Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Inside the toy recalls: Mattel's sins

It's been a few weeks since the Mattel toy recalls first started. Since then millions of toys have been taken off the shelves all over the world, a Chinese factory owner hung himself and the "Made in China" name is being dragged through the dirt in the US media.

Just about everyone in the US has jumped on the hating. There have been countless examiniations into the saftey of everything China makes and an unseen fervor has developed. Democrats and Republicans alike are attacking China as the now "irresponsible" global production machine.

While I can not make any statements regarding food recalls or underware, as a person who has worked in the toy industry (my job was to liason between the factory and the US design staff), I see this situation really clearly:

It isnt really the Chinese company's fault!

During the design process, there are a lot of considerations for safety. Only certain materials could be used for certain aged kids and the spacing between motorized parts had to be a certain width. Above these basic restraints, all of our toys had to pass a RoHS standard. This applied to the entire packaging, the paint, the materials used, the parts, everything. Before being able to ship any toys, we had to submit them for testing at a hong kong third party. Only with certification from this third party could we ship to Walmart, Target, ect.

In order to pass these tests, we had to control our supply chain. Every shipment of materials were individually checked by our on-site Quality Control team. If anything was wrong with the shipment, the QA team would not accept the entire stock and demand the sourced company to redo it.

In essance, there were atleast 4 different levels of quality assurance: During design, supply chain, manufacturing and third party testing before shipment. Of course not all shipments were perfect and things did slip through the cracks, but no products were recalled when I worked there. None.

So with my own first hand experience, I was terribly shocked when I heard of Mattel's recall. How could the biggest toy company in the US allow so many millions of toys be shipped? What happened to all of the different layers of testing and retesting. Also, why didnt the US media find the real reasons for the problems instead of making China the scapegoat?

Well finally, someone did. Only in today's NY Times has there been any mention of the innate problems within Mattel's business.

Mattel has been manufacturing in Asia far longer than many companies (the first Barbie was made there in 1959). That led to long-term relationships with certain Chinese contractors, many spanning decades. Paradoxically, that appears to have contributed to Mattel’s problems: the longer it outsourced to a factory supplier with good results, the looser the leash became.

During Mr. Eckert’s tenure, the company has scaled back the number of companies it uses and the fraction of Mattel toys that they make, but it allowed its more reliable suppliers to do their own regular toy testing — with spot tests by Mattel only every three months.

The two contractors that caused this month’s recalls were among the most trusted. Lee Der Industrial, the supplier involved in the first recall, had worked with Mattel for 15 years. The Early Light Industrial Company, the contractor that made the Sarge cars in the second recall, has supplied toys for 20 years.

Mattel became so confident in their China production that it basically gave all control to their subcontractors. Instead of making sure they had final say of what toys were being shipped, the left it up to their Chinese counterparts. What responsible company would decide to do that? No smart company would ever think of giving all control for their products to someone else.

Still Mattel execs want to refocus the blame on the Chinese:

“I think it’s the fault of the vendor who didn’t follow the procedures that we’ve been living with for a long time,” Mr. Debrowski said.

I guess Mr. Debrowski has never worked in a Chinese factory (like I have). Maybe if he worked there for 2 weeks, he would see that Chinese employees need constant attention. Only micromanagers with attention to detail can actually confirm that any processes are used. Without this oversight, any "procedures" are just random words on paper.

All in all, the real issue is money. The real reason why Mattel gave so much autonomy to their contractors was because they wanted higher profits. In order to have their own staff oversee and manager the production, QA and other processes, it would cost Mattel much more money. Instead, they calculate the cost and overhead of the Chinese manufacturer, add 15% for the Chinese company's margin and not worry about anything else. For a toy that costs the Chinese company $1.20, Mattel sell it for $4.50 to Walmart. That's quite a profit.

Whey they're making that much money, who cares about a little lead in the paint?

Ultimately, no one is really blaming Mattel for this. If you read the NY Times article, you can see that the underlying tone of it is pro-Mattel. Even the title, After Stumbling, Mattel Cracks Down on China, shows the bias.

The US (and world) media will continue to attack China while the real culprits enjoy their high profit margins. I guess it's just another symptom of globalization.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Chinese Version of the "Birds and the Bees"

I was hanging out with a friend a couple of days ago, just screwing around, wasting time. My friend has a belly button ring, so I was joking around that she was hampering her reproductive organs.

