On Sept 24, Chinese state media and Internet users hit back at insinuations by US politicians and newspapers at the weekend that Mattel had been pressured to kowtow to Beijing or had acted to avoid punitive measures by China.
"Such deep-rooted prejudices came as a shock to industry players and experts in China," said a front-page report in the Global Times, a Chinese newspaper known for its nationalistic stance on many issues.
"Where is the sense of fairness (the foreign media and politicians) have always talked about?"
The Guangzhou Daily's editorial on Sunday said the foreign media had been aware all along that China was merely a scapegoat but were too "arrogant and biased" to admit their mistakes.
Mattel, for its part, muddled the situation further by saying the apology delivered by a top executive last week had been "mischaracterised".
The New York Times quoted a Mattel spokesman as saying the company meant to apologise to Chinese consumers and not to the manufacturers. Nor was the executive's comments meant to address the damage to China's manufacturing reputation, the spokesman added.
The acrimony has marred what would otherwise have been a successful fence-mending exercise by Mattel, which recalled 21 million China-made toys this summer due to concerns about lead paint and tiny magnets which could be swallowed by small children.
The recalls strained Mattel's ties with Beijing, which had complained that it was being unfairly blamed for design flaws introduced by the company in the first place.
In a meeting with Chinese product safety chief Li Changjiang last Friday, Mattel's executive vice-president for worldwide operations, Thomas Debrowski, apologised for the recent recalls and admitted the company had recalled more toys for excessive lead content than justified.
"Mattel takes full responsibility for these recalls and apologises personally to you, the Chinese people, and all of our customers who received the toys," said Debrowski.
"It is very important for everyone to understand that the vast majority of those products recalled were the result of a design flaw in Mattel, not through the manufacturing flaw in China's manufacturers."
The Mattel executive's comments drew criticism, as well as cynicism, in the US.
"Mattel certainly must have been facing some pressure to do that, because you can't imagine why they would be trying to push this story along any further," Professor Eric Johnson of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
Senator Charles Schumer, a known critic of Chinese trade practices, also weighed in with harsh words. He told the New York Times: "It's like a bank robber apologising to his accomplice instead of to the person who was robbed."
Other US reports quoted experts suggesting Mattel had to deliver a mea culpa due to fears that Beijing would make things difficult for the company, possibly raising production costs and hurting their bottom line.
Mattel has been in China for 25 years. It makes about 65 per cent of its products there.
But not all Chinese media doubted the sincerity of Mattel's apology. In an editorial yesterday, the English-language China Daily said the apology was welcomed despite its lateness.
It added: "It was wise for Mattel to make an apology. Frankness from all sides will pave the way for further cooperation."
- By Chua Chin Hon
The Straits Times
Publication Date: 25-09-2007