I was surprised this morning by a student’s simple SMS question: “What does ‘Made in China’ mean to you?” It’s an intriguing question, and one that I have surprisingly not given much thought to, during my seven years in China.
So, I wrote the following, and posted on the Chinese Twitter-like service I use.
My earliest associations are in fact with the label ‘Made in Hong Kong’, during the years I spent growing up in various countries. At least to this (then) western child, I guess the label was synonymous with cheap, colorful, and ‘plasticky’ -albeit irresistible – toys. Although a Chinese toy (or any plastic toy, regardless of its origin) had not a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving even a week’s worth of ‘wear and tear’ back then, they were cool enough, and we kids simply couldn’t get enough of ‘em!
Fast-forward, 40+ years. Nowadays, unquestionably, many western consumers are wary of ‘Made in China’ labels. Several years ago, I visited my sister in Greece. I brought with me a suitcase full of clothes, toys, and food treats for her two small children. The clothes were greatly appreciated, but she gave the food treats and toys the ‘hairy eyeball’. As a mother, she had zero trust in them, because of the (then) seemingly never-ending negative publicity over food and toy scandals (baby milk, lead painted toys, toothpaste, poisoned pet treats, rat meat-sold-as-beef, etc.)
Nothing could possibly have had a more damaging effect on global consumers considering buying ‘made in China’ products, than ghastly wall-to-wall coverage of dead and/or sickened babies and family pets.
The global economy trundles on. To its immense credit, China has emerged as one of the two most powerful countries in the world. In spite of its countless charms and natural beauty, China is where it is today because it is the factory to the world. In strictly financial terms, it performs this task extremely well, and new fortunes are made everyday. At times, it even seems that millionaires are almost as numerous as the products being produced, at least here in Hangzhou!
Nevertheless, the negative impact of those, and subsequent, food and other scandals reverberates still, and has had a spillover effect into other sectors of the economy, such as electronics. Although always disturbing, reports of sweatshop conditions in developing countries are nothing new. But the Foxconn/Apple scandal received *a lot* of very bad publicity, and certainly did ‘Made in China’ no favors.
Such examples, along with rampant ‘shanzai’, copyright infringement, intellectual property theft, etc. continue to paint a poor picture of ‘Made in China’ in the minds of countless people, both abroad and in China. (Of course, occurrences like these are the stuff of dreams for flag-waving western politicians, who love to criticize ‘made in China’ in order to get votes.)
Sadly, there remains a significant ‘credibility gap’. Given the choice, many global consumers would much prefer *not* to ‘buy Chinese’. The point is, in many cases, there *is* no choice. ‘Made in China’ is here to stay. A quick search of ‘Made in China’ on Amazon reveals titles like “(Poorly) Made in China” and a book written by a woman who tried to go an entire year without purchasing anything made or produced in China. (Evidently, an impossible task).
It may seem that I am overly critical of China. I do not mean to give that impression. I love your country, and certainly ‘buy Chinese’ on a daily basis. Rather, the blame for any problems with ‘Made in China’ can be just as equally laid at the feet of greedy western companies who look the other way in order to maximize profits, as it can be at the feet of local manufacturers and producers who cut corners and exploit workers, and are solely motivated by short-term profits. Both should be much, much more concerned with their long-term reputations and integrity.
The entire world really sat up and took notice of the sheer brilliance, world-class innovation, and quality of which China is obviously capable during the Beijing Olympics. How unfortunate, that the lovely afterglow of that beautiful moment has since faded. By all indications, however, China’s pragmatic new president is boldly taking the country in a new and promising direction, which may ultimately prove as breathtakingly constructive in scope as that of Deng Xiaoping’s. That Xi Jinping has clearly made targeting corruption a major focus is a very encouraging development indeed. If he fully and successfully delivers on this promise, the ‘Made in China’ label will surely and soon earn the respect and confidence of global consumers, like my own dear sister, a middle-aged American mother in Greece.
In this vast, increasingly impersonal global economy, sits China. It is, by far, the largest country in the world. But what, exactly, is a country? It is a combination of millions of individuals. Each with a name, a face, a personality, unique skills, abilities, ideas, and dreams. In a way, somehow, perhaps the label ‘Made in China’, (evoking as it does for many in the west a mental image of millions of faceless workers churning out products around-the-clock in crowded factories) does a disservice to the people behind those products.
In its amorphous emphasis on the collective, it may be that ‘Made in China’ overlooks and undervalues the contribution of the individual to overall success. In his poem, ‘Epilogue’, the American poet Robert Lowell commented on the individual’s heartfelt wish to be acknowledged for having, simply, been:
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
If I were to be given the impossible task of marketing ‘Made in China’, I would re-examine the nature of consumers’ ‘personal’ connection to the products they use. Go beyond simple blind loyalty to any given brand. Forge a direct, personal, and emotional connection to the people who work so hard, yet are neither seen nor known in the global marketplace.
Maybe, just maybe, it is time for a different kind of label.
‘Assembled by (insert your name here), in Hangzhou, China. With Pride’.