This might not make sense for my western readers....but in China, when kids ask the world-wide question: "mommy, where did I come from", they are told, the belly button. This answer, although weird, seems like a very natural choice now. This is what my parents told me when I was young.

When this topic came up, I continued to ask what my friend's parents also said to her. She responded with: They told me that they found me in a dumpster. (我是在垃圾里面检出来得。)

What?! What are Chinese parents thinking? I know it is hard and uncomfortable to talk about sex with a kid so sometimes, flat out lying is not too bad.

However, Chinese customs have gone way beyond this. Parents, instead of doing the "birds & bees" story tell their children that they were adopted. Not only were they adopted, but their previous family threw them out into the trash, only until your parents rescued you.

What a fucked up thing to say.

Come to think of it, my parents told me that I was found in the trash too...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

China & Morality

One of the most interesting things about living in China is the underlying sense of morality.... or the lack there of.

From my time living here, I really believe that anything and everything can happen. Although the vast majority have a decent sense of what's right and wrong, a lot of people clearly don't have it.

Business ethics? Who cares.

Insider Trading? Common place.

Cheating for self gain? Standard.

One recent event that shows the turbulent and frequent questionable nature of what is real/fake and right/wrong occurred in journalism.

The west often accuses Chinese journalism as censored, government approved and basically propaganda. Although everyone and their grandmom knows that there is a natural sensitivity for the government on certain issues (like falonggong, protests) on the national scale, journalism on the local level is more open than I had previously thought. There are definitely news reports, on the radio, in TV and print describing corruption, crimes, and other unsavory events. Although there is a vail lifted over the average Chinese person, it's not as thick as everyone thinks.

Well, about a month ago, a Beijing journalist described a very interesting story about food vendors putting cardboard and other undesirable materials into food. This scary story caused a stir in local and national headlines and was quickly picked up by CNN international sources.

The whole country was in outrage. Police and health inspectors started checking everywhere. Foreign press lamented and criticized China, ect. ect.

And all the while, the story was fake...

As CNN reported through Reuters:

Beijing police have detained a television reporter for allegedly fabricating an investigative story about steamed buns stuffed with cardboard at a time when China's food safety is under intense international scrutiny.

Beijing authorities said investigations had found that an employee surnamed Zi had fabricated the report to garner "higher audience ratings", the China Daily said on Thursday.

"Zi had provided all the cardboard and asked the vendor to soak it. It's all cheating," the paper quoted a government notice as saying.

After I read the original report, I spent a while thinking about the stuff I put into my body every morning before going to work. I also thought about the other crap that could be in the foods out there. I was almost freaking out.

So while I, and many other people were freaking out (like me), while the whole country was in outrage investing food processes, standards and regulations, and while the international community criticized the Chinese government and its standards as another example of inept corruption of the "communist regime," the story turned out to be fake.

So, creating this panic and international incident was just a chance to get higher ratings, and a future promotion. Wow.

This is China.

The reporter has since been tried and sentenced to 1 year in jail and a fine. Good times.

Before leaving this topic, there is another issue that is involved here. I would not be surprised if the story was true and the reporter was telling the truth. Instead, the culprit could be the authorities who are trying to damage control. Different agencies could have ordered that the reporter be the scape goat so that the government could deny these accusations with more footing to foreign trade partners... what if...

Ultimately, no one knows what the hell is going on. It doesn't matter if you believe one side, or the other. They are all playing with the same, cheating deck of cards.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Chinese Thieves Revealed

This is an issue that everyone who lives in a big city has to deal with. It's something unpleasant, disgraceful, kinda sad, and ultimately just sucks.

Yes, I’m talking about thieves, pick-pockets, purse snatchers, whatever you want to call it.

As a relatively forgetful person, I’ve had many encounters with people taking my stuff. The first time was probably in the 1st or 2nd grade when someone stole my bike in Ohio. My BMX "Batman" bike was great but some kid probably saw how cool it was and rode it away when I didn’t lock it up tight.

During my time in China, I have always been warned by my friends and relatives to be careful of thieves. They often recount horror stories they hear on the news: A guy walking around is stabbed for a cell phone or wallet, and guys on motorcycles drag a yuppie for a ways while trying to snatch her purse.

There are other stories about gangs of people working as a pack (ie. Ocean's 11 or Gangs of NY). I believed that these stories were true, but I had never experienced it myself.

