Q&A: China's Top Consumer Advocate

Wang Hai's phone won't stop buzzing. Everyone in China seems to want urgent help from the country's No. 1 consumer-rights advocate. He helps not only ordinary buyers of defective goods but whistle-blowers who risk their lives by outing unscrupulous firms. "A good system for guaranteeing quality control simply doesn't exist in China," says Wang, who has spent more than 10 years trying to clean up the Chinese marketplace. "Even confidential informants can wind up dead, under suspicious circumstances. I personally know of two."

Americans may suppose they have worries about Chinese products these days: killer pet food, antifreeze-laced toothpaste, lead-painted toy trains, unsafe tires, seafood contaminated with unapproved drugs and additives—the list keeps growing. Authorities in Panama announced recently that at least 93 people have died there since July 2006 from cough syrup containing Chinese-made diethylene glycol. But last week Chinese authorities pointed out that only 1 percent of foodstuff exported to the West failed to meet quality standards. By contrast, nearly 20 percent of domestically sold goods flunked. What the world should really be concerned about, says Asian Development Bank (ADB) economist Chris Spohr, "are the implications for food and product safety in [China] itself." Until attitudes change in China—among regulators, manufacturers and consumers alike—goods produced there will continue to be suspect everywhere.

Activists like Wang are badly outnumbered. Entrepreneurs across China are cashing in on murky regulation, rampant corruption and consumer ignorance. "The regime is particularly weak at regulating a cutthroat market economy with millions of private enterprises," says Wenran Jiang, a Sinologist at the University of Alberta. It's not unlike America in the age of the robber barons, more than a century ago. In 1906, ordinary Americans' outrage over unsafe medicines and foodstuffs—and books like Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," with its horrific portrait of Chicago's meatpacking industry—led to passage of the landmark Pure Food and Drug Act. Right now, though, most Chinese are busy earning a living.

And they're paying the price. At least 300 million Chinese are affected by food-borne illness every year, according to a recent report by the ADB and the World Health Organization, and mass poisonings by adulterated and mislabeled products recur constantly. Unsafe infant formula killed at least 50 babies three years ago and left 200 others severely malnourished, according to local media. The ADB/WHO report adds: "Despite stepped-up measures, a string of similar infant formula problems emerged in February 2006, indicating that systemic issues remain unresolved."

Chinese writer Zhou Qing has even produced a book that evokes "The Jungle." His "What Kind of God," a 2006 finalist for the Lettre Ulysses Award, tells of monstrous abuses: soy sauce bulked up with arsenic-tainted human hair; hormone-infused snack foods that grow facial hair on 6-year-old boys and breasts on 7-year-old girls; dangerous drugs fed to pigs to make their meat look better. Zhou's book concludes: "While cracking down on the immediate perpetrators of food-safety incidents, it's even more critical that we crack down on the officials who bear responsibility."

Bad publicity has forced Beijing to make at least a show of getting tough. Zheng Xiaoyu, the first head of China's State Food and Drug Administration, was sentenced to death in May for approving fake medicines in exchange for bribes. And at the factories whose chemical melamine was implicated in at least 16 U.S. pet deaths, two managers have been jailed. But Zhou remains skeptical. "Zheng Xiaoyu was [sentenced] because of America's dogs and Panama's cough syrup," he says. His book, which finally reached stores early this year, was edited heavily by its state-owned publishers and released with minimal fanfare.

Product-safety jitters will probably bypass at least a few export sectors. The chip industry, for one, is likely to remain unscathed, predicts Dan Heyler, a Merrill Lynch tech analyst in Hong Kong, since it's strictly supervised by the multinationals that dominate the field. But food, medicine and lower-end manufactured goods may need serious regulatory measures to win back the world's confidence. When NEWSWEEK asked his thoughts on "The Jungle," Zhou said he had never heard of the book. But, he added, it sounded like something he should read. The men who run China might also want to take a close look.