Wednesday, August 15, 2007

poison paint

(above) I thought the abundant pink tulips in Wangfujing Dajie, the main shopping precinct in Beijing, were amazing but I got a chill when I looked closely and realised they were all plastic.

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As a businessman hangs himself, or is hanged, parents across the world must be worrying about their children's toys. How many Chinese toys are there in my son's room? How many of them were painted with toxic paint? This morning I found myself eyeing his plastic scoop digger and wondering whether the paint was just a little too bright. With large numbers of Dora the Explorer, Polly Pocket and Thomas the Tank engine toys affected, there can be few parents in the country who haven't got a poisonous toy in their children's toy box.

I'm tempted to revert to buying all my toys from myriad.co.uk and such. These are beautiful, fair trade, non-toxic, hand made wooden toys painted with water-based paint and finished with natural oils or shellac.

There are lots of good reasons to use wood, which is both more hygienic and takes less of a toll on the environment than plastic. Wood stimulates the child’s senses with its texture and variations in colour. Wood smells good and has its own temperature. Bacteria cannot reproduce on wood. When wooden toys break they can be fixed. And lastly, wood is recyclable. Myriad building bricks are by far the best I have ever seen.

At the same time it would be ridiculous to ban all Chinese products from the home because of this. 80% of the world's toys are made in China, and so there are bound to be more safety scandals there than anywhere else. The culture that I experienced in China was one of precision and exactitude. People took enormous pride in their work, and did not brook with flaws. The soul of China has great sensitivity and subtlety, but sometimes that is obscured by the headlong rush for development and maximum profit.

If there is one thing which could cause problems in China it is that in the quest for maximum output people are worked into the ground. I remember seeing an air hostess who was so tired I thought she might faint, and that was at the start of the flight. Workers are forced to work ridiculously long hours for a pittance. China's overproductivity is bound to cause problems because it is unsustainable, both in human and environmental terms.

What haunts me is that so many people in China said to me, 'There are too many people in China.' I believe that this is a mistaken and deeply dangerous belief, because it leads to the idea that people are expendable. Every human life is precious, and we need to accept the people we have on earth, and balance the books as best we can. More than most countries China needs to learn the value of human life over material gain, and that it is better to do a little well than a lot badly.

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