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Liang Pan

Opinion: Made In China? So What?

(via Bigstockphoto)

[The following is a Tea Leaf Nation op-ed, and as such, does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors.]

欲盖弥彰。

Trying to hide it makes it more conspicuous.

From Zuo Zhuan or Chronicle of Zuo, an ancient Chinese narrative 

Political campaigns require mastery of propaganda: retouching images, staging impressive venues, and cherry-picking information. On March 29, 2013, President Obama delivered a speech on boosting infrastructure construction and job creation in the U.S. His PR team chose to hold the event at a loading dock in the Port of Miami. The symbolic undertone is obvious: the Port of Miami represents 176,000 jobs, and is the site of US$2 billion worth of ongoing infrastructure improvements; the gigantic corridor of container cranes decorated with star-spangled banners served as a testament to the industrial power of the United States. The scene was intended to impress, inspire, and instill patriotism and confidence in those present and those watching from home.

However, according to photos posted on Twitter by CNN reporter Alexander Mooney and NHK producer Joe Show, a gust of wind just before President Obama’s speech blew away one of the star spangled banners draped over a crane, revealing an inconvenient truth: the American flag was covering the logos of ZMPC, or Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Company Limited, a Chinese company and the world’s largest manufacturer of cranes and large steel structures. Suddenly, the President’s speech denouncing outsourcing, stressing domestic job creation, and pushing for improvements in America’s infrastructure became an ironic slideshow, circulated in both Chinese and American social media spheres.

A user on Sina Weibo, China’s biggest microblogging platform with the handle @我的名字叫zq ridiculed the story with a post titled “Wind Blows Away The U.S. Fig Leaf .  It was reposted more than 4,400 times in two days. Following the thread, many Weibo users also expressed disdain over the similarity between the U.S. and the Chinese government in manipulating public opinion.

The slip-up in Miami redounded within both U.S. and Chinese social media. (via Weibo)

Since the 2008 Financial Crisis, U.S. politicians have become increasingly concerned with the precarious state of the economy and the sluggish growth of employment rates. “Made-in-China” has been a major buzzword in U.S. political demagoguery. Before the 2012 London Summer Olympics, news that the uniforms of Team USA were actually made in China was a source of great controversy. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) took the lead in shaming the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) for its “unpatriotic” decision and recommended that Team USA wear U.S.-made singlets with a hand-painted USA logo to demonstrate the athletes’ raw and unequivocal patriotism. He was so offended by the Made-in-China uniforms that he even urged the USOC to burn the uniforms.

Yet such overt displays of patriotism are out of character for the United States. The country is known for opening its arms to embrace the best talent from around the world; its global economic, political, and military power draws the world’s best natural, technological, and human resources. The U.S. is not a tribal state whose identity and pride must be shown in locally hand-made crafts. In fact, absorbing the best of the world and presenting it as the work of the United States is very American. Take the iPhone for instance: although it is manufactured in China, what its users around the world cherish most is its innovative and seamless user experience, made possible by its American design and technology.

What’s more, the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs does not undermine U.S. interests; on the contrary, it is a source of national pride. In modern industries, the most lucrative parts of the industrial chain are design, marketing, and sales. Manufacturing is the least profitable phase of the process, the most labor-intensive, and the most resource-consuming. Again, the iPhone serves as an apt example. According to a study conducted by the University of California and Syracuse University in 2011, although Apple’s biggest assembly line is in China, China only earns a mere 1.8% profit margin on Apple products. According to the New York Times, manufacturing an iPhone in the U.S. would cost about US$65 more than manufacturing it in China, where it costs an estimated US$8.

By outsourcing, American companies manage to keep their products low in price and high in quality. It has helped lessen consumer price inflation for years for the benefit of U.S. domestic buyers. It helps the U.S. companies maintain an edge in cutthroat global business competition. It even helps the U.S. avoid problems related to industrial pollution and decrease industrial energy and resource consumption. Outsourcing does affect domestic employment, but that is no reason to overlook or downplay its substantial benefits, which have long benefitted the U.S. China, on the other hand, has not been the undisputed winner in this situation. China’s status as the manufacturer of the world comes at heavy cost: sweatshops, smoggy skies, and polluted rivers.

China is the world’s second largest economy, its largest exporter, its largest foreign reserve holder, and its fifth-largest entity investing in foreign countries. China’s growing capital power and business presence is simply unavoidable. The question is: how should the U.S. react to it? We have seen how Islamic countries in the Middle East banned Danish products because of satirical cartoons about the Prophet; we have seen how Chinese boycotted Japanese products because of heightened nationalism. These are not demonstrations of strength. On the contrary, they are radical reactions by the weak. The U.S., as the world’s leading democracy and free market, deserves better than covering up logos or incinerating foreign products.

