Posted On: Thursday - June 2nd 2022 5:12PM MST
In Topics:   Cheap China-made Crap  China  Economics  Books
Peak Stupidity has an entire topic key, Cheap China-made Crap*, about poorly made consumer products from China. We have documented different types of crap, the long-term trend, which is toward worse quality over the period late-1990s to today, and our speculation on who is responsible for a lot of it being cheap crap.
On that latter point, I read this book earlier this year, and it had lots of insight for me on the Chinese business mindset that results in the poor quality in a fairly entertaining style. What's neat too, is that this book was written in '09, a year when I was in China for quite a while, and a time when I got to see some Chinese manufacturing, and get the inside scoop on the quality shenanigans at said facility. That's good timing, even if the book is 13 years old now.
Paul Midler is the author of Poorly Made in China.
Just before I was getting ready to write this review about 3 months ago (I get sidetracked, you know...) I found out that John Derbyshire had written a review that he titled Chinese Junk (originally for National Review, an outfit that doesn't employ him anymore, cause reasons). Seeing as how you're bound to get a better book review experience from a master at it like Mr. Derbyshire, I suggest the reader here go check out that fairly short review and come back here. (Please!) I will try to skip most of the specific details that Mr. Derbyshire's review covers, but I have quite a few markings in the book that I meant to comment on. In general, I want to give the reader an idea of the mindset of the Chinese businessman (often -woman) that causes the troubles one would encounter in trying to get good products made there.
About the book and author though, this one is pretty readable, and one can finish it in a day or so. It is an exposé, in a way - the author tells us in the Acknowledgements that he left out real names of people who would be shunned by the parts of the Chinese business world they are part of for telling this much truth.
In the forward by one Arthur Waldron of U.Penn International Relations Dept. the purpose of the book is described succinctly:
This book is not merely about faltering product quality out of China. One of its broader themes is of people who promise one thing and then deliver another. This is a book about Chinese obfuscation and subterfuge. It is about gaming, strategy, and tactics.Paul Midler was (and may still be) a middleman who introduced American and other foreign (to China) company executives or buyers to the owners of Chinese manufacturing firms. He would also stay "in the loop" as they say, as business went on and problems surfaced, or, to be accurate, were created. The author speaks fluent Mandarin and thinks of the country of China as his home, as he related a story about his arrival on a flight.**
The author weirdly had a passage about his girlfriend, as I recall, that didn't belong at all. He also demonstrated the all-too-common situation of having great knowledge of this one area but being clueless on another. The latter bit was also about his arriving in China and being glad that there are not headlines about 400 murders in a year. He mentioned Philadelphia, where he is from - well, Mr. Midler, what might the reason be? What is the percentage of black people in the manufacturing regions of southeast China (or anywhere in the place) vs. in Killadelphia (a nickname he mentioned)? I believe it's about 0.0001 tops vs. 20% - so, mystery solved. Next time, explain for us, Mr. Midler.
At one point, the author uses quotes around Castro's "Communist regime", like that, for some reason. Some stupidity makes it all the way 'round the world, what can I say? Mr. Midler makes up for it by explaining things like why some of these American manufacturers shifted to having manufacturing done in China in the first place. It's not very flattering to these American businessmen either. Anyway, to the main point of the book now:
Although he is not wedded to any one industry, and skips around some in this book, the manufacturing sector that Paul Midler discussed as his biggest example here was beauty products, especially shampoo, body wash, and the like. The story of his one Middle Eastern client and friend by some point illustrates the way the Westerners get screwed by the Chinese businesspeople that are just plain not at the same level of honesty and trust.
Getting down to the issue of the Cheap China-made Crap, the author writes about "quality fade". It's not that the Chinese companies cannot make quality products, at least after having everything specified, including, of course, the intellectual property that they may want later. No, it's that the bosses resent having to keep up making the stuff right due to the deal they made being somehow unfair to them. Yes, they AGREED to that deal, and they did make the right stuff at first, per specs. However, they need to get more profits out of their arrangements, and so one thing after another changes. The underhandedness and the lying is something else:
When quality went bad, we were given a potpourri of excuses, a cornucopia of cop-outs [I like that line!]: It was the supplier's fault, It was the trucking company that was responsible. It was the fault of one of the workers ("but don't worry about speaking with him directly, because that individual was just fired").This "quality fade" is not really a matter of quality control so much as it is just plain cheating on the contracts and the specifications, slowly at first, then suddenly when they've come upon more business and simply don't care anymore.
