Every time I read an American news article about manufacturing, GDP, retailing or anything connected to those topics, invariably the reader comments center on the American job situation and the dismal economic outlook. More than one person will comment: ‘Buy Made in America’ products only! If the article talks about retail sales especially, most comments center on ‘that cheap, made in China crap’.
I do understand that the job outlook in America is pretty dismal. I can see that the economy is faltering. My heart goes out to everyone who is feeling the pinch. America does need jobs and American people need to work. Not just for their livelihood and the economy, but for their self-esteem. I understand that this is a very controversial subject and I don’t want to address the controversy, even though I have clear opinions about it
No, that is not what this blog entry is about. I’m addressing ‘that cheap, made in China crap’ that apparently displeases so many people.
I will admit that, in some cases, products that are made overseas are manufactured to the lowest possible quality standards and with the poorest materials. Not just in China but in Bangladesh, the Philippines, Cambodia or any other Asian nation whose workers are recruited to produce goods for overseas consumption. But somehow China is always the target. Nobody ever says ‘that cheap, made in the Philippines crap’.
Let us remember that the American consumer is wise: he or she wants the best value at the best price. Does that mean a quality product? No, not necessarily. So, sometimes the best value at the best price is a cheaply produced product that is not designed to last. Also, let us remember that consumers seek the lowest price for what they buy. That means that retailers, in order to obtain and maintain low prices to keep up with customer demand, has had to move production overseas.
The sad state of affairs is that, between safety and environmental regulations, and transportation legislation, it is cheaper for American companies to recruit overseas production. A good friend once told me that America has legislated itself out of work. There is a grain of truth to that.
But, what about ‘that cheap, made in China crap’? I’ve lived in China for the past 10 months and yes, there is plenty of cheaply made crap. But there is also an abundance of quality goods. They are a bit more expensive though. The average Chinese consumer does not shop at high end retail stores, they are pretty much akin to the Walmart crowd Americans are so familiar with. Even though there are plenty of boutiques here, their products are priced to sell and attract their fair share of customers. Not everyone goes to Walmart. How is it that the Chinese can live with cheaply made crap and make it last?
True, it is not the quality that I have been used to but these goods are serviceable and, if taken care of and not abused, durable. But… isn’t that like anything else? If you take care of something it can last forever?
Chinese consumers have more money to throw around than ever before – I’ve said that a lot throughout this blog. Some people here shop like there’s no tomorrow and some even embody the ‘shop till you drop’ motto, especially at Western New Year holiday when the stores are open for 24 hours straight and prices are slashed. Wu Ma Lu, a shopping district in the Hankou section of Wuhan specializes in merchandise that targets that demographic. Sometimes the goods are overpriced and sometimes they are priced right for the quality they represent.
Consumers here don’t mind spending a few ‘kuai’ on an article of clothing that they know will only last a season. After years of deprivation and economic hardship, they are after quantity, not necessarily quality. And there is something to be said for the magic of buying power, isn’t there? Even the medical community says that it boosts endorphins. Putting that in layman’s terms: it simply feels good to buy yourself something, doesn’t it?
In China it is all about buying power. But then, isn’t it the same in America, too? Do we really need more than a few pair of shoes? Do we need a closet full of clothes? Do we really need big screen TVs with surround sound? Do we really need all that stuff they sell at the mall? For that matter: do we need so many malls that all sell the same stuff, store after store?
From a practical standpoint and from all that I’ve read recently, we do not need all the things we have. Countless articles report on Americans scaling back their lifestyle, getting back to basics and making do with less… and finding a measure of contentment in the process. Many Americans that make the jump into an expat lifestyle – be it in China, Korea or elsewhere are finding that less is in fact more and the less you have, the less you have to take care of. That’s not such a bad deal. I can personally testify to that.
But what about cheaply made goods? They do have their place in a minimalist lifestyle, you know. Perfect example: in America, sandwich bags are several mils thick. In China, baggies are so thin you could easily rend one after the other if you’re not careful. So, I’m careful when using baggies. And guess what? They get just as airtight and preserve my goods just as well as American baggies. I can even reuse my baggies with no problem. Not that I necessarily have a need to, but I’ve been known to, on occasion.
Plastic tubs are another fine example. It would be nice to have all manner of crockery to serve food in, especially if I mass-produce salads, or I’m serving chips for a party. But these plastic tubs, costing just a few kuai each do the job just as well.
Here’s an interesting phenomenon that I’ve just recently been acquainted with. When I show off goods that I brought with me from America, my Chinese friends first ooh and aah over them, and then they look for the label, which invariably says ‘Made in China’. They get a good laugh about it. In their fashion they are noting the irony of my showing off something that I brought from America when in fact it was produced right here, sent abroad and brought back. They’re right: it is ironic.
And talk about irony: Enter Judy. She is a Chinese woman who is married to an American businessman. She and her family lived in New York for some twenty years, where she first fell in love with, and then learned the art of wood-fired pizza. As her husband approaches retirement, she has come back to her home town – Wuhan, and opened up a chain of Western-style restaurants specializing in pizza. The first time I patronized her establishment my dining companion, Juliet introduced me to Judy, who wanted to make sure my first visit to her establishment was most comfortable and enjoyable. In that spirit she not only turned on the air conditioner but also switched on the overhead fan.
When turning on the fan the knob came off in her hand. I expected dismay or maybe a bit of embarrassment. Instead she turned, with a devilish grin on her face and chortled: “Cheap, made in China crap!”
It seems not even the Chinese are immune to quality deficits.