Chinese Factories Optimistic About Reputations

Companies expect little long-term damage from major toy recalls; confident country will remain manufacturing giant.

GUANGZHOU, China (AP) — As hundreds of blue, green and yellow plastic toy keyboards roll off an assembly line at the Song Yih Group factory, a team of quality control workers examines each one.
Posters hanging in work stations show snapshots of what the keyboards bound for Japan should look like. Arrows point to areas that need special attention. Brief notes remind the inspectors what to check.
Amid an international furor over recalls of Chinese-made products, factories like the Song Yih plant say ensuring quality is not a new fad for them.
''We do our own product testing here,'' said Ming Tsung Lu, manger of the Taiwanese-owned plant in Guangzhou, an industrial city in southern China's Pearl River Delta. ''You've got to do it, or else you'll have big trouble, like Mattel did.''
Major U.S. toymaker Mattel Inc. has recalled millions of Chinese-made Barbie play sets, Polly Pocket dolls, Batman figures and other toys because of safety problems, one of the largest in a series of recalls and allegations of shoddy practices that have put Chinese manufacturers on the defensive.
The Chinese government is trying to redeem the ''Made in China'' label and shore up an export sector that accounts for a huge chunk of the economy. The sprawling industrial zones in the Pearl River Delta, which turned China into the world's workshop, are at the epicenter of this campaign. On Tuesday, the government is to give foreign journalists a tour of toy factories to show off Chinese manufacturing.
Many manufacturers remain confident that China can weather the storm. The recent problems are unlikely to drive business to other Asian nations, such as Vietnam and Malaysia, several said.
''Very few countries can do what we do,'' said Boding Wang, deputy general manager of Fook Lung Electroplating Ltd., which operates a factory in Guangzhou that puts shiny plating on bathroom fixures, jewelry and other items.
At Song Yih, which gave rare permission to an Associated Press reporter to visit the factory without government intervention, women in blue and yellow hats worked on an assembly line.
Lu predicted the controversy would die down. He echoed a belief common among many manufacturers: The product recalls had more to do with sloppy management at Mattel than with Chinese practices.
''Mattel's troubles were just caused by a management problem,'' said Lu, a wiry man in a baseball cap who said he worked for Mattel when it made Barbie dolls in Taiwan more than 20 years ago.
Foreign buyers need to ensure their Chinese suppliers meet quality standards, industry figures said.
Mattel, while defending its operations in China, also is stepping up unannounced random testing of its Chinese suppliers and will test every batch of products before they leave the factory.
''No system is perfect,'' Robert Eckert, chairman and CEO of Mattel said in a conference call with the media last month. ''We are continuing to test thousands of toys, and we could have additional issues.''
In the gritty city of Foshan, about an hour's drive from Guangzhou, the Yilong company employs 200 workers making plastic linings for refrigerators for Toshiba Corp., Samsung Electronics Co. and General Electric Co.
A slogan painted on the tin-roofed, white concrete factory says ''Satisfy the Customer'' in huge red Chinese characters.
Yilong deputy general manager P.K. Wong has his own theory about what went wrong at Mattel.
''I had a friend who worked at a company that had quality problems,'' he said. ''The problem was that because they had constant staff turnover, they lost control of their suppliers and subcontractors. Turnover is a problem.''
Finding a good factory can be tough for a foreign company, and many rely on firms that hook up them up with manufacturers.
Canadian businessman Brian Anyon of CMT Sourcing Group Ltd has been in this matchmaking business in China for about 10 years. He specializes in clothing and shoes; his large 10th floor office in Guangzhou is well stocked with samples of high heels, parkas, jeans, dresses and blazers.
Several rows of workers at desks with flat-screen computers type away as they process orders or design specifications with factories and overseas customers.
''If you come to China, you can definitely get ripped off,'' Anyon said.
The garment and footwear business learned a lesson a few years ago when big names like Nike Inc. were accused of using factories that exploited workers, Anyon said. Today, the firms have teams on the ground to closely monitor operations.
Chinese factories are capable of producing high-quality products at low prices, but foreign purchasers need to set clear specifications, said Christopher Devereux, managing director of ChinaSavvy, which handles plastics, hardware and other products.
Language barriers, he said, also add to the difficulties.
''Often, the Chinese can speak business social English. But they really don't speak technical English, and everything needs to be precise,'' the British businessman said. ''Nothing can be left to chance.''
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