Warning: Made in China!

The ‘Made in China’ label can today be found everywhere, including increasingly in your life. But what do we know of how these products are manufactured, how safe they are – and how Chinese factories are able to make them so cheap?

These aren’t just academic questions: in extreme cases, they could make the difference between life and death! As my colleague Poornima Swaminathan reports in today’s edition of DNA (here), that made-in-China facemask you’re wearing, which the report says is one of millions that were “manufactured in small illegal factories in China and shipped all across the globe”, may not protect you from an H1N1 flu infection. Poor quality, made-in-China goods are literally ‘in your face’ these days…

Also in today’s edition is an interview that I conducted with someone who has intimate knowledge of the China manufacturing industry, and therefore has answers to these troubling questions.

The interviewee, Paul Midler, is an American who studied Chinese history and language as an undergraduate and lived for some years in China and returned to the US to complete an MBA at Wharton University (with a specialisation in East Asian business). But unlike his peers – most of whom headed for Wall Street careers – Midler moved back to China because he “felt at home in Asia” and because he sensed that given how central China was becoming to global economic growth, it was a wise career move.

Midler settled in Guangzhou, the city in China’s southern Guangdong province, the “world’s factory”, and took up trouble-shooting assignments on behalf of US and European importers and retailers who were sourcing from China. In this capacity, he worked with hundreds of Chinese factories, and it was this experience that gave him an insider’s insight into the dark, dirty secrets of the Made-in-China story: of how Chinese factories manipulated product quality (with, on occasion, lethal consequences for consumers) and how Chinese factory owners took their naïve and China-struck foreign business partners for a ride. He wrote about his experiences, and his book Poorly Made in China is a breezy but insightful narrative.

Read it, and I guarantee you this: you’ll never look at a low-cost Made-in-China product the same way again.

But looking beyond the issue of Quality Fade in China manufacturing, the book – and my interview with Midler – explore and critique Chinese business practices that are the “root causes of the problem” and the naivete – and borderline complicity – of overseas importers and retailers who reward bad behaviour by Chinese factories by going into denial over quality problems and placing ever larger orders!

Midler says:

“I’ve had talks with importers who had their doubts about the Quality Fade issue, but they just shut their eyes and hope for the best.”

In the end, sickened by everything that he saw around him, and overridden by guilt for being a cog in that machine, Midler gave it up. “I just think there comes a time when you ask yourself how you can do what you’re doing. Maybe in the beginning you can pretend a little bit, maybe you can pretend a little bit more. But you get to a point where you say, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”

Midler isn’t a ‘China basher’, someone who is pathologically critical of China or its rise. He loved Chinese language and culture enough to learn the language and live in China, and from his accounts had some enduring relationships with many Chinese people. Yet, in the end, even he was appalled by what he saw.  Having seen how Chinese factories manufactured bodywash and shampoo, he himself gave up using them towards the end of his stay in China! (Ask yourself this: can you look at a cheap made-in-China shampoo or handwash the same way again?)

I asked Midler how China had changed him as a person. His response:

“It’s one thing to say ‘China is bad’, and another to say, ‘China is good’. But I’m the guy who went to China thinking their way is better, and who when he first got to China, enjoyed being there, but who ends up saying, ‘This is not working. I can’t do this anymore.’ To that extent, I’ve been changed by it.

“I was trying to see if there were any parallels for my experience, and I realised my experience was the opposite of the Dunbar character in Dances With Wolves, who is initially hostile to the Sioux Indians, but is gradually drawn to their lifestyle and customs. I went the other way.

People ask me what my motive is, whether I bear a grudge. My grudge – if you can call it that – isn’t against an employer or a factory. I’m not mad at myself for the time that I spent there. I just think there comes a time when you ask yourself how you can do what you’re doing.”

My interview with Midler explores this and other strands of the Made-in-China story. Given the space constraints of the print edition, a smaller version of the interview was published in DNA (here), but a longer version, in which I explore many other interesting aspects of the Made-in-China story (including some cross-cultural issues of globalisation), can be accessed here.

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About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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