Nestlé and Qatar learn from Tiananmen Square
What’s a little disaster when you can always learn from a bigger one?
Twenty-six years ago on June 4, the Chinese government cracked down on unarmed student protesters in Tiananmen Square leading to the reported deaths of over 2,000 (1) people. In the aftermath, the Chinese government adopted two major points of counter-attack:
1. Internally, the idea was to reject entirely the protesters as “students” and instead painted them as “counter-revolutionary” figures who were bent on destroying the Chinese way of life and reversing hard won freedoms and development.
2. Outside China, the statements were notable for their blandness, for example in denying that anyone had died “in” (2) Tiananmen Square which was unfortunately what the Western media had categorized the “incident” under.
Over time, both these strategies succeeded. The student protesters of those days are now (pretty much to the last couple of them) comfortably ensconced within the Chinese plutocracy, either working for foreign companies or becoming local businessmen themselves. Western media talks about the “incident” once every year, and then moves on to more important topics, such as whatever is going on with Kim Kardashian’s backside these days.
It is not like the Chinese invented this genre of course; they merely learned from the masters of the trade, namely the big U.S. companies:
a. Tiananmen happened just around 5 years after the horrific accident in Bhopal, India when a U.S. company — Union Carbide — had failed to maintain critical chemical facilities in a factory manufacturing noxious gases. Emissions of methyl iso-cyanate (MIC) on that fateful night in December 1984 had led to the immediate deaths of over 2,000 people, and the subsequent poisoning, maiming and deformity of thousands more. The U.S. company abdicated most of its responsibility, blaming such things as poor first aid and “already poisoned” wells for the deaths of all these people.
b. Even before that, U.S. tobacco companies had perfected the art of plausible deniability. If for example, the widow of a smoker who died at say 50 sued the companies, the response was usually on the lines of “this person was already obese and so had a higher chance than average of dying early” or “this person also drank alcohol, which is bad for health.” In other words, a defense that relied entirely on circumstantial and environmental factors that could always be adjusted to suit any specific law suit around the death of an individual.
In the past week or so, both Nestlé and Qatar have had occasion to use this playbook:
1. A fast growing scandal about dangerous levels of lead in packets of Maggi noodles sold in India now threatens to escalate into a global issue for the manufacturer, Nestlé. The company has denied any such scandal of course and maintained that Maggi noodles sold in India do not have “excess” lead levels. Notice the similarity to the U.S. tobacco companies and Union Carbide?
2. Qatar is mighty piqued with an article in the Washington Post that claimed that over 1,200 immigrant workers had died in the country on construction projects. The article followed the controversial award of the 2022 World Cup to the country. The government issued a report in response, claiming that no worker had died “in” a World Cup construction site. Notice the similarity to the language used after Tiananmen?
India’s favorite snack food, Maggi noodles were introduced in the early 1990s just as the country was liberalizing and accelerating the pace of urbanizations. Harried mothers of young children soon found the perfect snack that was easy to make, which was not only convenient but also claimed to be “nutritious” by a very well-known multinational, Nestlé. With a market share of 60% in the category, the company seemed impervious to market changes or competition.
Behind the scenes though, the breakneck growth of the brand in India that had necessitated multiple new factories and distribution initiatives were showing signs of stress. The company had already been warned by authorities in the Northern state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) that one of the batches tested in 2014 had contained excessive amounts of lead. This was rejected by the company, but could not be completely denied. When product testers found the same problem barely a few months later, they went public with the story.
The response was classic, albeit of an imperial Swiss corporate that considered its standards higher than those of the local “emerging market” government testing them: complete denial. When the story refused to die down — India’s media does after all have a well-deserved reputation for free-wheeling, controversy-seeking stories that seek to bell the proverbial (fat) cats – the company went ahead and did its own tests, concluding that “noodles did not have excess lead.”
Therein lies the rub: the company did NOT test the batch which UP government authorities had tested and found to contain the excess lead; they instead tested a different batch on the basis that the “old” batch had passed its expiry date and so wasn’t suitable for testing. If anyone reading this has some experience with statistical testing, they would be rolling their eyes about now.
The bigger problem though was the use of the descriptive word “excess” in the report’s finding — this is exactly the kind of language that raises everyone’s hackles due to their experience with Union Carbide and Big Tobacco.
