One day in early March, I picked up the phone and called my sister Ping in Shanghai. It was the kind of “regular visit” I’ve been enjoying lately, having her so far away and yet hearing her voice as if she were sitting next to me.
As usual, we started out by exchanging the latest news about family and friends, and then our conversation drifted wherever our thoughts carried us. At some point, Ping began talking about winter clearance sales and how she was searching for a down coat.
“There are lots of styles and colors,” she said with pride. “You’d be surprised by how well-stocked stores are these days, and most everything is made in China. Finally, I found a great coat and bargained hard, but they’d only lower the price to 1,500 yuan.” And of course Ping didn’t buy it.
What? I wasn’t sure I heard her right since 1,500 yuan is about the equivalent of $240, half of many people’s monthly paychecks. As a Shanghai native, I knew about the relatively mild winters there and that by March coats should have already gone on clearance. How much would a regularly priced coat cost? I couldn’t even imagine.
According to the New York Times, the average annual income for a Chinese family in 2012 was only 13,000 yuan, or about $2,100, while that of an American family was $52,000. Of course, Shanghai, being an international hub, has a much higher standard of living than the average Chinese city, but its overall wages are still not on par with those of the Western world.
I haven’t visited China for almost five years, long enough to become disconnected from its fast-changing society. I started to question Ping: How much is it for a pair of jeans? How much for a shirt? Her answers shocked me. I decided to call a close friend of mine in Shanghai with the same questions–not that I didn’t trust Ping, but I needed someone to help me understand the situation.“Qin,” my friend replied, “let’s put it this way. I don’t buy clothes in China.”
I can probably buy a coat for far less here in Washington, I thought to myself. And, I bet that it probably will have been made in China! To test my theory, I told Ping that I’d go to my local store and find her a coat. My prediction was correct: It took me less than an hour at the local mall to snatch up a perfect, coffee-colored Calvin Klein coat for under $100! I took it home like a trophy and examined it. There, sewn inside the collar, was a label triumphantly proclaiming, “Made in China.”
For the last few decades, China has been the manufacturing capital of the world. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2013 alone, China exported $440 billion worth of goods to the United States, a big portion of which were textile products. These days, it’s hard for Americans not to own any goods made in China, no matter how patriotic we are and how much we want to support our domestic manufacturers.
With all its factories and cheap, plentiful labor, one might imagine that consumer products are inexpensive inside China. It perturbs me that the Chinese are paying more for their own goods in developing China than we well-off Americans are paying in the United States, even with the considerable costs of shipping.
I also find myself thinking about our recent campaigns to strengthen our country by encouraging Americans to buy more American goods. How about promoting American shopping tours to well-off Chinese consumers, luring them to come here and buy “Made in America” products that are more reasonably priced than the Chinese ones in China? How about exporting goods “Made in America” to China for a change? While economists and trade policy experts wrangle over how to do that, I certainly know what I’ll be packing for my next trip to China.
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Qin Stubis is a regular columnist in The Santa Monica Star. She lives in Bethesda, MD.