5/18/2009

英国《经济学家》:中国产品质量低劣

中国产品质量低劣

英国《经济学家》5月14日一期文章

5月18日《参考消息》选译 题:中国产品质量问题症结何在

中国已经成为全世界的加工厂,但最近爆出了毒奶粉、受污染的宠物食品和危险玩具等一系列丑闻,让人们对这个国家的生产标准提出质疑。有人为中国辩解说,随着产量增加,至少在短期内,与此相关的问题也会不可避免地增加。另外也可以指出,日本在战后发展时期和美国在19世纪末的制造业繁荣时期,也出现了质量存在问题的阶段,中国只是处在一个监督严密得多的环境中。

保罗.米德勒在其《中国制造劣质产品》一书中分析了这个话题。米德勒说一口流利的汉浯,2001年搬到中国,为在中国日益增多的西方公司做顾问,这些公司以在广州附近的新兴工业地带的分包关系取代欧洲和美国的工厂。那是到中国的理想时期。正常情况下开创新企业的问题没有阻碍米德勒。

他不仅很快、似乎很轻松地找到了客户,而且这些客户对在中国看到的一切感剑满意。工厂会想方设法取悦客户,价格非常低,生产周期很短。客户们在第一次离开中国时,都会对工厂在那么短的时间内能熟练加工感到惊异,也会对能那么好、那么快、那么便宜地做多久感到疑惑。他们的疑惑是有道理的。

米德勒的主要工作就是应对他所说的“质量减退”,这是在中国工厂将实际上没有利润的合同变成有钱可赚的关系的过程中出现的。他看到的生产周期与理伦上的持续改进模式相反。在解决了创业阶段的困难并使产品符合规格以后,工厂内部的革新就变成了降低成本,有时其方式是令人讨厌的、危险的。在产品质量持续减退的过程中,包装变得低劣了,化学配方改变了,卫生标准降低了。

为了进一步创造利润。中国工厂向来自知识产权保护力度大和拥有创新性产品国家的客户提供优惠的生产价格。但仅仅是因为工厂接下来可以直接把仿制品卖给忽视专利和商标的其他国家。米德勒说,这是一种工厂套利。

对问题产品的第一道防线是工厂的客户,即进口商,他们开始怀疑中国的制造业“伙伴”并希望弄清楚真实情况的时候,也正是他们非常急于在中国找到像米德勒这样的人的时候,这表明他们需要信息。

认识到这些情况以后,西方零售商正越来越多地利用国外的实验室来检验中国的产品。但是米德勒认为效果一般,因为检验的方式很有限,而生产商有很多规避检验的办法。

以这种眼光看待所有的中国公司当然是不公平的。有一些公司在质量上得到了国际队可,但是与日本美国不同,这些公司也要为国际认可付出代价,因为随之而来的是不受败迎的监督。米德勒目睹了大型现代化的中国工厂将工作外包给较小的工厂。这些小厂更容易规避环境控制以及安全标准。

清理这种混乱局面的明显办法是更广泛的信息披露,但是由谁来披露?中国的媒体通常都受到控制,外国记者也是。米德勒说,许多生产问题都是当地的生产企众所周知的,但这些企业相互勾结,透露内内幕的人也不会得到奖赏。因此,发现问题的途径将是最槽糕的,即购买中国产品的消费者自己进行辨别。


Books & Arts

Chinese manufacturing

Poorly made

May 14th 2009

From The Economist print edition

Why so many Chinese products are born to be bad



(Photo: Reuters)

THE recent scandals about poisoned baby milk, contaminated pet food and dangerous toys from China have raised questions about manufacturing standards in the country that has become factory to the world. In China’s defence, it was probably inevitable that as production grew so would the problems associated with it, at least in the short term. Similarly, it could be argued that China is going through the same quality cycle that occurred during Japan’s post-war development or America’s manufacturing boom in the late 19th century—but in an environment with infinitely more scrutiny.

A response to both these observations can be found in “Poorly Made in China” by Paul Midler, a fluent Chinese speaker who in 2001 moved to China to work as a consultant to the growing numbers of Western companies now replacing factories in Europe and America with subcontracting relationships in the emerging industrial zone surrounding Guangzhou. It was the perfect period to arrive. The normal problems of starting a business, such as getting clients or providing a value proposition, do not hinder Mr Midler, who had the benefit of being in the right place at the right time.

Not only did he quickly, and seemingly effortlessly, find customers, they were delighted with what they found in China. Factories will do anything to please. Prices are famously low and production cycles short. His clients returned from their initial trips to China stunned by how quickly factories became proficient and puzzled by how much could be done so well, so fast, so cheaply. They were right to wonder.

Most of Mr Midler’s work is coping with what he calls “quality fade” as the Chinese factories transform what were, in fact, profitless contracts into lucrative relationships. The production cycle he sees is the opposite of the theoretical model of continuous improvement. After resolving teething problems and making products that match specifications, innovation inside the factory turns to cutting costs, often in ways that range from unsavoury to dangerous. Packaging is cheapened, chemical formulations altered, sanitary standards curtailed, and on and on, in a series of continual product debasements.

In a further effort to create a margin, clients from countries with strong intellectual-property protection and innovative products are given favourable pricing on manufacturing, but only because the factory can then directly sell knock-offs to buyers in other countries where patents and trademarks are ignored. It is, Mr Midler says, a kind of factory arbitrage.

The first line of defence against compromised products are the factory’s clients, the importers. The moment they begin suspecting a Chinese manufacturing “partner” and want to discover what might be unfolding is the moment they become particularly eager to find people in China like Mr Midler. That suggests they want information. But, as Mr Midler discovers, they are finicky about what is found. When suspicions turn out to be reality, all too often they become unhappy—miserable about resolving something costly and disruptive, yet terrified about being complicit in peddling a dangerous product. This is particularly true if the problems could go undetected by customers. Better, to some extent, not to know.

Aware of these dynamics, Western retailers increasingly use outside testing laboratories for Chinese products. But this too, Mr Midler writes, is more form than function, since the tests are by their very nature more limited than the ways to circumvent them. The process resembles the hunt for performance enhancements used by athletes, where a few get caught but the cleverer ones stay ahead by using products not yet on the prohibited list.

It would be unfair, of course, to see all Chinese companies in this light. A few are gaining international recognition for quality, but in contrast, say, to Japan or America, this recognition comes at a cost to the firms themselves because it is accompanied by unpopular scrutiny and compliance. This odd situation became apparent when Mr Midler witnessed large, modern Chinese factories outsourcing work to smaller, grittier, facilities even though this meant forgoing the production benefits from economies of scale. The tiny outfits were in a much better position to skirt environmental controls and safety standards for products and workers.

The obvious way to clean up this mess—and to know whether it is really as pervasive as this book suggests—is through broader disclosure, but by whom? The Chinese press is sometimes revealing but typically controlled, as are foreign reporters. Many production problems are well-known within local manufacturing circles, Mr Midler says, but collusion is rampant and there are no rewards in China for whistle-blowing. Most of the people in Mr Midler’s position would not dream of disclosing what they see and many testing laboratories protect their reputation by hiding, rather than revealing, what they test. As a result, if Mr Midler’s perceptions are true, the primary source of discovery will come in the worst possible way—by consumers who buy Chinese products, only to discover their flaws themselves.

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