Tuesday Morning, 7:10am, 东门中 bus stop.

I was waiting at the bus stop to go to work in the morning. Suddenly, a bus stops in front of me. Out jumps 2 guys followed by an angry women yelling and screaming, kicking 2 guys. You assholes, you tried to steal my cell phone!!! Fuck you!!

After her rant, she got back on the bus and it drove off. I watched this episode play out right in front of me. I had nothing else to do and it was kinda funny. Before I went back to sending a text message, I took a quick glance at the 2 guys as they walked away. No big deal.

5 minutes pass and I get hungry. I'm still waiting for my 106 bus, but I wanted to grab some breakfast nearby. I start looking around my stop to search for street vendors, and I immediately see one of the guys on the other side of the bus stop, creeping around.

I cant believe it, these thieves were going to work my stop!!

Different scenarios immediately popped into my head. Did I want to beat them up for being thieves and be the savior? Did I want to pretend I didn’t know what they were doing and try to be a "victim" of theirs? I finally decided on passively observing their interactions and how they operate.

As I watched them work, it seemed clear that they were not "professionals." When “professionals” come to mind, I think of Matt Damon pulling some guy's wallet on the bus in Ocean's 11, or the train snatch in Ocean's 12. These guys, although they probably did it for a living, were not that good. They didn’t have the look, feel or skill of a professional. What they did have, was the balls.

These two guys operated as a set. One guy (thief1), the one in the white dress shirt with black, cross shoulder bag pretended he was a regular guy going to work. He definitely looked the part. He walked around the stop, looked at the bus schedule, huffed and puffed and pretended to be late. At other times he would bust out his cell phone and pretend to start talking on it like he had important business to attend to.

Good concept, bad acting.

It was ultimately his job to locate the target, start talking to the target and work that avenue.

The 2nd guy (thief2) in the team of two was the guy dressed in all brown and his arms crossed. He stayed back, leering at different people and waited until his partner to make the initial move. After the thief1 started talking to someone, the thief2 would slowly move up behind the potential victim and set up shop. Again, the picture above shows them in action targeting a young guy in the black shirt (who's talking to thief1).

I observed thief2 much more than I did thief1. What I saw was that thief2 was very blatant in what he was doing. He would stay back and hang out to let his partner initiate the contact. However, when he was standing there, instead of being discreet and relaxed, he started looking around, almost too excited to maintain secrecy.

Whenever someone passed him, he immediately looked at their bag, wallet, cell phone, ect. There was no discreteness at all. It was like a fat kid looking into the glass of a cake store. Half the time when he was staring at everyone's bags and cell phones, almost drooling at them, I wanted to grab him, beat him up and then give him a lesson about covert operations. I'm no thief/pickpocket, but I bet I could do it a lot better than he could!

Ultimately, after these guys stayed around for 10 minutes, they didn’t see many good targets so they moved on to a different stop.

What's funny is that on 2 days later, I saw the duo again working the bus stop. However, after I got there, they immediately got onto a bus and left.

From my observations of this duo, the easiest way to recognize a thief is to look into his/her eyes. Most of the people doing petty theft are amateurs from the countryside. They are usually too greedy and too stupid do be discrete.

The eyes reveal all.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Sex and China

A couple of weeks ago, I was with a bunch of friends and cousins at KTV place in Shenzhen, singing kareoke. Although I dont do that much singing (i'm a drinker at these things), I did notice something very interesting.

In between when songs are played, there are different ads and commericals displayed on the monitors throughout. These are usually promotional material for various drinks or cars. However, one really stood out to me.

It was a 10 second ad that featured, what I thought, was a cartoon figure shaped like a condom with disclaimers. At first, I didn't really understand it, but after conferring with my Chinese cousins, I figured out what was going on.

It was an ad for condom use and awareness for HIV/Aids. The ad basically wanted everyone to use condoms, and stated that the KTV places would distrbute them for free to any of its patrons.
Wow, I thought... some KTV.

So, it looks like it's working.

When issues of human rights, politics and censorship comes up to westerners, many use the argument that more trade with China will not only open up the country and its 1.3 billion people as consumers, but also help change the society and culture with it as well.

Well, i guess its partly working... in the form of a mini sexual revolution.

