Burger King China was recently in hot water in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province in east China, where some of its stores were accused of using expired ingredients, according to an annual consumer rights program broadcast by China Central Television on July 16.
Initiated in 1991 to expose problems and malpractices in the domestic market, the program is broadcast on World Consumer Rights Day, March 15, annually, but was delayed this year due to the epidemic.
After the program was aired, Burger King China apologized on the social media platform Weibo and said that the franchise stores involved were suspended, and being investigated by a special working group. Stores of the brand in some other provinces have started food safety inspections.
As domestic consumption becomes a driving force of economic development and consumers' awareness of their rights grows, the government has been stepping up efforts to better protect consumers.
While incidents infringing on consumers' rights and interests occur from time to time, progress has been made in improving laws and enforcement, tightening supervision of businesses and expanding the channels to spread awareness and protect consumers.
A multi-tiered system has been established, including supervising product quality, developing standards for production, and regulating advertising, competition between enterprises, pricing and e-commerce, Zhang Jiangli, an associate professor with Beijing Normal University, told Beijing Review.
The China Consumers Association (CCA) was founded in 1984. With its support, the Law on Protecting Consumers' Rights and Interests was adopted in 1993. As the economy developed and businesses adopted new models, the law was amended to encompass them. In 2014, an amended version formulated regulations on e-commerce for the first time, covering goods and service transactions through the Internet, TV, phone and post. The amended law also strengthened punishment for malpractices and stressed protection of consumers' personal information.
The government is also focusing on ensuring food safety through legislation. The Food Safety Law, first promulgated in 2009, had revised regulations on its implementation issued last year to improve risk monitoring and food safety standards.
The regulations clarify the primary responsibilities of producers and business operators, regulate the storage and transportation of food products, ban false advertising of food, and improve the management of infant formula food.
The CCA conducts regular surveys on consumers' complaints. A survey report in March says it received over 820,000 complaints last year, 7.76 percent more than in 2018, and over 614,000 of the cases were addressed. Economic losses worth more than 1.1 billion yuan ($157 million) sustained by deceived consumers were recouped. According to another report, consumers' complaints included high prices, slow delivery, poor post-sale services and leakage of personal information.
The government has expanded the channels to lodge complaints and seek consultations on product quality. In 2017, an online platform known as 12315 was launched. Last year, the platform was upgraded to include regulations on the quality and pricing of goods including food and drugs. Consumers can complain through its website or app.
There is also greater integration between different government departments to protect consumers. A ministerial joint conference to protect consumer rights and interests has been set up, consisting of 26 ministries and units, led by the State Administration for Market Regulation.
"Cooperation between different departments can extend cross-regional law enforcement, both online and offline, to address problems such as information leakage and dubious advertising more effectively," Zhu Wei, Deputy Director of the Communication Law Research Center at China University of Political Science and Law, told 21st Century Business Herald.
Regional and private initiatives are also emerging. The Yangtze River Delta region in east China has launched an online platform for consumers to complain directly to the sellers. Some financial institutions have adopted blockchain technology to protect consumers' personal data.
Fang Yan, a deputy to the National People's Congress, the top legislature, told China News Service that new technology can help to crack down on individuals selling fake goods on social media platforms, which is otherwise harder to regulate than e-commerce platforms. “Digital systems for tracing the source of fake goods and smart monitoring systems should be adopted to better protect consumers’ rights,” she said.
Online sales boomed in China during the novel coronavirus epidemic period. Data from the Ministry of Commerce showed that online retail sales reached 5.15 trillion yuan ($736.7 billion) in the first half of the year, up 7.3 percent year on year.
Fang said the CCA received over 3 million consumer complaints during the May Day holiday this year, mainly on online consumption and coupons. Some fresh products went bad during transportation. Also, consumers buying products during live-streaming sales had trouble returning misrepresented goods and getting a refund due to lack of evidence as the programs could not be replayed.
In light of this, Zhang suggests that consumers keep digital evidence such as taking screenshots during online interactions and learn more about laws and regulations to protect their rights.
Liu Junhai, Director of the Business Law Center at Renmin University of China, told 21st Century Business Herald that instead of holding only the sellers accountable, the online platforms where the products are live-streamed also have a responsibility. They should monitor the live-streaming sales.
The new challenges call for a more sophisticated legal system and new solutions. According to Zhang, regulations on pricing, e-commerce activities and data ownership need to be improved. Efforts are also needed to improve product and service quality standards, tighten supervision and expose more malpractices.