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What 'Made in China' really means

WASHINGTON -- There has been an almost startling increase in gift stores here. Talking to friends in other parts of the country, the same is true everywhere: inexpensive gift stores have sprouted like mushrooms.

The products that you find in many of these stores aaare international -- justifying store names that suggest far away places, such as "Global Treasures." Their goods are delightful, mostly exotic art and carvings from our Native American reservations, Africa, Eastern Europe and drawings and pictures that originated in the Philippines.

For decades, such gifts have been sold in small lots as one-of-a-kind originals. But you had to examine each piece carefully for sharp or uneven edges on carved Nigerian heads and zippers in the straw handbags from Kenya that were never intended to work.

Now, all is changed. Products certified as "handmade" are perfect in every detail and as available in San Diego as in Portland.

The majority of these "tribal" gifts, however, now are made on China's mass-production assembly lines. And, if you listen carefully to importers, there is no real deception.

This is the story: a Chinese entrepreneur visiting almost anywhere in the world from Arizona to Zimbabwe finds a reservation or a village that is scratching a living making tribal masks or sand paintings like those made for centuries by their tribe.

Our Chinese visitor talks to the people, very quickly identifying one of them as the "designer" or tribal chief. A design fee is negotiated as well as a small payment for every identical mask and painting made in China.

A few Native Americans and Africans are made happier; a great many are workless and poorer.

The Chinese visitor now is on a roll. He has a few trees cut down, bags of sand filled and imported to his home factory where the designs he paid for already have arrived. He even buys some of the knives used in the hand carving to be replicated together with the stones used for smoothing the wood and brushes for the sand paintings.

The goods still are made by hand with the same tools that have been used for centuries.

But the materials are not gathered from the forests but rather stockpiled; quotas are laid down and wholesalers all over the world have their orders met on time and every artifact is factory-inspected and much less expensive than last year.

The difference is that they are made to specifications, not in trailer parks or in thatched huts by poverty-racked Africans, but in a modern factory by poor Chinese.

This is not just about folk art. It is not just about outsourcing jobs. It is about outsourcing culture, from the American Indian reservations of the United States through villages in Southern Africa. When our fictitious Chinese visitor left Arizona or Zimbabwe, he had many other markets to ravage from Nevada through Alaska to Zambia.

So, when you visit the magical international gift store in your local mall you will find crafts that are better made than in previous years, labeled as designed in Alaska or Africa and made by hand.

Chinese visitors to Africa are not just concerned about wood and knives for their own factories. They are buying raw materials, timber, ores, minerals and options for their futures. This is posing a problem, not for China and its millions of disciplined, low-paid workers, but for the United States.

Wal-Mart stock its shelves with goods made in China. Last year, Wal-Mart's sales of more than $285 billion exceeded many African budgets and it spent about $15 billion in China, which represents payments for some 70 percent of their merchandise.

So, we go to Wal-Mart, buy low-cost Chinese goods and then head home to complain bitterly because the plants that once made solid, long-lasting American products were forced out of business. They were unable to compete with the lower-priced "Made in China" products.

Not only do the Chinese pay lower wages and have longer working days but by their forays overseas they have scooped up enough raw material to keep American plants and factories out of competition.

Last year the big guys like Wal-Mart prospered to add to China's greatness; this year it will be the small- and medium-sized enterprises seeking supplies from China that are the target. Anyone with a computer and the means to open trading accounts can purchase these goods based on the pictures and descriptions they see on the Internet. We see and order, the Chinese manufacture and ship and we pay and pay.

But how long will this last? With our plants closing, jobs disappearing, unemployment will rise and wages will fall. Our labor unions will scream with pain. But there is no way they can stop their members from enjoying inexpensive Chinese goods and subsidizing the Red Princes and Princesses of Beijing.

Who ever thought of China as a friend?

Dateline D.C. is written by a Washington-based British journalist and political observer.

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