Mr. Midler notes something I've mentioned. That is, in recent times, the Chinese market gets the good stuff, contrary to a couple of decades ago, while the exports are now the bad stuff. This part is funny. After Mr. Midler found out from a competing manufacturer that the shampoo formulation was wrong, the Chinese businessman explained:
"It was the sign of an inferior product. It was much worse than the shampoos sold in China. You couldn't sell this here, that's for sure." "You couldn't?" "Of course not. China has standards. This kind of shampoo would be for export only." He was surprised that we were exporting this kind of product to the US. "I would have guessed that this would be for some market like Bolivia."Ooops. Mr. Midler's big client (his main example) Bernie asked for the shampoo ingredient list that was to be set per the American company's formulation. "Sister", the Chinese manufacturing lady in the book-long example insisted that she "was not compelled to provide a breakdown. The details were trade secrets, she insisted.
This infuriated Bernie. "The product line came from MY sample set. WHAT trade secret? It's my fucking product!"[My final two exclamation points - not in the book!!] It's like that. The sheer gall doesn't end.
The factory insisted that it had copied Johnson Carter***'s original product line exactly, but the method by which they had done so was proprietary. In other words, the formulations were Johnson Carter's all right, but they could not tell us what ingredients were in them. It could happen only in China; the factory was claiming intellectual property rights over its copying methods!!
Here is the mindset of the Chinese businesspeople that Westerners have been trying to deal with: Trust is a one-way street with them. A deal is a deal, for a while, and then it's not anymore. When their tricks get discovered, instead of actually trying to fix things, they assign blame instead. They will push the customer in every way, right up to the brink of his throwing up his hands and leaving. When they have gotten the intellectual property incorporated, they will have no qualms about using it in products to sell to new customers. Simply said, the business world over there runs at a much lower level of trust, hence a higher stress level, than what was, and still is to a degree, that experienced by American businessmen.****
Though he makes his living being a liaison to manufacturing firms in China, author Paul Midler does not necessarily think the whole Made in China thing is good for Americans. He puts this "deflationary force" for Americans, the costs saved on consumer goods at $300/family from some "oft-quoted" statistic, definitely not worth the destruction of our manufacturing base. (OK, it's not worth it for non-elite Americans.)
Mr. Midler does not wrap up Poorly Made in China with any optimism for the future. He thinks the situation is getting worse (this was '09 still) and that the manufacturers don't need their "first market" importers so much now that the "bulk of the know-how has been transferred." Price will start going up, he stated in '09, and, yeah, they sure have.
Finally, Paul Midler ends his book with a funny and enlightening story of how damned stupid the whole Chinese face-saving phenomena is and then a quick "what would you do?" question with 3 possible answers to illustrate that you just can't win over there.
All in all, this book has answered a lot of the the "why's" that go along with Peak Stupidity's continual complaints about the Cheap China-made Crap. It makes me very glad I'm not a middleman involved in all this as Paul Midler is. I think I'd have been arrested and would be sitting in a Chinese prison doing forced labor right now making defective fireworks.
You know, I don't really like writing book reviews that much. I should have just linked to John Derbyshire's review and called it a day.
* It happens to be Topic Key ID=1 in the database, so one can see that we got on this kick early on.
** Interestingly, he tells us that a Chinese fellow passenger did not agree with Mr. Midler's own feelings of China being his home. It's not like that - it can't be, because you are simply a foreigner. was the reply. Good or bad, that was the Chinaman's attitude and shows what a real, solid nation is about.
*** Made-up company name for the book - maybe Johnson & Johnson (too easy) or Proctor & Gamble?
**** Has it always been this way in China? I wonder if the 3-4 decades of hard-core Communism has wrung the morals out of the Chinese people. They do say that things were much less cut-throat DURING the Mao era. However, this was mostly due to the fact that nobody owned squat, so there was nothing to steal.