Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Made in China

One of the inevitable things about vacation time is that you miss stuff. Particularly Internet stuff.

For instance, I read and enjoyed this post at CMR, but totally missed the combox discussion afterward which somehow went from rainbows to color-coded socially conscious products to the boycott of goods made in China; an interesting read, to be sure.

What interested me about that comment thread is that for a while Mr. M. and I were firmly in the "Don't buy things made in China" camp. Given that we lived in a very rural area at the time, had no computer and no way of doing any online shopping, and had three children under three this was a challenge; but we were committed to it.

We did well for a while, and felt pretty good about it (and ourselves). Sure, sometimes a relative or friend would give us Chinese-made baby goods, but we weren't being strict about what others bought, just ourselves. So we found Spanish baby sandals and Fisher-Price toys made in Mexico and a slew of other non-Chinese alternatives to the Made In China (MIC) stuff that was ubiquitous, and decided smugly that the only reason anybody wouldn't do likewise was that it was just too much work, or that they were oblivious to the serious reasons in favor of such an economic boycott.

As usual, though, pride wenteth before a fall. Ours was twofold: children's shoes, and JPII.

Those cute made-in-Spain baby sandals only went up to a teeny size; when the girls started needing actual shoes we were flummoxed. There simply weren't any children's shoes not made in China. You could buy cheap Chinese shoes or expensive Stride-Rite Chinese shoes or imitation knock-off Chinese shoes or opulent NBA Chinese tennis shoes or any sort of Chinese shoes you liked--but you couldn't buy non-Chinese shoes, not in a small rural American town. Even if we'd had the computer and Internet access we probably couldn't have afforded any non-Chinese children's shoes out there, anyway; parents know that for the first six or seven years of a child's life a brand new pair of shoes will fit the child for approximately 17.5 days, give or take a week, so spending hundreds of dollars a pair doesn't make sense unless you're both wealthy and a spendthrift.

Okay, I thought at the time. We'll have to buy MIC shoes for the girls. But that's it. I'm not buying anything else.

And then I heard something reported that our Holy Father, John Paul II, had said about economic sanctions and boycotts against a different country. I've looked for the quote, but haven't found it; what I remember was that the pope was against boycotts, pointing to their disproportionate effect on the poor.

I hadn't ever thought about it that way. I thought my refusal to buy Chinese-made goods was a statement against Communism and against the many human rights abuses perpetrated by China in the recent past. It had never occurred to me that a poverty-stricken family might be counting on the handful of yuan a teenage daughter might bring home to them after each week's work in a factory; it never crossed my mind that the family might secretly thank God for this employment, and suffer greatly if it were lost.

Now, I know that this doesn't mean that Americans have some kind of moral obligation to load up on the goods produced by every suffering nation; when we let American companies exploit the people in China or elsewhere by paying them $100 a month to make goods that cost more than $100 apiece we aren't helping matters. And I firmly believe that our own lack of manufacturing is hurting our country, not just economically, but from a security perspective as well.

But deciding to boycott a nation to protest against that nation's policies really does, in the end, hurt those already suffering under oppressive governments and in situations of poverty most of us can't really fathom from our own experiences.

What's the answer?

I still think that buying locally is best, whenever possible. But if I can't buy shoes made in Texas or even in America, should I avoid the goods produced by some nations altogether? Maybe--but perhaps the decision should depend more on how doing that might impact those already suffering in those countries than on the political realities. Because the young Chinese worker whose income may someday provide a better life for his family may, in the end, do more to bring about the end of the human rights abuses in his country than a mere boycott ever could. Real, lasting, hopeful change in China will have to be made in China, after all.


MacBeth Derham said...

I can't help but wonder if the Chinese might catch on to the idea that they can market items to us by appealing specifically to our generosity and compassion: "Made in China by Orphans" or "Made in China by Catholics."

Every time I buy something MIC I hear the echo of a boy who is here on a piano scholarship at Juilliard's pre-college. He is from China, and is about 13. He ranted about how stupid Americans were after he heard someone criticize the Chinese government. Any criticism of the government, to him, was a criticism of the Chinese people. Try as we might to explain the difference, he just didn't get it. He ended his tantrum (and it was a tantrum) with laughter about how Americans spend so much to buy all the junk that China makes for nothing over there...haha. Stupid Americans.

Don't really know where I'm going with this...just thought I'd toss it out there.

LeeAnn said...

Maybe there's a point to be made in favoring buying products from countries other than China (when possible) to encourage the Little Guy. Not as a protest to China's government, but rather a protest to any country's monopoly. Those north African immigrants in Spain making shoes need your dollars just as urgently as any Chinese teenager likely. I think the days of snubbing Communist economies are going to quickly come to an end under the Obama administration. We simply won't be able to afford to ignore those markets any longer or their cheap, cheap, cheap imports.

Anonymous said...

I also used to try to avoid buying products made in China, but a talk I attended in college made me rethink things a little. It was a talk given by a Catholic Chinese woman who had been imprisoned in a slave labor camp in China for her beliefs. She urged us not to boycott Chinese products. She pointed out that there is no way of knowing whether a product comes from honest labor or slave labor. She said that honest workers in China depended on people buying their goods. I had never thought of it that way before, and coming from her, it really struck me. She was totally free of any anger or resentment, which was amazing.

