China Has the Right Idea

Say what you will about “authoritarian capitalism” (the term British historian Timothy Garten Ash uses to describe China’s economy), but when Chinese corporate executives disgrace themselves beyond any hope of redemption, they know what to do.  They commit suicide.  How cool is that?

In 2007, Zhang Shuhong was CEO of Lee Der Industrial, the company that produced the millions of Mattel toys that had to be recalled due to lead in the paint.  Intentionally adding lead to paint—done to produce more vibrant colors—is illegal (banned since 1978) because it can cause serious damage to children, even when ingested in tiny amounts.  Zhang couldn’t live with the shame.  So he hanged himself.

Needless to say, had this occurred in the U.S., it would have gone down much differently.

For openers, the CEO would’ve tried to pin the blame on someone else—an associate or supervisor, or better yet, the production crews themselves.  If it were a union shop, he would accuse the Executive Board of having created an “adversarial environment.”  If a non-union shop, he’d blame outside contractors.  If it were jobbed out, he’d blame the vendors.  In any event, the company  would hire a phalanx of lawyers and instruct them to stall for as long as humanly possible.

The CEO would criticize consumer protection laws for being too confusing; he would sue the laboratory in charge of analyzing the paint; he would ominously hint that “sabotage” couldn’t be ruled out; he would be televised donating $100,000 to UNICEF; and his company would invent the American Foundation for Human Enrichment, a bogus organization ostensibly dedicated to the manufacture of educational toys.

Eventually, the CEO would resign.  He would collect a golden parachute of $10 million, claim to be the alcoholic product of a dysfunctional hillbilly family, check himself into rehab, become a Christian, write a book, appear on talk shows and, two years later, be hired by another company as a “consultant.”  The thought of taking his own life would never occur to him.

Chinese executives have the right idea about shame.  As tragic as suicide is, there is a certain elegance and clarity of purpose to the gesture.  Committing suicide is to acknowledge that clinging greedily to one’s last gasping breath isn’t necessarily the noblest act imaginable.

China also has a fascinating approach to executions.  In 2009, following a tainted baby formula scandal that killed six children and sickened an estimated 300,000 more, the Chinese government executed the dairy farmer and milk salesman who were implicated in the contamination.  No messing around with legalistic red-tape or stalling tactics.  For the good of society, the responsible parties were summarily put to death.

Not to come off as too Old Testament, but wouldn’t that work here as well?  For instance, wouldn’t it have had a salutary effect on society if, following the Wall Street meltdown (and prior to the subsequent $1 trillion bailout), we had taken, say, a half-dozen greedy investment bankers, lined them up against a wall, and shot them?  Does anyone really think these guys would have come away unscathed had in happened in China?

We lose more than 35,000 people each year to traffic accidents alone.  Again, not to sound bloodthirsty or vengeful, but as a means of satisfying society’s demand for simple, unambiguous justice, putting down a half-dozen deserving Wall Street bankers doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.