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Made in China

August 29, 2007

About 10 years ago during home leave, I was in a charming gift store in the Amish area of Pennsylvania. My church host had taken me shopping for souvenirs to take back to Hong Kong. I was looking for something with real local flavor. We spotted a rag doll dressed in old-fashioned Amish-style clothing. Perfect.

ImageI paused. "Bet it was made in China," I teased my host. She smiled but looked doubtful.

I found the tag: "Made in China."  We both had a good laugh and promptly put the doll back on the shelf. I had no intention of taking that toy all the way back to her birthplace, no matter how cute it was.

A decade later, I look back at that incident with different eyes.

For one thing, the Amish are no longer quaint curiosities in my mind. They are spiritual giants whose Christian compassion in the face of unspeakable tragedy stunned the world last year. I would be proud to have an Amish doll on my shelf in Hong Kong now.

Secondly, I don't look have to look for "Made in China" labels anymore. I just assume everything is made there. The surprise would be to find something that's not made in China - whether I'm in Hong Kong or the U.S.A. At the time I was shopping in Pennsylvania, I marveled at the ability of Chinese factories to make high quality, low cost products for the whole world.

Fast forward to 2007.

The scandal over Chinese-made products is certainly making headlines around the globe. Whether it's tainted dog food, recalled toy cars or bad toothpaste, every dangerous product that goes on the market impacts China's reputation.  The western media have had a heyday with this situation, particularly the U.S. media, and the Chinese government has gone into a damage control mode.

The Western presses are quick to blame China for lax production standards, implying that greed and incompetence are the heart of the problem. One magazine crowed that Americans suspected all along that the "China miracle" was too good to be true.

The Chinese government has been fighting back, pointing out that 99% of its exports are safe. For example, China's approval rate for food exports into the U.S. in 2006 was better than many other countries, yet no one bothered to report the failure rate of products from Dominican Republic, Denmark and India. Why pick on China?

ImageBoth sides have valid arguments. Perhaps becoming the 'world's factory' is more than China can reasonably handle. And maybe Western consumers are anxious about China's growing economic clout as much as they are about shoddy products from overseas.

When I read about all the problems with Chinese-made goods, I feel a degree of alarm as well as embarrassment.  I won't make excuses for sub-standard products, whatever country they come from. Yet, my heart tells me that there is a bigger picture than what the U.S. media or the Chinese government is telling us.

Every player in this story feels he or she is the victim, but in fact, all of us bear some responsibility for the present situation.

In a perfect world, international brands could sell top quality goods for a handsome profit; workers would get fair wages and decent working conditions; consumers would have endless choices at competitive prices; and every country would be blessed with the benefits of a globalized market economy.

But the reality of an imperfect world is that we all can't 'have our cake and eat it too.' The low prices and great variety in the Wal-Marts in America require international brands go to developing countries to manufacture their goods. To get the business from international brands, manufacturers have to offer the best deal. To offer the best deal, factories have to keep producing faster and cheaper. To produce faster and cheaper, laborers have to work even harder and overhead has to be further reduced.

Yes, lead paint on a Thomas the Tank toy is unacceptable. But equally unacceptable are:

  • Multinational companies that shift all the responsibility of faulty products onto manufacturers while the brand invests more capital on high-end advertising and marketing.
  • Manufacturers who demand the same output year after year, but with a lower price and shorter production time.
  • Factory owners who move to more remote locations to escape regulation and public monitoring of their working conditions.
  • Workers who are forced to do more and more unpaid overtime in hazardous environments because they have no bargaining power.

The safety and well-being of consumers undoubtedly is a top priority for anyone selling on the global market.  Yet, we need some understanding and concern for those who toil in China to keep the constant stream of goods flowing around the world. Careful monitoring of every step of production also means looking after the safety and well-being of overseas factory workers, subcontractors, suppliers and manufacturers. One toy factory owner from Hong Kong committed suicide recently after Mattel cancelled the contract for his already failing business. There are unspeakable tragedies on both sides of the ocean. Our faith calls us to show compassion and fight for justice wherever God's people suffer, even those situations 'made in China.'

In Christ,

Judy Chan is a missionary serving with the Hong Kong Christian Council.  She is responsible for communications for the Council.  She is also in charge of ecumenical radio broadcasting ministry, English publications and ecumenical partnerships in Hong Kong and overseas.

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