--Elizabeth B.

Anonymous said...

Back 10-20-30 yrs ago when Wal-Mart (WM) was coming out with its bamboozlement of small towns (by underpricing their goods and wares in large volumes to, in effect, 'force' more cheap quality American Garment Union goods to go elsewhere) and the story of Sam Walton was espoused everywhere; it was laughable that WM's top-selling billed caps embroidered with 'Buy American' with a hot-glued American flag, had listed China as country of origin. Local college students participated in hunger strikes against sweatshops in other countries that marketed school logo clothing, while the little ol' ladies drove up to Sam's Club in their white Cadillacs and argued in the entranceway to expand drilling for oil in my Alaska wilderness.

Disparities, then, desperation now? Maybe, maybe not. Ford truck ads touting their toughness grate dissonantly when I consider we were supporting an auto company bailout just weeks ago. And, just before that we were bailing out our financial system in addition to the tune of thousands of lost dollars in savings and retirement accounts, lost mortgages, and so on.

It seems the changes anticipated can't come fast enough. But, what is the nature of this change?

First, we ourselves have to change, before we perceive changes in others.

(I have NO problem with listening to musically talented kids decrying their country of birth, because 1) they're usually listening to stories that they themselves personally have not lived, and may be getting 'lost in the translation', and, 2) kids that can avail themselves of Juilliard scholarships are not the average run-of-the-mill type kids! These kids usually get a lot of sympathy from me, as with any third-world prodigy. I'm inclined to believe the life of a prodigy is not usually the epitome of happiness.)

As in Red's last line...if we're looking for changes in citizens or government of another country, lasting changes will have to be made inside the country by its citizens for its citizens.


Rebecca said...

What do you think though about the U.S. formally boycotting Chinese goods specifically in protest to the forced abortion policy? I wonder what JPII would say about something like that?

MacBeth Derham said...

Zircon wrote:
"they're usually listening to stories that they themselves personally have not lived, and may be getting 'lost in the translation',"

That's probably true, and that's sort of the point that I didn't come close to making, buried between the lines. The Chinese are propagandized and used by the government, and even when they come here as children, they are often fiercely anti-American, even as they benefit from our patronage. If, when shown kindness and given a chance for a better life in the US, these Chinese children are still so anti-American, I wonder how bad it must be when they are surrounded and bombarded by propaganda in their own country. By buying MIC products, is there any sign that America is appreciated? And if we want to support change, doesn't there have to be some connection made between the workers and the consumers? If all they know is that they work and get their dollar-a-day (what is that in Yuan, anyway? hmmm...6.8, as of this morning), can we really change anything by buying or not buying? Is the government likely to change via boycott? Is the Chinese worker likely to get paid more if we buy more, or will the money get siphoned off to pay for military build-up? Are the hearts of the Chinese going to change?

And as for the Chinese prodigy with the bad attitude, I can attend a performance by a Thai,or Ukrainian prodigy with a good attitude instead. I have met many, many kids here on music scholarship, and most are delightful (I don't buy the hard life of a prodigy excuse, whether it's MIC or not), even those from impoverished backgrounds. At least here, I have a choice.

And I totally agree, too, with Red's line on changes being made inside the country.

Deirdre Mundy said...

My husband made the following point the other day:

However bad the life of a teen girl working in a Chinese shoe factory may be, it's probably better than the life to be had by recycling computers.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. I'd love to see the actual letter from JPII.

Here's a hypothetical - should the civil rights leaders have boycotted the city buses? Did that hurt the bus drivers?

Like you, we buy locally when we can. But you can stimulate demand for local/domestic stuff without causing yourself a lot of grief and punishing the Chinese workers.

Anonymous said...

Appreciate follow-up response, MacBeth.

Point about prodigies, (which of course is not totally unrelated to import tariffs, poverty and child-labor in 3rd world countries); they tend to be enormously acceptably talented children with attendant undeveloped and immature systems of discernment. We love to see children that seem to be well-adjusted in any modality, but it's been my experience that while adults in society may promote development and expression of child-savants, they may be rather unsympathetic to behaviors that might be not out of the ordinary when viewed in children of their age group. And, with behavior, response, and motivation so closely tied to emotional and necessarily mental development of a child, that was merely my point, that children are children--not miniature adults. Often parents or whomever is in direct contact with the prodigy is not well-versed in how to mediate the public 'adulation' to or from the child, whether or not there are professional handlers involved. There are sufficiently paucity of prodigies to not have a wide-available handbook in dealing with these kids, and as a basic response. I daresay if these books available they do not have sufficient 'reputation' (or whatever the term is to describe credence such as attributed to Dr. Spock) that they are known about in the general public. If they are out there, why are people still setting up kids as sideshows?

With prodigies, I would 'beg' others to have some sympathy for all involved, whether or not the country of origin is a 'civilized' society or wilds of East Timor.