ZMPC, the Chinese company whose logo the President’s PR team tried to cover up in Miami, is also building San Francisco’s new Bay Bridge. Next time, if the President has a televised outdoor speech in San Francisco, he might want to consider a much larger star spangled banner.

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Liang Pan

Liang Pan is studying political communication at New York University. He is an Asia Foundation young diplomat fellow and a graduate of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, with a major in international relations. He worked extensively in the field of international politics and has lived in China, the Middle East and the U.S.
  • StenSvenssen

    Great post, good points. The irony of America’s free market ideologues being unable to come to grips with “Made in China” for obvious nationalist reasons is wonderful schadenfreude for those of us tired of their deluded tirades.

    • mikeygow

      Great comment. Could not agree more. Rampant parochialism which also demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the very economic philosophy which they claim to promote.

    • Surprise123

      Except that I don’t believe that President Obama or the Democratic Party in America have ever been “free market” ideologues.

  • Publius

    Strikes me the flub here was on the part of Barack the Great — or to be totally fair, his advance team that is supposed get things like this right. Oh, well, a typical screwup for His Highness.

  • Auney Z

    Agree with the author. Just don’t know how this nationalist China-bashing creeps into our
    mainstream and pop culture. The other day, I watched Glee. Even in that show,
    China was bashed as job stealer, as Sue Sylvester says, “ …
    America is failing. China is on our ass, people. This isn’t the 1960s anymore
    when jobs were plentiful…(so) I will suspend all public school arts programs… and
    reject all State and Federal funding for the arts until every single student
    reads at or above grade level. “ LoL!!!

  • San Franciscan

    Finally, there is someone shedding light on this issue. Wake up, folks! The unemployment issue is not an issue of the rise of China. It is an issue of the rise of machines! If the U.S. government wants the jobs back, they’d better start with passing a law to dismantle all automated self-checkout counters in the US supermarkets! Folks, John Connor is summoning the Resistance: Machine or People??

    • Surprise123

      Why can’t it be both? Why can’t the unemployment issue both be automation and offshoring-to-China driven?

  • Kerren Kaufman

    I wish the U.S. mainstream media can show more about how the U.S. benefits from globalization and Chinese manufacturing. The voice of “go local” is too strong and politics-driven in the U.S.. I feel the U.S. is reserving the free market spirit that it had preached so hard to the world.

    • Surprise123

      Oh, please. The majority of America’s mainstream media is neoliberal and fully on board with globalized free trade. The “go local” voice is very sotto, and anti-establishment, for the most part.

  • mikeygow

    Good article. the hypocrisy of US economic policy towards China echoes the anti-Japanese sentiment in the late 70′s, early 80′s. Its fuelled by emotion rather than reasoned argument and is literally drowning in parochialism and uncritical assumptions about how the modern world works.

    Though thats not to say the Chinese economic policy makers aren’t bothered, or that they aren’t guilty of provoking that reaction themselves.

  • 21tigermike

    “By outsourcing, American companies manage to keep their products low in price and high in quality”

    High in Quality? Wait, stop the car.Where did that come from!?

    • Audrey Z

      Again, iPhone is a no-brainer case in point, I guess. And there are many more, ask Boeing, IBM..etc.

      • Milu

        IBM is bought by Lenovo…and Lenovo is a Chinese company

    • Surprise123

      “American companies manage to keep their products low in price and high in quality” Which, after all, is the most important thing. American presidents, congressmen, and Washington elite should not be concerned that many American citizens have lost stable, family-supporting jobs, as well as the pride and identity that comes with gainful full-time and stable employment.
      Yes, truly, the most important thing for all Americans should be that consumers worldwide are able to consume at low prices

  • Shuami

    For those who are interested–here’s the story on ZMPC’s involvement with building the new east span of the Bay Bridge in SF, as mentioned in the article:
    “Building the bay’s signature span”
    http://sfpublicpress.org/news/2009-12/building-the-bays-signature-span
    “The simple fact is, despite the fact that we got a bid for domestic steel, I’m not sure that there is a domestic steel fabricator that could do what ZPMC is doing” in terms of scale and their capability for the “massivity of this project,” said MTC executive director Steve Heminger.

  • Surprise123

    Nary a dissenting voice in these posts? All commentators think the post is great, the article is terrific? Weird…that.

    Sure, President’s Obama team trying to cover up the crane logo of Chinese ZMPC company was silly. Instead, he should have pointed it out, and explained why IT was there, versus the logo of an American crane company.

    “Outsourcing does affect domestic employment.” What an offhand, casual remark to make vis-a-vis U.S. domestic employment. Do you take such an offhand, casual approach to the PRC’s domestic employment? Manufacturing WAS one of the few sectors in America’s economy that allowed people without college education to support a family; but, no longer. Of course, transferring millions upon millions of jobs to China’s shores is not the only factor in manufacturing jobs dislocation: automation has played a major role.