Tag Archives: manufacturing

2012 in review – still not buying Chinese stuff

IMG_2490Dear wonderful readers,

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.  Pretty interesting read for me.  Apparently people from over 53 countries have read this blog… which is simply ridiculous.

A little update before the report.  It is 2013.  I originally began this blog as a New Year’s resolution for 2012 to document my year of not buying things that were made in China.  And while I did write a few posts, I largely fell off the blogging bandwagon, even though I went so far as to go to China to do a bit of research.  My last post was in late July, which is pretty sad.

That said, I want you all to know two things.   First, I continued my China boycott right until the end of the year.  I didn’t give in.  There were one or two Chinese things that I  purchased accidentally, but otherwise, I was true to my goal.  In fact, I have found living without Chinese goods to be fairly easy if one is careful.  I even plan on continuing a boycott of sorts.  And second, I have continued writing blog posts.  I have a number of half-completed documents strewn about my desktop.  My New Year’s resolution for this year is to get these finished and get them out to you, especially the ones about my trip to China.  It was marvelous, I learned a lot, and I can’t wait to share it with you.

That is all for now.  Happy New Year!  Enjoy the report below.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,500 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 4 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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China Trip Post 1 – The Overview

I am back home safe from my trip to China, completely unscathed by Maoism, Red Guards, and dangerous drinking water. I don’t mean to get so personal so quickly, but I kid you not, I was never forced to use Imodium. Not once.

How then shall I regale you, dear reader, with pithy, yet poignant stories of my travels to the Orient? Let me break it down for you.

I will be writing four posts on my trip to China. This first post is a clear-cut recap of my trip. The second post will be dedicated to a discussion I had with Roger, one of the big wigs at Nike in Hong Kong. Roger provided incredible insight into the world of Nike’s manufacturing and supply chain in China. The third post will detail my trip to a garment factory in Cixi City, north of Shanghai. Here you will encounter my fearless factory fixer Phil, who turned out to be one of my favorite folks. And the fourth will document one of the most beautiful places I have ever laid eyes upon. 

With that out of the way, let’s get to it…

I am not a travel writer. Actually, I am not a writer, period. But I am certainly not a travel writer. Good travel writing requires measures of vocabulary, wit, and endurance that I simply do not posses. J. Maarten Troost has all three in abundance. A few years ago, he wrote a book about his trip to China, which is aptly titled “Lost on Planet China.” As one may assume, Troost weaves a sidesplitting tale of his bumbles around China, making all sorts of cultural errors, eating live squid, accidentally finding himself in a brothel and a gay bar in the same week, and barely making it out alive. In short, China utterly bewildered – nay, bamboozled – him.

Like Troost, I was also a bit perplexed by China, though I experienced far fewer mishaps – which is a good thing, not because I renounce adventure, but because I wouldn’t be able to twist the mishaps into Troost-like comedy. But, I am very glad I went. While it would be incredibly foolish of me to say that the quick trip to China deciphered all the intricate riddles of the world’s most populous country, I do believe I have a much better feel for the place.

Here are the basics: I flew from San Francisco to Hong Kong with 15 teenagers who would be embarking on amazing adventures of their own with Rustic Pathways. Once I connected them with their in-country program leader, I ran out of the airport and into the humid arms of Hong Kong, who took me on a dreamlike, head-spinning tour.  I mostly just walked around with my head tilted all the way back and my mouth gaping open in awe. It is a very… vertical city.

After meeting with Roger and stumbling around Hong Kong for a few more days, I flew to Shanghai to meet Phil, who took me to Cixi City, about three hours north of Shanghai. There, I toured two garment factories and fell in love with Phil. I then took the bus back to Shanghai where I had only enough time to take pictures of tall buildings and walk on the Bund before taking the zippy maglev train to the airport. And when I say zippy, I mean it is one of the world’s fastest trains and topped out at 431 km/h on my journey. I have no idea how fast that is in real measurement, but it felt quite expeditious.

After peeling myself out of my seat, I boarded a plane that seemed to only travel half the speed I had just accustomed myself to. I landed in Guilin (finally!), where I spent a week exploring its environs, taking in some of the most picturesque scenery I have ever witnessed.  I also hung out with young people in hip hostels.  Which means I was forced to drink flaming Sambuca on the fourth of July.  U!S!A! U!S!A!

Then I flew back to Hong Kong, picked up 15 teenagers, and then flew home.  It was indeed a whirlwind trip, and I am still recovering, but amazing blog posts are headed your way very soon!

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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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I’m going to China. No, seriously. I am going in five days.

Dear faithful readers, the Made in China Project is back!  In reality, it never went anywhere.  I have not crumbled under the pressure of not buying Chinese-made goods!  I have stuck to my New Year’s Resolution and am still living Chinese goods free (mostly, my few accidental transgressions will be chronicled soon).

My last post back in March announced that the Great Purge was near.  The Great Purge did not happen.  But life did happen.  In early March, my girlfriend and I split up.  As you could imagine, this took its emotional toll.  The last thing I wanted to do was go through my apartment and tear it to shreds.  Good news though, she and I are still friends, and she is still a fan of the Made in China Project!

I apologize for the absence, but I am back… back in a big way.  I have very exciting news.  I am going to China!  No seriously.  I am going to China in five days.

Here’s the deal.  There is a company called Rustic Pathways that takes high school kids and dumps them in “rustic” locales around the world for the summer.  Apparently traveling to amazing foreign places is supposed to wildly affect your outlook on life.  Whatever. 

Anyway, I applied for a job with them back around Christmas time.  They called me a few weeks ago and asked me if I would be interested in taking a group of kids to China.  I asked them if they had read my blog, because the timing and location of their job offer was just too damn perfect.  They hadn’t.  Whatever.

So I am going to China.  Just applied for my visa a few days ago.  Here is the icing on the cake, the fortune in the cookie: I was hired as a Flight Leader.  I am only responsible to get the kids back and forth from San Francisco to Hong Kong.  The kids join up with Program Leaders in country.  They are the ones that do all the heavy lifting of looking after kids.  Me?  I’m free for 10 days until I have to take them back home.  What shall I do with all the free time?

Since getting the invite, I have done a bit of networking and favor asking.  I found a few people who live in China who are willing to take me to some factories and give me a tour!  So far, I have a footwear tour in Hong Kong set up (with a big company that you have definitely heard of), as well as two tours at textile and apparel factories in Shanghai.

I am stoked out of my mind, but reader, be warned.  I cannot promise anything.  I can promise that I will take some pretty pictures of me gallivanting around China.  I can’t promise that the factory tours will happen, or if I will be able to take pictures.  This is China, they are an authoritarian state.  I will be trying my best; I want to bring you the goods.  But we will have to see what happens.

Full Disclosure:  I can’t disclose who has helped me get the tours because I don’t want to annoy their employers.  Sorry.  Also, Rustic Pathways is not endorsing me in any way.

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