On my first visit to China two weeks ago, fascinating contrasts greeted my arrival. Traveling to the center of Shanghai from Pudong International Airport on a maglev train that reached a peak speed of 430 km per hour, I zoomed past a rural landscape of vegetable fields and simple houses along narrow streets traversed by people on foot or bicycle. Within the premises of the modern headquarters of a pharmaceutical chemical producer, I watched women tending a lawn by hand, removing the stray broadleaf weeds that were marring the uniformity of the tall, straight grass.
A bad experience, however, marked my departure. Air China canceled flight 933 to Beijing. The botched handling of the situation turned what should have been only an inconvenience into mob-behavior-inducing chaos, causing many passengers to resolve never again to fly with Air China. Reputation can be so easily damaged.
I was in Shanghai for a networking event cohosted by C&EN, SOCMA (Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association), and eChinaChem, a company that facilitates trade in chemicals to and from China. Participants were representatives of chemical, pharmaceutical, and R&D service companies with stakes in China.
In predinner remarks, I referred to the contrasts in the country's performance in the chemical and pharmaceutical arena. Buyers flock to China for goods and services because they get good value. But recent problems with quality are disturbing. Everyone's stake in China is threatened when bad things happen, such as the recalls of tainted products. The Chinese at the reception were just as horrified as we non-Chinese were by the deadly consequences of tainted heparin. As an observer of the fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals sectors, I hope for the time when "Made in China" means high quality and total safety for all producers, not just those rooted in the Western tradition of highly regulated manufacturing.
Robert L. Wood, chief executive officer of the specialty chemical firm Chemtura, delivered the evening's keynote address. He spoke about reputation for safety as a particular challenge facing the chemical industry. "When one company in our industry makes a mistake, workers at a plant are hurt, or a dangerous emission occurs, or when a product is harmful to the people who use it, we all suffer," he said. "Our reputation is a collective one."
I couldn't have made the point better.
Largely through Senior Correspondent Jean-François Tremblay, C&EN delivers news about China, good or bad, that readers won't find anywhere else. Personally, I like stories that bring to life the mission statement of ACS. In Chinese, that would be "Hua xue bian li you ren sheng," the transliteration of the characters (shown) corresponding to "Improving people's lives through the transforming power of chemistry." I'm confident that one day chemicals and pharmaceuticals made in China will be regarded without doubt as products of chemistry that are improving people's lives.
I base that confidence on two factors. First, Western companies with stakes in China, such as those represented at the Shanghai dinner—Chemtura, Honeywell, and Hovione, among others—raise the bar for quality, safety, and environmental soundness of chemical operations. And second, Chinese-owned businesses that are serious about breaking through into the Western pharmaceutical markets are themselves highly committed to the safety and quality of goods and services.
I saw evidence of this commitment during a tour of the facilities of companies such as Synthetics China, a manufacturer of active pharmaceutical ingredients and advanced intermediates, and Alputon (see page 32) and Medicilon, two contract research organizations founded and operated by Chinese returnees. China's reputation will be well served by companies such as these.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.