Boycotting China? Good luck

Itry not to roll my eyes at anybody, even politicians. But when Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) recently called for a ban on imports of Chinese toys, I turned my eyes to the sky and muttered, "Good grief."

I am not dismissing the dangers of lead paint on toys or of small parts that could lead to a child's death. But Dodd's call to yank Chinese-made toys from the market while toy makers and safety regulators get their act together flies in the face of reality. Like it or not, most toys come from China. Ban Chinese toys and, for the most part, you ban toys, period.

I speak from personal experience. For all of 2005 my family boycotted -- some members begrudgingly -- all products with the label "Made in China." This was not a political protest but an experiment to understand how much we'd come to depend, personally, on China's huge export economy. It all started two days after Christmas 2004, when I started to wonder where all the stuff that surrounded us came from. Not only were the toys from China, so were the tree lights, the electronics, even the dog's chew toy.

We had our work cut out for us. China makes 56% of the household kitchen appliances, such as toasters, 86% of the lamps and 80% of the luggage imported into the country, according to 2006 U.S. International Trade Commission figures. The commission may have found that only 56% of small appliances were imported from China, yet when I scoured the store shelves for an ordinary coffee maker, I couldn't find one that wasn't.

During our yearlong boycott, those numbers translated into futile searches for birthday candles, flip-flops and cheap sunglasses. The boycott rearranged our lives in little ways. We boiled water and poured it into a filter over mugs after our coffee maker quit and we couldn't find an affordable non-Chinese alternative. The kitchen junk drawer was jammed shut all year because the part to fix it was made in China. We found the words "Made in China" in unexpected places, such as on a box of discount candy canes and on wedding dresses in the J. Crew catalog.

As for toys, China makes 84% of imported games, toys and children's vehicles, including a whopping 95% of dolls and stuffed animals, according to the trade commission. We got by on Legos from Denmark, homemade wooden toys (the kids were not impressed) and a handful of toys from Taiwan, Mexico and Thailand. At year's end, we busted our holiday budget with pricey toys made in Germany (the kids weren't impressed with those either).

Friends and strangers give me credit for being prescient in light of this summer's recalls, but the truth is that toy safety -- or concern about most products from China -- never crossed my mind. By the end of our boycott, I came to appreciate that many goods from China are of good quality, in addition to being inexpensive.

Nevertheless, I've watched with interest Washington's reaction to the recalls, including a recent Senate hearing on toy safety. What I heard was both reassuring and alarming for worried American parents.

First the reassuring part. Just about everyone agreed that the Consumer Product Safety Commission needs more money, staff and authority. There also were calls for hefty fines when companies flout safety standards and for mandatory testing of products.

But testimony from the commission's acting chairwoman, Nancy Nord, did little to shore up my confidence. Nord conceded that a man named Bob is the agency's sole safety tester for all imported toys. She did not know how many toys entering the U.S. undergo any testing at all.

Nord cited as progress a new promise that China will no longer ship children's products with lead in them to the United States. However, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who chaired the hearing, signaled that he wasn't impressed because lead has been banned in U.S. toys for 30 years.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), the panel's top Republican, said the issue wasn't just toy safety but that China has a repressive government. He cited a list of ills from China's dark side: the use of forced labor, currency manipulation and the sale of weapons to dangerous states. He urged toy makers to consider moving their factories elsewhere.

I'm all for big ideas, but maybe we could start by getting the lead out of Thomas the Tank Engine. What was missing were suggestions on what parents can do now to protect their children.

With fewer than 100 days until Christmas, I admit I am worried. After all, my family barely made it through one Christmas without "Made in China."

Sara Bongiorni is the author of "A Year Without 'Made in China': One Family's True Life Adventure in the Global Economy."

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