This is a lighthearted book about a weighty subject: the displacement of American consumer goods by cheaper imports from China. After a few visits to Walmart, a national chain dedicated to the sale of very inexpensive Chinese merchandise, Sara Bongiorni, a business writer with a young family, observes this galloping trend with growing apprehension. She wonders if it is even possible in today’s America to go through the daily routines of life without buying anything made in China.
The author proposes to test this idea for a year, but winning her husband’s cooperation is tricky. After a while, he too gets in the spirit, agreeing to a one-year boycott of all Chinese products. The plight of American workers left jobless does not seem to have played a big part in the decision; rather, the attraction of the experiment lies in finding out if the Bongiornis really have the stamina, discipline, and the willingness to make the sacrifices to carry out this self-imposed challenge. Avoiding Chinese goods is time-consuming and frustrating. It requires imagination, creativity, detective work — and spending more money on fewer acquisitions.
Rules must be established. What to do about presents? There are two young children in the household who will want toys and will surely receive them from relatives and friends. Are these to be shunned? No, presents will be allowed — a cunning decision that permits the parents to escape some restrictions by hinting broadly to grandparents about the kids’ craving for off-limit toys.
Another complex problem arises with products made in America, with Chinese parts. And still another is what to do about merchandise labeled “Made in Hong Kong” and “Made in Macau”? The relationship of these territories to China is somewhat oblique, but a little research confirms that, yes, Hong Kong and Macau should also be on the boycott list.
One issue that does not seem to have surfaced in the deliberations is whether the boycott should be limited to things made in China or should it also include those made in other countries. The family does not agonize over that potentially loaded question and is happy to buy replacement products manufactured in India, Mexico, Germany, or anywhere other than China. With so much talk in the household about resistance to Chinese goods, the well-meaning parents are concerned that their two pre-school children, deprived of toys they want, may develop a negative view of China and the Chinese people.
The adventures of the Bongiornis in an America-without-Made-in-China are told with gentle humor that makes for fun reading. The book could easily be turned into a nice family movie, were the story line not so politically incorrect.
The parents carefully scrutinize labels for provenance, yet they still make mistakes. One can’t let one’s guard down. Assuming that an item is too inexpensive to bother shipping from so far, they end up with a box of Christmas candy canes that hails from China. Some objects in packaging labeled “Made in U.S.A” turn out to be from China after all — it is the packaging that is manufactured domestically. Contemplated purchases from catalogs and the internet are usually described as “imported,” a euphemism for “Made in China.” Gathering more precise information on country of origin requires calling stores, manufacturers and distributors. These inquiries lead to amusing anecdotes about the people at the other end of the conversation who are either clueless or reluctant to answer the question; sometimes they promise to call back but seldom do.
Since the book’s publication in 2007, Chinese imports have penetrated further into the American food market. High-end supermarkets such as Whole Foods find it expedient to sell frozen vegetables from China — a fact quasi-hidden from buyers by tiny print and inconspicuous placement. Lowly garlic, cans of manderin orange slices, and deceptively named would-be Israeli Kosher jams for Passover are routinely sold in local markets.
A Year of Living without “Made in China” may not have hit the bestsellers’ list in America, but it did not pass unnoticed in China. In an epilogue, the author tells of her interviews with several Chinese reporters. One particularly aggressive journalist steers the author toward confessing that the family has endured much psychological suffering as a result of their deprivation of Chinese goods. Surely it has caused marital discord and feelings of guilt toward the children who had to live without the toys they craved? The lengthy interview morphs into an interrogation as the journalist fishes for a usable quote to bolster his story. He comes away empty-handed.
Ms. Bongiorni was an early observer of the Chinese invasion and made a symbolic gesture to raise awareness of the trend. But the harmful consequences of the explosive growth of Chinese goods dumped on the American market can no longer be ignored — not even by the Wall Street Journal, that citadel of free trade and open immigration .
An article by John Lahart titled “Tallying the Toll of U.S.–China Trade,” is boldly subtitled “Study Sees Americans Bearing High Economic Cost of Imports as Labor Market Struggles to Adapt” (September 27, 2011). The article reports on a recent study showing that the regions most exposed to high competition from China have recorded the most job losses, not only in manufacturing but also in overall employment. These areas had the largest increases in workers receiving unemployment insurance, food stamps and disability payments. The conclusion is that:
The cost to the economy from the increased government payments amounts to one- to two-thirds of the gains from trade with China. In other words, a big portion of the ways trade with China has helped the U.S. — such as by providing inexpensive Chinese goods to consumers — has been wiped out. And that estimate doesn’t include the economic losses experienced by people who lost their jobs.
In another sign of the dawning discomfort about the current situation, a prominent ad by the makers of New Balance sneakers in Parade magazine (October 23, 2011) introduces its new model, the cleverly named USA608, with an American flag and the headline:
“Committed to American Workers”
We then read that “1 out of every 4 pairs of shoes New Balance sells in North America is proudly made or assembled here.”
I need new sneakers, but my chances are no better than one-in-four that I’ll be wearing a pair of USA608 assembled in America. With luck, my odds in this lottery will become more favorable by the time I purchase my next pair.