Exporting trust to the land of doubtLast week, my Chinese friend Mr. Won and his family from Shanghai came to Seoul. They were on a family vacation for May Day. They wanted to go shopping, so I took them to a duty-free shop in downtown Seoul. He picked a watch and asked for three of them. The watch had a price tag of 8 million won ($7,317), and he charged 24 million won on his credit card. Amazed by his spending, I asked, “You can find this watch brand in Shanghai, right?” “Yes, and they do sell authentic products. But I don’t trust them,” he said. Mr. Won didn’t count on the goods sold in Shanghai, even if they were the same.
Mrs. Won toured the department store from top to bottom, and price was not an issue. She bought just about everything that caught her eye. She was especially impressed by the grocery section in the basement and said, “In Shanghai, you can’t buy food you can trust no matter how rich you are.” She lamented that trust in food quality has fallen.
More news on fake food shocked China recently. The Chinese police caught a group selling rat meat as lamb. When I was a Shanghai correspondent more than 10 years ago, I heard a rumor that the meat on lamb skewers was actually rat. I didn’t believe it because I thought rat meat would cost more than lamb. But the rumor turned out to be true. Now, Chinese people are concerned that they may have unknowingly consumed the rodent.
In March, thousands of pig carcasses came down the Huangpu River running through Shanghai. The residents, who are proud of China’s biggest international city, were appalled. Online postings made fun of the city: “Now, people of Shanghai can go out to the Huangpu River and enjoy pork soup every day.” The latest outbreak of bird flu also started in Shanghai. Mr. Won’s lack of trust in Chinese products reflects his frustration and anger.
The crisis of trust is not limited to food. The government and the Communist Party are losing the trust of the people. As the rural migrant workers are pushed to the outskirts of the cities, they began to doubt the value of economic growth out of relative deprivation. Private companies believe that the state-run companies are colluding with the government and banks to monopolize wealth. Only elementary school students believe the propaganda slogan, “Without the Communist Party, there would be no new China.”
The crisis may be an opportunity for Korean companies. As it is believed that Korean food products are safe and reliable, Korean milk and baby formula is in high demand in China. The stock price of some formula makers has surged by more than 100 percent over the last year. Mr. Won paid 24 million won at the duty-free shop to buy the watches and food products he can trust. Now, all Korean products and services, not just food but also semiconductors, steel, automobiles and more, can grow in China. We need to project the image that Korea is a country that can be trusted. Trust is the best product.
*The author is director of the China Institute of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Han Woo-duk