Poorly Made in China

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!"

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!!
[My final two exclamation points - not in the book!!] It's like that. The sheer gall doesn't end.

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.

Sunday - June 5th 2022 10:42AM MST
PS: I missed this comment till now, Sam. That decision was "Citizens United vs. ____" (somebody). Well, not a body, as you say. Yes, I'd guess preventing Big Biz from buying politicians would be part of the solution. That decision sounds like a BS one just as with Obamacare being a tax or something ...

Thanks for the comment.
Sam J.
Friday - June 3rd 2022 9:56PM MST

The root of the problem is we are outsourcing all our manufacturing.Without this the Chinese can cheat themselves all they want. While I get great satisfaction to see THEM and our elites cheated, I would much rather have things made in the US.

I've commented before on how the Supreme court has screwed things up with their fake stupid rulings. If you look back at this outsourcing problem you will see they have had a hand in this also.

Back a while ago people got so mad the Congress actually passed a law making corporate donations to politicians illegal. So what did the courts do? They said, corporations were people. So they can give as much as they want because...free speech. Now it takes some real mind warp to come up with that.

Now notice they didn't take away any of the advantages of incorporation, like tax breaks, nor did they add any of the duties of being a person like liability.

I say if our illustrious business leaders are going to globalize, then we should pay them like they pay Japanese executives. Much less.

The courts have ruled, so fine in this case, but, let's pass a law that says they have to either be people, losing limited liability and tax breaks, or a corporation. And if they are a corporation then salaries can only be less than 20 times the lowest wage, including outsourced labor like lawn mowing, if they import any manufactured or worked articles they sell.

Now I expect no matter how much mouthing about how important their shareholders are, they would be loath to pay themselves less to help their shareholders out. They could just keep importing cheap crap, but I bet they wouldn't.

And yes I know they would game this but it would be a start. If globalism is good for us, it’s good for them too.
Friday - June 3rd 2022 5:11PM MST
PS: Mr. Blanc, our elites did, but then, going from this book, quite a few smaller manufacturers also made decisions completely against American workers and consumers, just for a few bucks, or even simply because that's what everyone else was doing.
Friday - June 3rd 2022 5:09PM MST
PS: SafeNow, you should read the book to find out how it just won't get that far (with it becoming a decision by American consumers, who, as you say, probably just won't trust that it's high quality). See, the interpreter could tell them the whole story. That won't matter.

Firstly, the story I am familiar with is of the putting of the quality pieces at the outside of the big pile when the Western customers' Q/A people came to check it out (there are no surprises - they WILL know, or they will stall and fix it that way).

Next, and this is the stuff in the book that is exasperating to read about, you tell them one thing, and one day your Q/A person does see that the bottles are thinner, the labels are screwed up, etc. There will be arguing and plenty of excuses, but it won't just get fixed after an apology. They will play hardball, knowing that you can't switch manufacturers so easily. (Maybe Wal-Mart can, but then they still have the crappy stuff.)

Finally, what I'd be worried about with the $200 interpreter chick (besides falling for her) is that she may be making inside deals on price with the manufacturer. You're not going to know. Paul Midler had a big advantage in this respect in knowing Chinese.

He could probably get away with a lot of listening at places in which he was not known and learning a lot. They would not expect him to know Mandarin. That brings up a story that I may have put in an iSteve comment. The Mexican customer was riding with the factory owner and saleslady 40 miles in their van from the trade show to the factory. In Chinese the two discussed selling him a previously returned container of not-so-quality stuff, since they had to do something with it. Well, as it turned out, the Mexican customer knew Chinese. Hey, how the hell were they supposed to know that? He was not happy at all.
Friday - June 3rd 2022 4:59PM MST
PS: Mr. Smith, there was certainly no Political Correctness out of MIT 107 years ago. That was amazingly candid. Yes, it seems that even a win/win deal is not acceptable to the Chinese businessman, if he can squeeze out a little more, even if the business relationship is ruined after that. Somehow the Chinese guy's mind cannot comprehend the mind of the Westerner.

