Tag Archives: history

Why China makes all our stuff: a history lesson

Take off a shoe.  Check the tag.  Remove your coat.  Check the tag.  Grab the nearest knickknack, flip it over, and check where it was made.  Do a lap around the house.  How much of your stuff was made in China?

If WalMart’s inventory is any reflection on the average American household, about 70% of your stuff may have been made in China.  That’s a lot. 

Until I started my year without Chinese goods, much of my stuff came from China.  And in a sense, I didn’t have any connection to it… to the production of it.  I had never been to China.  I don’t think I had ever been to a factory.

The grand process of fueling American consumption must be quite a task and I simply cannot wait to see it first hand.  One of the overarching questions I hope to answer during my upcoming (I leave today) trip to China is just how all of our stuff is made.  Where are all the factories?  What are they like?  Where do all the workers come from and what are they like?  Are they proud that they have made so much of my stuff?

The second question I would like to answer is why.  Why does China of all places make so much of our stuff? 

The answer to this question lies in geography and history.  Being a history teacher and overall nerd, one of the first things that I did when I found out I would be going to China was head to a bookstore.  The three things I picked up were a Lonely Planet guide to China (printed in Singapore) so that I know where I am going, an etiquette guide to China (also printed in Singapore) so that I don’t offend every Chinese person I meet, and a 6-hour documentary on the last 100 years of Chinese history (couldn’t find a country of origin).  It was in the last of these three that I think I found the answer.

Get ready for the quickest picture, painted with the broadest strokes, of China’s last century:

Around the turn of the last century, China was a vast collection of peasants governed loosely by warlords, who, as warlords are apt to do, were oft warring.  This chaos kept China in a continually weak state, vulnerable to outside forces.  Soon, the British, Americans, French and Japanese began to carve out colonies, or “areas of economic interest,” in China.  Embarrassed by the sorry state of his country, a guy called Sun Yat-sen (pictured) decided that China would only be great if it was independent and united.  So he started the Chinese Nationalist movement and fought the warlords to unite China.  He achieved this, to a certain degree, around 1911.  Sun Yat-sen died in 1925 and his second in command, Chiang Kai-shek, took over where he left off.

Around the same time, a guy called Mao Zedong decided that China would only be great if it was independent, united and communist.  For a long time, Mao and Chiang fought each other for China’s ideological soul.  The Nationalists won most of the battles, but could not fully extinguish communism.  When the Japanese invaded China in earnest, the Nationalists and the Communists united to hold them off.  They, frankly, did not do a great job of it.  The Japanese only withdrew after their defeat in WWII.

With WWII over, the Nationalists and the Communists got back to fighting each other.  But because the people had had such a tough time under the Nationalists (and the Japanese) for the last four decades, they backed the Communists during the civil war.  Mao and the Communists emerged victorious, while Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist government fled to Taiwan.

Mao soon began a number of economic and social reforms.  Mao wanted China to be a major industrial power, so he began huge public projects in the cities, building factories and a modern infrastructure.  As China didn’t have very much money or foreign investment (Nixon didn’t arrive until 1972), Mao relied on the peasants to foot the bill.  He forcefully put the peasants into agricultural collectives with the aim of growing lots of food to feed the cities and sell abroad.  Due to laughably poor management and pervasive corruption, the collectives failed and caused the largest famine in history.  Around 30 million peasants died of starvation.  Mao didn’t do much better in the cultural realm either.  His Cultural Revolution, aimed at getting rid of China’s ancient cultural practices in favor of a new Communist ideal, mostly led to French Revolution style madness and slaughter.  China began to eat itself.

Things didn’t improve until Mao died in 1976 and his second successor, Deng Xiaoping (pictured) came into power.  Deng realized that China would have to adopt some capitalist policies in order to be competitive.  He disbanded the forced agricultural collectives in favor of an incentive based “household-responsibility program” where families were given a plot of land and were able keep whatever surplus they could muster after the government had taken a stated quota.  This led to bumper crops that fed the countryside and the cities.  It also saw the peasants earn more money than ever before, which increased the demand for luxuries. Deng also designated 18 coastal cities as special economic zones where capitalist practices were tolerated.  As you could imagine, this led to an influx of peasants desperate for work and foreign investors desperate for cheap labor, in the coastal cities.

This is where China wins.  China is a vast area with a favorable climate, lots of natural resources and arable land.  Geographically, it can support its huge population.  With so many historically poor people competing for a finite number of jobs, labor will always be very cheap.  Nike and Apple know this well.

Deng Xiaoping continued with capitalist reforms, but stopped short of democratic reforms.  He brutally put down the student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square.  China remains an authoritarian state with many state controlled companies.  However, its prosperity will not slow down demands by an emerging middle class for more social and political rights.

This, of course, is not the whole story.  But it does offer some insight into China’s magnificent economic rise, which I am about to witness personally.  Wish me well!

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