By no means am I refering to a trend that more people are having unprotected sex with a side of drug use (like in the American 1960s). What I am seeing is the quick and rapid development of a more open understanding and acceptance to sex and human sexuality.

A recent International Herald Tribune article entitled "A People's Sexual Revolution in China", describes the current explosion of sexuality in media.

Even five years ago, mainland books and magazines were banned from showing pictures of scantily clad models or publishing content that was deemed offensive or morally corrupt. The only sexual content to be found was in sex education pamphlets or books of nude Chinese women sold as "art works" at big city airports.

Today, however, with the Chinese economy booming and the government loosening its hold on the personal lives of everyday citizens, magazines are beginning to publish soft-core pornographic photographs, sexual fantasies and even clues about where to pick up call girls.

This change in sexuality has also been seen in the governmental policy towards HIV/Aids and condoms.

A few years ago, there were very few places where condoms could be bought. The Chinese government also denied the existence of HIV/Aids in China as well (kinda like the Reagan years in the US) Fast forward a couple of years and condoms can be bought everywhere. In every supermarket and convenience store, condoms are displayed and sold at the cashier next to the Peanut M&Ms. Recent reports by Reuters confirm that various government ministries have

has ordered all hotels, holiday resorts and public showers to provide condoms, part
of nationwide efforts to fight the spread of AIDS.

What I originally thought of as a progressive KTV place being responsible for its patrons has actually turned out to be a nation-wide campaign that not only helps prevent STD/STIs, but also, in a sense, further liberalizes and modernizes Chinese conceptions/stigmas regarding sex and sexuality.

Good job, China. Keep up the good work.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Chinese Bus Inspection

I hate working on Saturdays.

I’ve said it once; I’ve said it a thousand times. Working a half day on the weekend really changes my whole routine…and it’s probably one of the more annoying parts of my job.

However, every time I commute to work to work on a Saturday, it seems that I see something interesting. Last time I wrote Shenzhen: Diversity of Languages that was initiated from my Saturday bus ride. On my most recent Saturday commute, I saw something interesting regarding regulation of buses.

I have a lot of choices for buses going from my apartment to the factory. Although there are direct buses that do the job, when I’m pressed for time, I take more frequently occurring buses and transfer later. I would take the first bus about 90% of the way and get off at the 沙弯海关 stop. I would then wait for a Shenzhen mini-bus (which is still allowed to operate outside of the main city limits) to the front of the factory.

On this particular day, I was waiting at the沙弯海关 stop and saw a group of 3 men in official uniforms, hanging out at the stop. I didn't make that much of it at first, but when a minibus finally arrived, it got pulled over. One of the men in uniform boarded the bus and asked for the workers to get off. From a distance, I could see the officer examine the interior of the bus. The bus driver quickly and very “graciously” showed the officer all of his proper paperwork for the vehicle as well as the necessary worker permits for the employees.

Although I thought the inspection was interesting, I was initially more annoyed than interested. My boss at work gave people shit for being on time. If you were late, he would castrate you in front of everyone. With this in mind, I was constantly waiting for other buses that would take me the final few stops.

During my wait, 3 buses came and went without stopping at the designated stop. Just as these buses were slowing down, the driver would notice the minibus being examined by the officers and speed off. When I noticed that no one wanted to be inspected, I just had to find out more of what’s going on.

As I walk back towards the minibus to talk to the 2 officers on the side, I noticed that the examining officer was now onto the bus exterior. The officer walked around the minibus, checking out the bumper, the sides, license plates, everything. It was definitely very thorough.

When I asked the officers what was going on, they explained that this was a standard inspection that takes place every 2 months. They are looking for anything that violates safety and regulatory standards for buses. There were also supposed instances where some buses were “fake”. These black buses were not registered and were impersonating real buses. (Anything is possible in China).

The minibus ended up passing the inspection which took about 8 minutes total. And since no other buses were stopping, I quickly got on. As we left the stop, the driver quickly got onto his cell phone and radio intercom to warn other bus drivers that an inspection was happening at the沙弯海关 stop. I guess everyone wanted to avoid these safety exams.

I guess it’s just another day in Shenzhen, China.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Chinese Firing @ the Factory: Power to the People

Since I’ve been working here in Shenzhen, there have been a lot of people that have been fired. While I haven’t yet witnessed the firing processes in American companies (for myself), I think I have a good idea of how its handled and the necessary customs. In my experience, the Chinese process is…let’s just say, different.