Especially since you found it on-line (thanks on behalf of other readers, as usual!), I hope you will read some of this book. It's pretty exasperating at times though to picture yourself in the client Bernie's, or middleman Midler's shoes.
Friday - June 3rd 2022 2:53PM MST
PS So the Chinese are swindlers. At least swindlers of round-eyes. My limited experience of dealing with Chinese suggests that telling the truth (at least to round-eyes) is not considered a requirement. But the Chinese didn’t foist Chinese manufacturing upon us. Our elites did. When (if) heads-on-pikes time comes, their’s should be the heads.
Friday - June 3rd 2022 9:51AM MST
Background: Around 20 years ago, China created a college major (and a masters degree!) in being a commercial interpreter. Tens of thousands of super-smart Chinese ladies were trained. They then specialized in particular industries and they advertised. This made possible China’s taking over the American manufacturing sector. They pick you up at the airport, take you to your hotel, to the best Chinese restaurant, and then the factory tours begin. All for around $200 a day.

Here’s my question. Suppose I specify to the commercial interpreter and to the factory owners that I want a high-end product. And that I will pay for it. and that my quality-control people will periodically review compliance with the specifications. What would happen? My cynical guess is that American consumers would simply not believe that the product from China is good quality, and they would not pay for it. And nothing I could say in my product description would change this preconception. Oh well, at least I got escorted to the best Chinese restaurants and I was assisted in ordering the best food items.
Adam Smith
Friday - June 3rd 2022 9:34AM MST
PS: Good afternoon and/or evening, everyone...

Poorly Made in China(2009)(.pdf)

Poorly Made in China (Revised and Updated)(2011)(.pdf)

Poorly Made in China (2009)(.epub)

After reading your (and Mr. Derbyshire's) book review I couldn't help but think of that old Chinese proverb about how a “Chinaman can out Jew a Jew”. So I googled “Chinaman can out Jew a Jew”, which returned just one result...


Technology Review
MIT's Magazine of Innovation · Volume 17

(You can download a the whole volume here...)

I think this is an interesting example of what Mr. Hail pointed out, that historically many Westerners who encounter the Chinese tell similar stories.

Here's the relevant passage...
(which can be found on page 699)

An efficiency expert doesn't need his stop watch out here, for nothing less than an hour counts with the workman. This is not so bad when you think of paying the high wage rate of $0.005 per hour or $1.60 gold per month of 30 days, sunrise to sunset. But you get just your money's worth and no more, for it takes about 10 Chinese to do the work of one man at home. Between the low cost of labor and reduced cost of materials, work can be accomplished here at half the usual price of the same job at home. The greatest trouble is the lack of responsibility of the workmen and any gang boss you may hire. Ming Tien (tomorrow ) is the usual answer to your request to get a job done in short time. Then work is done Chop A Do - about right - is the best translation for this phrase. It is a strange thing, but the Chinese language has no word for accurate, you have to go a long way round and explain what you mean. This inaccuracy in the work about drives one wild. No matter how carefully you have trained your men they will put out rough work if they think they can put it over on you. Not that they cannot do fine, accurate work; some of the finest joinery and carpenter work that I have seen has been done by Chinese workmen, and everything taken from the rough log at that, for there are no sawmills here.

At home it is bad enough to keep track of materials and supplies, but at least you have one to trust to keep the check system going; not so here. The one you set to keep the check system takes it as a perquisite to work the system for his personal benefit, and milks it for all it will stand. The worst part of the matter is that this idea of “squeeze” is so ingrained into Chinese character that you discharge one man only to hire another who will do the same. There is no escape from it, so the only thing to do is to charge off 10 to 25 per cent to cover the expense. Raising the wages only makes matters worse, for there seems to be a system in vogue that a man can squeeze a certain percentage of his salary and it will not be called stealing, above that is taboo; 15 per cent seems to be the limit.

