Xenophobia’s Role in the Anti – “Made in China” Dilemma

A reader of Managing the Dragon recently wrote this comment in response to a post about the connection between China’s cheap exports and the country’s environmental concerns:

‘And this current episode of “trade fiction” between the US and China at base reflects deeper American/Western paranoia over the rise of another Asian economic competitor that must be “managed”–as with the case of Japan in the 1980s.  The concerns of US consumers over issues like product safety and environmentalism–whatever their sincerity–are informed by this broader dynamic, beyond the merits of the surface issues involved. The US corporate media (Lou Dobbs

et al.) has fanned these anti-China sentiments, as it did with respect to Japan a generation before.  Thus, American rhetoric about product safety (and apparently environmentalism) is mostly a pretext used for US trade wars and economic protectionism. This is not unlike how the issue of Mad Cow Disease a few years ago was used by many nations to place restrictions on beef imports from their competitors. The USA and West want to remain the Big Dogs, and these “issues” are a reflection of this.’

To see the original post and this comment in its entirety click here

The author makes no effort to hide the fact that he firmly believes that China’s capitalist reforms have done more harm than good and on that point as well as others, he and I fundamentally disagree.  However, he raises the interesting notion that the dramatic increase in concern over poor Chinese products may just be a result of xenophobia and general concern in the West that China is amassing too much power and influence.  

It is impossible to deny that many of the goods that have been blocked by United States consumer protection agencies or recalled by companies are potentially harmful.  But, recent articles, such as this piece in the New York Times about lead in paint, highlight the fact that many of these poor products have been around for some time – it’s just that nobody has been paying close enough attention. What has changed is that several high profile incidents have triggered a significant consumer scare and this has in turn motivated the political machine as well as the press. 

The above reader comment raises some important questions: Is the recent media and political explosion over low quality Chinese goods due to the fact that the Chinese goods being exported are actually lower in quality than they used to be?  Or alternatively, is it simply because the United States is looking for an excuse to protoect American manufacturing and industry and close scrutiny is revealing an ever increasing number of targets?

2 Responses to “Xenophobia’s Role in the Anti – “Made in China” Dilemma”

  1. I don’t think that either is the case. I sincerely doubt that the quality of goods coming out of China has declined recently. If anything, quality has most likely improved over the past several years as manufacturing processes and methods have improved in China. And I don’t believe in national conspiracy theories. The United States does not represent one unified set of vested interests, but instead a collection of many and varied vested interests.

    The toy manufacturers, which get 80% of their toys from China and have magnified the “Made in China” issue through their recalls, have no reason to bash China. They just want safe toys at competitive prices. Likewise, consumers who have benefitted from the lower prices made possible by low cost country sourcing have no reason to bash China. They just want safe toys at competitive prices.

    In my opinion, this all started because earlier this year, household pets in the US began to get sick and many died after eating pet food which came from China. This raised the antennae on product safety. And then, several people died or were seriously hurt in a car crash which was caused by the failure of tires sourced from China. My guess is that, at this point, the executives of every company in the US which sources from China ordered an internal investigation into the goods that had been sourced, and some discovered safety issues like the presence of lead paint. Given these findings, they had no choice but to order the recalls that are now making headlines.

    While there will be much financial pain inflicted on both sides as a result of the “Made in China” crisis, the net result of all this will be positive. Safety and manufacturing standards will be upgraded in China,and US companies will expand testing procedures and refine sourcing practices as they should. Both American and Chinese consumers will benefit as a result.


  2. ManagingtheAmericanVulture September 19, 2007 at 1:36 pm

    If, as Jack notes, Chinese products have actually improved in quality in recent years, then America’s hysterics about these product safety issues is even more curious. It suggests that the American response–particularly by the media– to these product questions is disproportionate to the actual gravity of this general problem.

    This (over)reaction also suggests that motivations other than concern over product safety are involved. As reflective of the West in general, America wants to preach about “open markets” and “liberalizing trade” in order to pry open foreign markets for US businesses around the globe. At the same time, America is also driven by a rising protectionist sentiment domestically–not to mention, nationalist anxiety over challenges to American/Western global domination. The furor about Chinese products is symptomatic of this latter trend, much as the Japan-bashing fervor was a generation ago.

    This is not “conspiracy theory.” This is simply how the “dog-eat-dog” world of Capitalism works. Mad Cow Disease and the subsequent restrictions on beef imports, as I noted, are other examples of how legitimate concerns over consumer safety can be manipulated to serve *unrelated* trade agendas against one’s competitors.