A Year Without ‘Made in China’
One family’s true life adventure in the global economy
By Sara Bongiorni, John Wiley & Sons, $24.95 (£15.99)
Sara Bongiorni insists that a spirit of scientific inquiry rather than Sinophobia lay behind her decision to stop buying Chinese-made goods for her family for 12 months.
The author of A Year Without “Made in China” is also keen to distance herself from a man who writes a letter to his local newspaper complaining that “Santa Claus has been outsourced” to “red China”.
The objective of her project, she writes, was to discover whether it was possible to live for a year without Chinese goods – without any ideological or political intent.
Ms Bongiorni, a journalist who lives in Louisiana, tells us that she does not consider the Chinese her enemies. Her great-great- grandfather was, in fact, Chinese. But one does have to wonder why the publishers selected a jaundiced yellow for the cover.
For these are fraught times. American anxiety about the huge Chinese trade deficit with the US and the outsourcing of jobs has become a big political issue in Washington and will be a theme in the 2008 presidential election campaign. Presumably it was also the catalyst for this book.
So far this summer, the public mood has been exacerbated by food and product safety fears – over pets killed by contaminated dog and cat food, toothpaste tainted with traces of glycol, product recalls of dangerous tyres and Thomas the Tank Engine toys containing lead-based paint.
All this is affecting trade relations. The US has banned the import of farm-raised Chinese seafood, citing traces of anti-microbial agents not approved for use in the US. China subsequently found problems with American chicken.
Ms Bongiorni’s year of living without China was focused on manufactured goods rather than imported catfish and shrimp, although some Chinese pine nuts make an appearance. It ran from one New Year’s Day to another, and the objective was that she, her husband and three young children should avoid anything marked “Made in China”.
She attempts to make this odyssey engaging. A neighbour remarks ominously that “interesting things will happen” as her quest unfolds.
This turns out not to be the case, unless the definition of “interesting” includes reading page after page about how it is almost impossible to find a printer cartridge, an inflatable swimming pool or a watch-strap that has not been manufactured in China.
There are no debates over factory conditions and the lack of free trade unions, or of the situation in Tibet; no belief that free trade has served the interests of capital at the expense of labour. And unlike the classics of America’s 1980s funk over Japan, such as Ezra Vogel’s hugely successful Japan as Number One, there is no discussion about what, if anything, to do about the lack of American-made squirt-guns.
Instead of analysis, the author and her husband look back at the end of it all and conclude that examining goods on supermarket and hardware store shelves “had made our trips to the mall and the supermarket meaningful, even, at times fun”.
But there are plenty of subtextual messages of discontent, and these probably make this book as good an indicator as any of popular anxiety over the rise of China. The country, she writes, is “pushing its way” into America, rather than being invited, which seems insensitive, given what happened to China in the 19th century. She throws in a passing reference to Beijing’s “massive military build-up”, and says that it would not be “far off the mark” to use the word “inscrutable” to describe the government.
Perhaps the most interesting thing that happens is when, after a year without China has been completed fairly successfully, she and her husband can take their children to buy toys again on New Year’s Day.
News of her predictable travails leads to a rush of interest from Chinese journalists, who seem eager to use her story to support their own apparently jingoistic agenda – and to prove that to try to live without China “is to pitch your happiness into the wind”.
Given Ms Bongiorni’s refusal to engage in any kind of debate, it is hard not to approve of those Chinese reporters for at least having some ideological beliefs. You also have to wonder whether they flew to the US on Boeing airliners, and were writing their stories using Microsoft Word, and filing their stories over the internet via Cisco servers.