A rising industrial superpower — bent on ramping up its exports — cuts corners in safety and quality along the way. Critics say that aptly describes today's China.
But it also describes 19th-century America, says Stephen Mihm, an assistant professor of history at the University of Georgia.
The examples he cites aren't pretty — "butter" exported to Europe that was actually made from beef fat and stomach and cow, hog and ewe udders, and sausage made from tuberculosis-infected pork.
Such incidents bring to mind recent reports of Chinese exports of diseased seafood, contaminated pet food and lead-tainted toys. "The parallels are really hard to miss, even though they're separated by two centuries and involve two different kinds of societies," Mihm says.
Mihm's recent book, A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States, focuses on another activity popular in China today — production of fakes. As they say in Shaghai, "We can copy everything except your mother."
University of Georgia historian Stephen Mihm. (Akela Reason)
Certainly the United States of today bears little resemblance to the young nation of the 1800s, Mihm says. And though he acknowledges that late-19th-century reformers played a key role in arousing public indignation and advocating regulation of manufacturing and food processing, he says there was also another engine of progress — "raw, naked self-interest."
Those who haven't looked closely enough at the past might miss the latter element, he argues. "We like to view these things as having come about because people identified a wrong and rectified it."
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) — one of the federal agencies that have come under intense scrutiny during the scandal over unsafe Chinese-made goods — is trying to convince Chinese officials it's in their best interest to develop better enforcement of safety standards. The CPSC describes its so-called China Program as a "cooperative dialogue . . . to reduce the risk of injury to American consumers from Chinese imports."
But it's unclear whether self-interest as a motive has kicked in yet among the Chinese, Mihm says. China hasn't gone through a test experienced by all capitalist societies sooner or later — an economic crash.
"Britain, the United States and other countries went through cataclysmic panics — the growing pains that come with speculative capitalism being unleashed," he says. These led to financial-system reforms, such as establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
In any event, the major difference between the young United States and today's China isn't economic but political, he says. "China is not a democracy, and the United States in the 19th century was, to some extent," Mihm says. "So you don't have the same pressure for change."
On the other hand, a non-democratic system finds ways to deal with scandal that a democratic country would shy away from. For example, China responded to drug-safety problems this year by executing the corrupt head of China's FDA counterpart.
"If the head of the drug agency is corrupt," said James J. Shen, a longtime industry analyst in Beijing, "you can imagine how corrupt the whole system is."
Even so, tracing the parallels kindles more hope than despair for Mihm. "Reform did arrive in the United States in various stages, at various times, even if they were driven by the profit motive," he says. "It makes me more optimistic about China."