-What exactly is an “excess” amount of lead, a known poison?
-Is the “excess” in relation to a healthy adult or an 8-year-old child (who incidentally would tend to absorb 5 times as much lead as an adult)?
-Under what (and whose) standard is the lead not in “excess”?
-What about all the previous batches where the government found shortcomings?
In the ensuing media storm, the government of the state of Delhi (the seat of the federal government although run by a different political party to the one running the country) also declared that it had found excess lead in the current batch of Maggi noodles, and suspended sales of the product within the state for 15 days.
Nestlé is went one step further on Friday by banning the sale of Maggi noodles across India. It isn’t clear when sales will resume.
All that said, I am firmly of the opinion that one year from now, Nestlé and Maggi will be back on top of the Indian snack market with little or no sign of any damage from all these incidents for the following reasons:
a. The product offers convenience and is reasonably priced
b. Indian media and government attention will move to other things
c. None of these incidents can be really made to stack up in court, or result in a penalty levied by the courts (see Big Tobacco above)
d. General indifference
e. Kim Kardashian’s (or her Indian equivalent’s) backside
Qatar: not “in” trouble
Many years ago, when I was in the car with a friend driving around Dubai, I noticed that the on-screen display for outside temperature read “52 degrees” (Celsius) just as the radio announcer declared “and the temperature now is 48 degrees ”. So I teased my friend about going around in an expensive German car (a Porsche in this case) that didn’t even have a proper thermometer.
The he explained – the reason for the discrepancy wasn’t the car’s thermometer but simply the fact that in the UAE as in most other countries, all factories and construction sites would need to be shut down if the outside temperature crossed 50 degrees Celsius. Hence daytime temperatures in the UAE “never” crossed 50 degrees. Pity those poor construction workers, but then they get an extra ration of a cold drink on such days.
That experience has stayed with me all these years. So when Amnesty and various other organizations started crying foul about the deaths of migrant construction workers in the sweltering heat of Qatar after the country won its bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, my opprobrium was turned not against the country but against FIFA for awarding the games to Qatar.
In response to the Washington Post article that followed the arrests of various FIFA officials by U.S.-led prosecutors last week and subsequently to the resignation of Sepp Blatter (an event that caused me to buy a round drinks for everyone around me as the headline flashed on the TV) wherein the newspaper highlighted some 1200 deaths due to construction of World Cup related infrastructure, the country responded with a bland statement that declared that not a single worker had died “in” World Cup venues; and then went on to blame the workers for arriving in the country with pre-existing conditions such as coronary diseases.
Reading that press release, one almost feels a twinge of regret for the poor Qataris, having made a courageous decision to bribe their way to the glory of being the first Middle Eastern country to host a world event, only to be let down by these dastardly, selfish South Asians with a propensity for dying from a tiny bit of heat, not at all like the local camels that could carry on forever. Tut, tut.
Of course, the Qataris chose to be factually correct – and the operative word was “in.” Our experience with previous World Cup events tells us that the actual stadiums and other venues don’t get built until a few weeks before the World Cup commences (or in the case of the Brazil World Cup in 2014, a few weeks after), much of the previous few years is used to build roads, rails, power grids and water networks required to support such massive venues. Since the Qataris have only started construction of one stadium, and expect to start the others before 2018, it is unlikely that anyone was actually working on “World Cup venues” – therefore it is perfectly accurate to state that no one had died “in” a World Cup venue, just like no one died “in” Tiananmen back in 1989.
It is possible that the FIFA scandal leads to the removal of the award for Qatar to host the World Cup; it is more likely that a face-saving measure is found such as a joint hosting with say, Turkey that would help defray most of the criticism but leave everyone with a face-saving deal.
What about those 1,200 dead construction workers? Yeah well, no one is responsible for that – people die all the time, after all.
1. Estimates vary depending on who you ask. The Chinese government initially admitted around 200 deaths, then changed the figures; before denying entirely that any protesters had been killed
There is a simple explanation here: most people were killed outside Beijing, but even if anyone had been shot “in” Tiananmen, they would not have died there, the official place of death would have been the hospital or morgue where their bodies were removed to.
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