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Fred's Views


Three Little Words

(I started writing this column - in my head - before the recent controversy and recall of Chinese-made article, mostly children's toys, hit the news. I've decided to ignore this serious problem and write the column as originally envisaged.)

There is a scene in the movie Back to the Future where Marty (Michael J. Fox) is complaining that a certain device is not working. Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) examines the device and states (I paraphrase) "No wonder. It's made in Japan." To this Marty replies, "What do you mean, all the best stuff comes from Japan." Thus, in one small scene, thirty years of economic history is summed up.

In the fifties when I grew from a child to a teenager, I can still recall finding hordes of cheap merchandise in the local "Five and Dime" store all made in Japan. After the devastation of the Second World War, Japan's economy was in shambles. From the ashes, with American assistance, I'm sure, came new industries. At first the goods were shoddy and cheap. But slowly yet surely, quality improved. American invention found fulfillment in Japanese engineering. Names like Sony, Panasonic, Sanyo and Samsung began to push electronic giants like RCA Victor, Sylvania, and Zenith off store shelves. At the same time, upstart imported cars like Datsun (now Nissan) and Toyota began to encroach on the success of the big three (and the want-to-bes like American Motors). Today, even more so than in Marty's 1985, Japanese products have come to dominate the marketplace for quality high-end merchandise.

Yet, there was a market for cheap, affordable alternatives. Over the years various nations have tried to follow the Japanese model, first producing low-cost, low to fair quality products and then gradually moving to better quality and more upscale merchandise. They have met with some success. For a while, Taiwan was a leader in low-quality, low-cost merchandise. Recently, many quality electronic products such as hard drives and other computer components were manufactured there. Singapore and Malaysia have also been sources for cheap goods and, at least in computer terms, have gone more upscale.

While the "import" market for automobiles is dominated by Japan, other countries, most notably South Korea have also enjoyed success. In the age of super-conglomerates, it is to some degree impossible to paint a single nationality to many products. However, Hyundai and Kia have enjoyed considerable success with their products. Hyundai first hit Canadian shores around the time of the movie, the mid 1980's. Their first notable car was called the "Pony". I never owned one, but I once helped to push one out of my snow-clogged driveway, so I guess that qualifies me to comment. The Pony was unexceptional but adequate. And it was cheaper than most of its competition. Its success was primarily its low cost. Today, however, Hyundai produces products that compete well with the competition in terms of features and quality - and is still cheaper than most. (To show I'm unbiased, I still don't own one. Actually, I am biased, I still prefer to buy from the "big three" or is it the "big 2 and a half" since Chrysler isn't doing so well - again. Actually, I've only owned one GM car and one Ford car. I have owned four American Motors vehicles [a Javelin, my pride and joy, a Hornet Sportabout, and two Jeep Cherokees - I also briefly owned a well-used second Javelin]. The remainder have been Chrysler products.)

Today, of course, the three little words that make up probably the most common phrase on the planet are "Made in China". There are those who would argue that buying Chinese goods supports Communism. There are those who would argue that buying goods produced by near slave labor is fostering the continued abuse of workers. These people may be correct, but I prefer to believe that buying Chinese goods in particular will one day lead to the fall of communism and will also eventually better the lives of millions of the Chinese people. Is it better for a peasant to have a job and a small income or to have no job and live on what ever meagre resources he/she can find? If workers are unappreciated and abused, they eventually band together and fight back. That Chinese goods exist at all is largely due to China relaxing rules against private ownership. This could be the foot in the door to political change.

There is a saying, Spock tells us, that "Only Nixon could go to China". I take that to mean that sometimes it is the least likely person or event that is the impetus to substantial change. Nixon, a Republican and staunchly anti-communist, opened the door, a crack, to trade with China. Soon American businesses were setting up shop. To compete, China had to allow private Chinese enterprise to flourish. I think almost as much as the resource-draining invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union was undone by the infiltration of American business, culture and ideas. Once a man has eaten a Big Mac, does he want to go back to cabbage soup? The Russian people began, in general, to see how other people lived and they wanted their piece of the pie. While there was no revolution as such, this desire for a better life infiltrated throughout the communist regime and added substantial pressure to the winds of change.

The same sort of ground swelling desire for more material things may well topple the communist regime in China - in time.

Having hereby justified my support of Chinese-made merchandise, I feel much better about my next trip to the dollar store where nothing costs more than a dollar - and nothing is made anywhere else but in China.


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