pirated DVD shop. They’ve been closed the last three days, and I asked why. Of course the answer was “the police were coming”. How did they know? “Everybody knows.” Why don’t the police come another time? “Because they’re paid off”. It’s funny, too, because Howard French gets it mostly right on this part when he says:

At the same time, as with product safety problems or intellectual property issues, the government is much like the greyhound on a racetrack chasing the mechanical rabbit. Reality exceeds its grasp, and there is no hope of catching up.

That much is certainly true. If local pirates pay off cops to file a false report, and everybody freakin’ knows (let’s all note that its consider so accepted that telling the foreigner is no big deal), and this happens all over the country – precisely what is the central government suppose to do about it? Start a massive political campaign? Death sentences? The issue is local, as are many others in China, and hanging it on the central government – encouraging the sort of paternalistic authoritarianism that is usually reprimanded – seems a rather stupid idea. Instead, perhaps finding open dialogue and reporting on where it is happening, and commenting on how to strengthen awareness and discussion, would be a better focus. Instead, at the end of French’s piece it is revealed that he’s using his IHT soapbox to bicker with a letter writer who says Westerners should quit bitching and moaning. Suddenly French’s opening about “What is there to say about a country…” not only looks like windbaggery, but it starts to look petty and snide. Is this letter really worth this attention? French translates this one, single letter into “a giant collective shrug in a body of opinion for which the world is effectively divided, consciously or not, into us and them, automatically inoculating the believers against anything perceived as outside criticism.”

Wait a minute: who just took the opinion of one letter, and applied it to a big ol’ mess of people? And when you have the answer to that, tell me just who is the one carving the world into “us” and “them”. One thing I’ve learned by blogging about China is that when a nationalist crank starts trying to push your buttons, you have to remember not to identify them as speaking for China. Because then they’ve got you right where they want you – helping them make it “us” versus “them”. Oh, Howie, you just failed China Blogging 101!

Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails, however, seems to have a better handle on counterfeiting in China. He’s got a whole Chinese language section on his website, where he states:

“As for the special situation in China, it does not seem to be easy to obtain Western music via legal channels, so I have the following suggestion for our fans: If you can find and buy our legal CDs, I express my thanks for your support. If you cannot find it, I think that downloading from the Internet is a more acceptable option than buying pirated CDs. Our music is easy to find on the Internet, and you might not need to spend much effort to find most of our songs. If you like our songs after you’ve heard them, please feel free to share it with your friends. As I have put all my effort and heart into my music, I sincerely hope that more and more people can share the enjoyment with us.”

Instead of lecturing Chinese people on how bad they are, Reznor has elected to engage in dialogue. Chinese people are attracted to counterfeit goods for the same reason Americans are attracted to Chinese (and sometimes counterfeit) goods: they’re cheaper. He’s no fan himself of major record labels and their inflated CD prices. After their last contract album with Universal, NIN going to sell everything online, for “say, $4 an album”.

Reznor was last seen at the Beijing Pop Festival. Cui Jian was there too. I wasn’t. Dammit.

*Thanks to Feng37 for better clean-up of Google translation.