Monday, December 31, 2007

Made in China

Historically-speaking, China was known for its luxury goods: silk brocade, 'China' porcelain, scrolls of distinctive art and calligraphy, jade, and rare spices. A few hundred years ago, China's wares were so hotly sought after in the European markets, and commanded such high prices, that the British had to resort to peddling opium (yesterday's equivalent to Heroin or Crack) in order to turn the tables on a trade deficit as threatening then as it is today. China, it seems, has always been able to manufacture goods that the rest of the world is powerless to resist.

American consumers have been shocked to learn that their cheap, China-made bounty (available at the nearest Walmart) could be tainted, poisonous, or ill-designed. In a worst case scenario, the paint of that car toy your toddler is currently chewing upon, the shrimp you bought at the supermarket to feed him, and the toothpaste you'll insist that he use to brush with later this evening could all be quite toxic. Well, gee, what a surprise that the shoddy, bargain-basement wares from a country known for its corruption and lack of concern over the poisoning of its own environment might happen to be... less than good. There are many other 'externalized' prices one pays for finding the cheapest monetary bargain, after all; this is a fact as ancient as the diseased meat pies sold by street vendors the world over.

But despite the hopes and prayers of unionist laborers in low-value manufactury across America and Europe, this fiasco is not likely to spell an end to the export of jobs and import of cheap goods that have defined the modern (post 1970's) trade relationship between China and the West. In order to chart a pragmatic course into a future likely defined by symbiotic (but often problematic) business relations between East and West, we should encourage a more varied perspective of such problems as arise. God forbid that there should ever again be protectionism and isolationism of the sort that had Qing Emperors razing their own coastline to prevent trade and interaction between aspiring Chinese merchants and the foreign devils. That strategy led to their own economic disempowerment, bankruptcy, and eventually to bits of the Chinese motherland (Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai, Qinghai, and Qingdao) being indefinitely 'leased' to outside powers.

That said, here I can provide a sampling of perspectives from the antipode of this particular disaster of globalisation:

The Chinese government's view (predictably) is that these pumped-up consumer fears are but unfair governmental orchestrations from its trade partners. Projection, anyone? Admittedly, with the growing angst among developed countries about their growing trade deficits with China, the theory at least has some plausibility. One could imagine that many flaws in Chinese exports previously overlooked by pro-business (sometimes pro-appeasement for reasons of other policy goals) governments have suddenly been un-overlooked. Ulterior motive or no, this still represents a victory for Western consumers. The Chinese government's next (predictable) step was to impound various imports from abroad (notably the US), claiming that they didn't meet China's rigorous standards of quality. Oh boy... another case, I suspect, of what 'what once was overlooked, shall not be any longer'. Fair enough. I have little reason to doubt that Tyson Foods (among others) would have no qualms about shipping meat products not fit for American table to China, and throwing scraps to various Chinese bureaucrats for the privilege of doing so. That leads us to China's third step in its mad dance to avoid losing too much face--the firing and execution of its former food and drug regulator, a Mr. Zheng.

Yes, this plan makes sense: When all else fails and you have a world-wide rebuke ballooning in your face, (1) deny everything, (2) make conspiracy theories (3) blame your detractors of hypocrisy, and (3) execute one scapegoat carefully chosen from a government faction that has fallen from favor.

The Chinese consumer has an often overlooked viewpoint on the issue. They (the people of the PRC) are well aware that whatever the case may be, a victory for the American consumer does not necessarily represent a victory of them. It was already common practice for most Chinese companies to export and sell their best quality merch (as it turns out, not quality enough) abroad, usually through a foreign trade company to give the products a more trustworthy face. Watered-down, less-durable, unsafe, often faked products, even cheaper to produce are reserved for a domestic market that faces less inspection, easy work-arounds (bribeable officials), and a populace that is not only generally uneducated about its rights as consumers (typically any 'rights' pertaining to the common people would be viewed as a threat by Beijing and awareness of such quashed accordingly), but just doesn't have much choice in the matter. Even as a burgeoning middle-class has ascended from the impoverished Mao-era masses, the majority have been left at the base of the escalator. That majority can't afford to buy expensive imports as the middle class does (so much for the hopes of every American entrepreneur to sell shoes to the 2.8 billion feet in China). The result: 'Made in China' is the only affordable option for most people. Without viable competition, value to the consumer is likely absent. Where would the Chinese go to find goods more affordable than what is already made in the workshops of Guangdong and Zhejiang?

Some Chinese like to shift blame to their historical enemies, the Japanese, noting that the Japanese sell their lowest quality and unsafest goods to China, reserving their best merch for the American or European markets. I can imagine that this idea incenses the middle class (who can affort to splurge money on real, rather than faked, Japanese cars and electronics). But the Japanese can hardly be blamed for taking advantage of an opportunity blatantly left open to them by the government, and which scores of Chinese entrepreneurs (for each foreign one) have already taken advantage of. The vaunted 'hand of the market' may auto-correct, but only when transparency, a surfeit of product information, standards easily parsed, and viable competition allow consumers to vote with their feet. As one who has suffered for the failure of cheap DVD-players, battery chargers, and even a basic metal spoon--all bought in the Chinese domestic market--I believe that it is the Chinese consumer more than the American, Brazilian, or Danish one whom will suffer most.

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