Hong Kong's dramatic skyline: the city will host CI's World Congress in 2011. Image by slack12 under Creative Commons licence.
‘It was a privilege to join friends and colleagues from the Asia Pacific consumer movement to mark 35 years of the Hong Kong Consumer Council (HKCC) last month. The Consumers International (CI) delegation, including President Samuel Ochieng and Director General Joost Martens, were able to get a taste of the major consumer issues in the region and see how consumer rights are developing as China’s consumer economy begins to stir. The choice of Hong Kong for the CI World Congress in May 2011 could not be more timely.
Along with a keynote address by Samuel Ochieng on the global nature of consumer rights, we heard from former leaders of the consumer movement in Hong Kong. Although barely 7 million people live in Hong Kong it has had an immense effect on the consumer movement across the region and, increasingly, on consumer rights in Mainland China itself.
Mr Yang Hong-can, Secretary General of the Chinese Consumers Association (CCA) spoke of recent developments in consumer protection and safety standards and put into context the tremendous importance of China’s consumers to the future of the global economy.
As China changes, CI believes consumer rights like access to basic needs, the right to safety and the right to be informed can play a progressive role in the development of civil society in China. Equally so, China’s consumers can play a leading role in the advancement of consumer rights worldwide.
Multinational corporations, in desperate need of new consumer markets, are falling over themselves to tap into what is perhaps the biggest reserve of consumer spending left anywhere in the world. These rapid changes are an unprecedented challenge for China’s consumers. Negotiating the costs, benefits and consequences of global consumer capitalism is an unfamiliar task for many of the country’s 1.3 billion people.
Chinese consumers need the global consumer movement’s experience and expertise now, more than ever. Equally, the consumer movement needs an informed and empowered Chinese citizenry to help ensure that business responds to consumer needs in China and around the world.
Putting consumer rights at the heart of policy
From high street banks, credit services and retail; to telecomms, energy provision and healthcare, China’s consumer industries are being exposed to the free market as never before. With the help and support of CI and its member organisations, China’s consumer activists must make sure that consumer rights and responsibilities are put centre stage in this period of immense change.
Helping member organisations and government authorities develop consumer law is a central tenant of CI’s work. And together with our national member, The China Consumers Association (CCA), we have opened dialogue with the Chinese authorities about expanding consumer protection and advancing product safety testing and standards.
But being part of establishing a legal framework for consumer protection is only one, albeit vital, element of consumer rights development. The rising number of multinational companies operating in China presents a variety of challenges that are all too familiar to the global consumer movement.
The junk food trap
Overweight and obesity levels in Asia Pacific are increasing at a faster pace than anywhere else in the world. The WHO predicts that almost 45% of the Chinese male population will be overweight by 2010 . Modern diets are taking their toll, perpetuated by the growing number of Western-style fast food outlets in the country.
There are more than 1,000 KFC restaurants in China, and they are increasing at an annual rate of 200. McDonalds outlets are growing at a rate of 100 restaurants per year.
The food and soft drink industry is nestling itself in to everyday life in China; using tried and tested marketing techniques to promote junk food to a new generation of young Chinese consumers.
Tackling the marketing of unhealthy food to children is a major campaign for CI, with many members in the Asia Pacific region actively involved. As part of CI’s Junk Food Generation campaign, the Hong Kong Consumer Council revealed the persuasive power junk food marketing has over children with a Lunch Box Challenge in 2008 and a Supermarket Sweep in 2009.
Sharing expertise on financial services
The Chinese are traditionally great savers, yet, despite the economic downturn, credit-driven spending is playing an increasingly prominent part in China’s US$145 billion retail economy.
Credit cards were first introduced in China in 2002 and, in 2007, WTO obligations opened China’s high street banking market to foreign companies. So, as China’s swelling middle-class develops a taste for the material trappings of consumer culture, the multinational banks and credit services have arrived to provide the necessary funds.
Whether it is calling for greater access to genuine credit facilities for poor communities (often those who need it most), or demanding more transparency from banks on repayment conditions, fair and just consumer credit provision is an ongoing campaign theme for many CI members.
CI’s recent work on the solutions to the financial crisis has put this experience and expertise centre stage. This needs to be shared with our colleagues in China as consumers there face up to the opportunities and pitfalls presented by high street credit providers.
The global impact of China’s consumers
The potential size of China’s consumer market means the development of consumer rights there can reverberate around the world. The country’s geopolitical influence, backed up by the global reach of its export industry means everything from toy safety to the ethical criteria of clothing manufacturers can benefit from the development of consumer rights in China’s domestic market.
CI has a responsibility to help China support the rights of its consumers. This will help raise consumer protection and product safety standards both within China, and internationally. CI will be working with its member organisations and other key stakeholders to seize the opportunity of China’s economic openness and build durable, fair and inclusive consumers protection in China. A strong consumer movement in China has the potential to benefit us all and Hong Kong’s hosting of CI World Congress 2011 will be an important step in achieving this aim.’