A couple of fairly expensive compact fluorescent light bulbs went kaput in my house after hardly any use. I checked the package and, sure enough, they were made in China. My first thought was that the Chinese need guidance from a W. Edwards Deming equivalent. My next thought was it would do no good.
Deming, who died in 1993, was the brilliant American who collaborated with the Japanese when their shoddy products had become a source of international ridicule. His sermon was direct. Quality counts.
The Japanese had been figuring that out for themselves and worked with their usual energy and self-discipline to address what was too easily breakable, too quickly inoperable and too likely dangerous. A result was superior goods that made the jokes go away as prosperity smiled more graciously.
But even if there were now a thousand Demings eager to mount workplace pulpits in China, I am not sure their excellence evangelism would further the cause.
It's true that, after embarrassing headlines some time back, the Chinese instituted stricter quality control measures, going so far as to execute two businessmen whose tainting of milk poisoned thousands. Outside observers say the bad old days were soon back. The government and factory operators remained too intent on exploiting the moment's opportunities to fix fumbles.
I bring all this up not because I am particularly worried about my light bulbs, but because I think the quality issue informs us about China on a variety of other issues highlighted in the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao with President Obama.
Increasingly, it is the Chinese hour, as is shown by its current 10 percent growth and a statistic from the recently departed holiday season: 80 percent of the Christmas toys sold in America are produced there. With an economy that surpassed Japan's as second in the world this year, a swaggering China has been as careless about the rest of the world as it has been assiduous in advancing its own agenda.
You would think there would be more wisdom in this ages-old civilization, but much that was noble got waylaid in a murderous Marxist revolution. One consequence has been a bully-boy mentality in a corrupt Communist Party that tyrannizes the populace while harassing Japan, threatening Taiwan, building weapon systems to intimidate everyone and, not so long ago, warning Norway's Nobel officials that their country would suffer for giving a prize to a dissident the Chinese have imprisoned.
The world needs China's help with Iran, a major source of Chinese oil and therefore a favored friend suffering little reprimand on a march toward nuclear armament. The world also needs China's help with North Korea, which already has nuclear weapons, and China mostly sits on its hands.
Thanks to a belated epiphany that even relatively liberated markets work better than collectivist oppressiveness to generate wealth, China has become a major international player. But major players have major responsibilities, and a constant question has been whether the United States should intervene in China's recklessness with retaliatory trade acts. The answer is that the trade benefits our economy enormously while protectionist combat could afflict us mightily, and that China happens to be a crucial financier keeping us afloat in our own deficit recklessness.
Summits make better sense, and this one at least saw Hu acknowledging that there really might be such a thing as universal human rights and that North Korea's nuclear-enrichment plant really could spell trouble. From such meager beginnings, real accomplishments can grow, and must, not just for our sake, but for the sake of a nation faced with factionalism, rebelliousness and hundreds of millions still in poverty.
China's continued ascent is no more a given than a Communist Party collapse some have predicted. If the party survives without significant policy changes, the ascent quite possibly won't. Present faults even including poor product quality might defeat China's foremost aspirations. China's light will shine as it could only if those light bulbs work.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado and a Centennial Institute Fellow. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay@aol.com