There are some odd practices in buying that cause us annoyances. First there is no fixed price and everything is the subject of a barter or haggling. Then it costs more per piece to buy in large lots than in small. This was forced on my mind by a lumber deal. I was out buying lumber and could not get the merchant to give a better price than $0.88 per cubic foot; now $0.58 is a a fair price and I told the man so. He then asked me how much I wished to buy; I said several logs ultimately but at least one just now. Then he said I could have one log for my price, but if I wanted more, I must pay his price. I would have taken his whole stock and given him cash, much to his advantage, but no, the custom is to charge that way and no other way would do. This applies to others as well as to lumber men. The apparent way the merchant's mind runs is, “Well, if he has money enough to buy that much stuff, why he can pay more for it,” and then again there is no fixed price, so that the sale of a large lot would sort of fix a customary price for that material, and the seller could not catch an unwary buyer, for big deals are noised about in a wonderful way, while the sale on one piece does not matter. Many times it is cheaper for us to have a Chinese buy for us, even with his squeeze, for a Chinaman can out Jew a Jew, and the dice are loaded against a foreigner. A Chinese who understands you is a tremendously valuable asset in all one's work here.

Friday - June 3rd 2022 6:32AM MST
PS: Yeah, that's the thing, Mr. Hail. There are some good people, and being submerged in Western culture for some years can change someone (an example would be the feelings about pets.) However, this works better with only a few at a time. When people come in numbers like 10's or 100's of thousands a year, it doesn't work. The ways of the old country prevail.

Chinatowns in NY City (I have been to 3 of them, but I heard there are 5) are just like China except for the vehicles - at least a FEW more American cars.
Friday - June 3rd 2022 6:10AM MST

The funny thing I find about China/Chinese:

For now almost two centuries, now, Westerners who encounter them end up telling much the same meta-narrative story about them, adjusted or updated or amended for time and place and cultural-political-technological-economic conditions.

A lot of the points made in this review/book would have been familiar to the radical critics of the Chinese in the Western USA circa the 1870s, the height of the Chinese Exclusion movement.
Friday - June 3rd 2022 5:07AM MST
PS: Honestly, Dieter, I have probably only watched 5 short video clips of Kamela Harris in my whole life, but that parody was fantastic, no matter what. Thanks.

Thanks also for the raspberry price-differential local vs. China anecdote. To me, it's a matter of being in a position to be comfortable with "wasting" (but not really) some of your money, not a lot, as on a power boat, but a little that makes a difference in the world. A price different of 7 to 8X, with quality disregarded for the moment,, is hard to swallow.

However, it's a good feeling to support your neighbors. The quality may be better. Lastly, that "organic" label on the Chinese raspberries may mean absolutely nothing.
Dieter Kief
Friday - June 3rd 2022 1:52AM MST
"All items are made in China and cannot be sold seperately"

Great Kamala Harris satire


Dieter Kief
Thursday - June 2nd 2022 10:13PM MST
You can produce dried raspberries in nice little quantities hand made in Switzerland, and sell them at a local farmer's market nearby. And people come and buy them, too.
But other Swiss consumers buy them at the Aldi supermarket - made in China. Organically grown even. The price-difference is huge: 50g of such dried fruit at the local farmer's market are 8,50 Swiss Franks. 100 g at Aldi from China are 2,50 Swiss Franks 1 Swiss Frank is 1,04 Dollar right now).
Why do Swiss consumers buy the Swiss made dried raspberries?
Because they like it to shop at a local market. And that they do for many reasons. One is, because they trust and respect the poeple there - and that includes their work-ethic. They know, that asking 8,50 Swiss Franks for 50 g of raspberries is ok, simply put. - Not least because many of the customers know them - either from school, or from the church etc. - Because they live together and share a culture and - a beautiful lanscape even. And meet them at the market, thus seeing, that these are honest people that work usually longer hours than they do, to make their (decent) living.
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