BEIJING — At the Hongqiao toy market, the name "Barack Obama" doesn't roll easily off the tongue and indeed few people know who he is. But when they hear what he said, they have choice words for him, some of them unprintable.
The senator suggested a ban on all toy imports from China during an economic roundtable in New Hampshire last week. Although his presidential campaign backpedaled soon afterward, Obama and other Democratic candidates have made similar statements before calling for at the very least sharp restrictions on Chinese-made toys.
China last year exported $17.8 billion worth of toys, 37% of them to the United States, according to the China Toy Assn. The country manufactures 80% of the world's toys.
But in recent months, amid a series of disturbing revelations about contaminated Chinese products, including pet food and toothpaste, toys have been a major source of safety worries, especially concerning lead paint. Yet anything that threatens China's pocketbook and national pride predictably raises tempers.
"Americans are only picking on us because our economy is doing well and we're getting the Olympics," said Chen Xuehua, 35, who was selling toys on Christmas Eve at Hongqiao market.
The saleswoman is from Guangdong province, which is in effect the real-life Santa's workshop, the toy manufacturing hub of China. Raised in a poor rural family, she had no toys as a child, which may contribute to her misty-eyed view of toys today. She sees Chinese toys as a great boon to all parties, bringing wealth to China and spreading happiness among children around the world.
"Chinese children love these toys, foreign children love these toys. What's the problem?" said Chen, lovingly fingering the "Made in China" label on a blue squishy plastic thing of undefinable shape.
Although Christmas is not the retailing extravaganza here that it is in the United States, the market was busy on the eve of the holiday with Chinese shoppers emulating the Western tradition. Their view could best be summed up as: If it's good enough for our children, it should be good enough for yours.
"Isn't it inevitable that there is a trade-off between price and quality?" said Li Chenzi, 36, a U.S.-educated woman shopping with her 5-year-old daughter. "Of course, Chinese toys will not have the same safety standard."
Especially to an older generation of Chinese, who were raised without the privileges today's children enjoy, the foreign obsession with toy quality is genuinely baffling, if not self-indulgent and arrogant.
"Americans are making a big fuss over nothing," said Jin Jian, 46, who says that as a boy he made his own toys from walnut shells. As for Obama, he said, "That . . . . [here's where the something unprintable comes in] won't get elected if he tries to ban Chinese toys."
Obama's remarks about Chinese toys also provoked harsh retorts on Tianya, one of the largest Internet forums in China.
"Worse than Bush!" wrote one commentator. "An insult to China," wrote another.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry was more polite, but no less adamant, calling Obama's statement about toys "unobjective, unreasonable and unfair."
Obama's comment was made Wednesday while responding to a New Hampshire woman who said she was afraid she wouldn't find safe Christmas toys for her family.
"What I would do right now is I would stop all imports of these toys from China," Obama said. His campaign promptly qualified the remark, saying it would apply only to toys containing lead. Other Democratic candidates -- among them Sens. Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd and former Sen. John Edwards -- have at various times called for a boycott of Chinese toys this Christmas season.
In response, the Chinese government is introducing a new system for certifying the quality of toys. In Guangdong, the provincial government has conducted a series of well-publicized raids on toy factories and revoked more than 700 export licenses over quality problems. Trying to reassure the public, the press almost daily carries upbeat stories about improvements in the quality and inspection of Chinese toys.
"Study: Chinese Toys as Safe as Those Made Elsewhere," read one recent headline, and another, "Number of Exported Chinese Toys Rebounds."
Figures released by the Ministry of Commerce and quoted in the Chinese press show that toy exports for the first three quarters of 2007 were up 13% from last year. However, there is a long lag between the time orders are placed and the time a customer picks the toy off the shelf.
Export orders for this Christmas season were made long before the revelations about a host of Chinese consumer products hit the front pages. During a trade fair in October in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, toy makers complained of fewer orders for Christmas 2008.