As I’m writing this my secretary is in the process of cleaning off her desk and gathering her personal belongings. The head of the R&D department just fired her at 8am on Monday right after she came in for work.

To tell you the truth, I never really liked my secretary from the beginning. Although she was a smart girl and proficient in computer work, she was lazy and forgetful. It seemed like that she was always sitting at her desk (which is right in front of me), doing nothing while other people were running around. She had no initiative in doing anything. I personally would have never hired her (but our hiring process for my department sucks too).

From my sideline view of this current firing, and other ones previously, I have noticed 3 distinct parts: the before, during and after.

The Before

Before a person is informed of his or her firing, everyone else in the office already knows. It spreads like wildfire. Before my secretary was fired, there were mummers of it for the previous week. “Oh, the manager 马上要赶走她,” my costing engineer whispered to me a few days ago. All of this is talking is done quietly in the background. People whisper the info back and forth until just about everyone knows. Well, everyone except the person getting fired.

In reality, it is pretty well known who is going to be fired a long time before it actually happens. For subordinates and lower ranking members of the staff, their fate is always controlled by their boss. If the boss doesn't like you, there is a good chance that you’re going to get the ax sometime or another. The only complication to this is that sometimes your boss does not have the authority to fire someone (like me). So when my previous project engineer, Thompson, was fired in December, I had no say. Instead, my boss did it. He didn't consult with me or any members of my department on anything. He thought that Thompson sucked and needed to leave… so he acted on it. Simple as that.

For higher-level managers, the process is more secretive, but just as clouded and immediate. Just a couple of weeks ago, the 2nd highest ranking person at the factory (who was in charge of all of the production) was let go. Her firing was a surprise to many of her subordinates, but not to the higher ups. I had heard a conversation between the owner and COO about the possibility that she was “skimming off the top” more than 5 months before the event. That’s a long time to be working when your boss already knows you’re going to be gone.

Although there are “justified” firings, most are just a play for power. Anyone and everyone is expendable at any given time. No reason needed. The thought of what is right and wrong goes out the door. Power is the only thing that matters.

The During

After a person is informed that he/she was fired, he/she are immediately on an island. It doesn’t matter if it is the highest manager or a low subordinate; everyone is somewhat frustrated, embarrassed and quiet. No one talks to the person getting fired.

In reality, what does one say when they’re friend was just let go and told to clean off their office? I don’t know. Instead of getting involved with the person and having compassion, everyone goes right back to work. The person that was fired is left to his/her embarrassed/shocked/angry state before going to HR to collect their pay before they officially leave. It is a miserable time.

This process of collecting one’s stuff and filling all of the paperwork takes atleast 2 hours. Due to the extended time this takes, in some instances, the fired person’s replacement is already on the job before he/she leaves. That’s just not cool. Not only does the company blindside you, but they’ve been preparing for it for a while. That’s the only way they have your replacement all ready to go. Awesome feeling.

The After

After the person officially leaves everyone basically returns back to normal. They start talking again, reminiscing about the firing process and how the company sucks for doing what it did. They talk about how just or unjust it was. This standard tradition is always in the form of shallow whispering.

Almost immediately after the person leaves, a notice is sent to all relevant departments, informing them that certain processes (that the fired person was in charge or apart of) will be altered. There is no fanfare or nostalgia from the company. Business as usual.

As a partial observer of this always ongoing drama, one thing has always bothered me. 65 years ago, the communist revolution in China brought power “to the people.” The proletariat and the peasants got all the power from the oppressive and corrupt land owners. How is it that now, in a still “communist” society (whatever that means), the people at my factory, have no power… or any semblance of power.

There is no collective action or unionization. There are no negotiations for worker’s rights, wages, benefits and working conditions. There is only silence.

Whenever someone is fired, no one speaks. Even if their firing was an awful display of corruption in the most unjust manner… nothing.

Just silence.

A few days later, 2 guys in the prototype department were let go. This time, it really did come out of the blue. No one knew what was going on. They were called in, and told to leave immediately.

When I asked the rest of the proto department what had happened, they were silent. Each and every person just looked down and went about their business. The 2 guys had been working in that department more than 5 years each. They were great buddies with everyone, consistently going out, eating, drinking, playing basketball and working together. Now they’re gone and no one could (or would) do anything about it.

This is the state of Chinese communism.

Power to the People.