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Sony halts camera shipments to China
(Wednesday, December 21, 2005 - 01:51 EST)

Several Sony cameras that failed a standards test in the Zhejiang province in China will no longer be shipped to stores in China, according to Sony; at least temporarily. For its part, the Zhejiang province authorities have banned sales of the cameras.

The rest of the story has been at times vague and unclear, and even includes some intrigue, with alleged anonymous callers offering bribes if newspapers ignored the story. In an effort to see how relevant this is to US market consumers, as well as those outside China, we have been following this story, and communicating with Sony USA.

Sony's corporate response has been the most concise so far:

"Based on a quality and functions evaluation of 34 digital camera models (an evaluation requested by the Industry and Commerce Bureau of China's Zhejiang Province) Zhejiang Province recently decided to stop stores from selling models which did not pass the evaluation. In total, 13 models of six different digital camera manufacturers did not pass the evaluation and among these models, six Sony Cybershot models were named (DSC-H1, L1, P200, W7, W5, S90). All of the Cybershot models named are manufactured in China and the evaluation claims that these models did not pass on the basis of four quality issues including 'automatic exposure correction' and 'white balance.'"

Sony PR commented, "We are currently in discussion with Zhejiang Industry & Commerce Bureau to settle this issue amicably. Until a mutually agreed-upon solution is fixed, we temporarily suspended shipment of the six models in question to the entire Chinese market."

Two of the cameras named in the Zhejiang report are also made in the Zhejiang province, the Sony H1 and Sony S90. According to Sony USA sources, Sony H1 and S90s that are made in China are sent to the US market, while the others named in the report are made in Japan for the US. It is unclear where all the units that failed the testing are made, though a story from EE Times quotes a Sony spokesman saying that all models were produced in China, and will not "have an impact outside China."

Much of the confusion seems to be coming from questions about whose standards are not being met, with Sony China factory officials releasing a statement that standards files submitted to the Zhejiang Administration of Industry and Commerce were "not in conformity with the actual performance of Sony products" according to a China View story (www.chinaview.cn). According to an Interfax China story published days later, Kang Jian, a Sony China PR official, agreed with the inspection results, "But part of the reason for the failure to meet standards was that we submitted the wrong enterprise standards for use in the inspections."

That sounds like a reasonable explanation until you consider stories claiming that Sony apologized to consumers on a nationally televised commercial run last Sunday. "We've caused customers a lot of inconvenience, so we are apologizing," said Li Xi, director of public relations (source: AsiaNews.it).

We did not see, nor have we read a transcript from that apology, so at this point it remains unclear whether this is an actual failing in the quality of the Sony cameras made in China for the Chinese market, or if it's just a documentation error on the part of the Sony factory that raised the standards to unreachable levels.

Zhejiang province's testing included 34 models from various companies. A total of 13 failed, two of them allegedly from Pentax, plus the six from Sony. The Pentax models have not been named, nor have any other cameras that were tested, failed or not. An AsiaNews.it story says that Canon and Matsushita (Panasonic) were supposed to be among the products tested. Officials from neither company have been notified how their products fared, however. (source: AsiaNews.it)

It is unclear why only Sony cameras were named, but a possible cause is that someone allegedly tried to bribe local newspapers with promises of large subscription orders if the papers agreed not to run the story about the banning of Sony cameras. First reported by Xinhua, China's official government news outlet, unnamed "public relations officials" tried to bribe the newspapers, though no one specifically says that Sony employees or PR representatives were among the alleged callers.

Obvious editorial comment: It is difficult to believe that any PR firm would make such a widespread attempt at bribery with any kind of expectation that it would work, especially when the targeted subjects live to expose such underhanded activity, but that's what Xinhua is reporting. If Sony officials or representatives were indeed were involved, it certainly backfired.

It's worth mentioning that we at Imaging Resource have not had significant trouble with the Sony cameras mentioned here beyond what we noted in our reviews; certainly nothing worth banning a camera from sale. Neither do we know of any US-based reviewer who has had such significant problems as to warrant concern from US customers. Because the cameras in question seem to have been made for the Chinese market, our test results may not apply for cameras sold into China.

We'll keep watching this story and report important developments.



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