HONG KONG DIARY
An Open Letter to America
Asia is rising against me.
I haven’t got a chinaman’s chance.
I’d better consider my national resources.
America, by Allen Ginsberg
Dear America, I write to you today with trembling hand and heavy heart.
These are dark days indeed for trembling Old China Hands like myself.
I blame you, America. After all, what did you expect when you took all the profit out of profiteering? How did you expect profiteers to make an honest living in the face of currency manipulation, unrealistic quality standards, endless factory inspections and your naïve insistence on fair labor practices?
And the worse part is that you just don’t care. Oh, I could go on about my troubles, but no, you just don’t give a tinker’s damn, do you, America? All you care about is your own insatiable hunger for cheap goods.
Time was, all one needed was a fair price – in other words, meeting the buyer’s target – and orders were written, goods were produced, and profit abounded on both sides. And oh! what a time it was. No one ever knew the ‘bottom’ price for a China factory’s product or its true cost or how much profit remained in a price after negotiating up to half-off the starting point. But profit there was, to be sure, even as the Chinese government and corrupt officials taxed and skimmed to hearts’ content.
Meanwhile, US retailers, freed from the tyranny of mere 50% mark-ups on merchandise, giddily maintained price points and pocketed the difference. A $99 garden fairy that used to cost a retailer $50 was now made in China for $15 – and stayed $99 at the cash register for you, America. And all that extra juice went toward mergers, acquisitions, executive salaries and dicey real estate transactions. Cheap goods, cheaply made, bought low and sold high – the American Dream!
Ah, but Big Retail abhors a vacuum. Bureaucracies bloomed. The emergence of the Web as a retail venue, and its required information systems, increased the cost of doing business – initiating a virtual arms race to build up databases and fulfillment systems.
And while far more effective than traditional ad media, those ravenous spiders attached to your Google search engine cannot completely replace the reach of print and TV spots. In the Unintended Consequence Department, the Internet paradoxically drew traffic away from the big-box stores, making those stores costlier to maintain.
The answer to these increased costs of doing business: even lower prices for products made in China, India, and whatever newest backwater “du jour” has been graced by the global market’s invisible hand. So factories got squeezed, and profiteers…well, let’s just say that the middle ground of the mythical middleman quickly went from verdant pasture to mine-laden no-man’s land. And the trench war was joined.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the rising tide meant to lift all boats, as globalization has long promised to do. Prices for raw materials, and even – gasp! – labor costs, began to rise too, and globally. China’s own appetite for oil, steel, copper, paper pulp, grain and all other manner of commodities caused a global price increase, and suddenly a Chinese business culture that had never raised prices in over a decade of export activity was reduced to fighting for scraps. Add to that a rise in China’s currency value – at your insistence, America – and the scraps were whisked off the table. And with them, your humble Professor, that once plucky profiteer.
It ceases to amaze, America, how, on return from yet another trip to China I am bombarded with questions, like: How is the Italian food there? Is there really no Chinese take-out? Is a massage Happy Ending worth the extra charge? Is it true that China will outstrip our economic hegemony anytime soon? And: What has changed in China since my first trip there in 1998?
Images of Olympics-saturated Beijing and a recent New York Times article about the world’s “new cities” seem to have struck a nerve with descriptions of China’s relentless sprawl both outward and upward. But to focus on China’s change misses the point entirely in this new ring of Hell we call the wired-up global economy.
True, there has been great change in China over the past decade, much of it good; and much, much more gone horribly awry. Uncounted millions of peasants have been lifted out of rural poverty and away from malnutrition, illiteracy and a rigid – if unofficial – caste system, especially so for women. Living standards, class mobility and personal liberties for urban Chinese have increased at breakneck speed despite media portrayals of Internet blackouts, religious persecution and invasions of privacy by corrupt officials – also all true.
Ah, but to make this omelet a few eggs were broken along the way: 1.4 million people were forcibly relocated from their villages in the magnificent Three-Gorges area of the Yangzte River, the hand-over and subsequent emasculation of Hong Kong, hand-picking Legislative Council members and ignoring the agreed-upon Basic Law implementation, and the relentless sinofication of Tibet – “encouraging” the migration of thousands of Han Chinese to Lhasa.
Add to the mixing bowl the overall degradation of China’s environment, its government’s pesky habit of jumping into bed with any whore-lord (viz: Sudan) with an oil surplus and a renewed obsession with Taiwan’s reunification, and you’ve got ingredients for one hell of an omelet.
So, yes, there have been great changes within China. And much change has rippled far beyond the Middle Kingdom, as it has called itself to signify its place in the center of the universe (at least that hasn’t changed) since the ascendance of the Zhou Dynasty in 1100 BCE. But how does one measure change, especially when in the midst of one’s own?
Meanwhile, there you sit comfortably in your living room, America, bombarded with news articles, op-eds and TV exposes on the Awakening Insatiable Giant, threatening our way of life – Hah!
Well, yes, change is threatening. But while China has changed during this period, what of the changes at home? Changes, you say? What changes? Or, to harken the poet Joseph Walsh:
“Everybody’s so different – I haven’t changed. Life’s been good to me so far.”
There was a time, America, and not so long ago, when you were not only the world’s beacon of liberty but also its factory floor. Indeed, you still have the largest share of total manufacturing output – but not for long. China is now estimated to surpass in total output by 2013 at the latest.
Meanwhile, back when your Professor was a lowly captain of industry, factories hummed in cities, towns and any otherwise desolate spot near a railroad or highway nexus. That included my beloved Philadelphia, of course, which teemed with machine shops, metal fabricators, apparel makers, shipyards, and even a locomotive works. Okay, we still have a shipyard, but that train don’t start here anymore, that’s for sure.
And whom did we employ? Why, your tired, your poor, your ex-cons and dropouts; your future retail clerks and fast food cooks; your cable guys and pizza delivery men. Factory work was always a reliable entry point to the labor force, and the hierarchy of skills needed to turn raw material into finished product gave hope to upward mobility within the factory food chain, and, ultimately, society.
And today there is arguably greater upward mobility in some sectors of Chinese society than in your own. True, more easily done with a bar set so low as late-century China’s was, but up is always better than down.
Enough proselytizing for now, America – and hopefully more profiteering, okay?
I’d better get right down to the job.
It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision
parts factories, I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America, by Allen Ginsberg
The Professor, as he is known to legions of business contacts throughout Asia, has been traveling to Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region since late in the last millennium. He is a native of Philadelphia, PA and maintains his permanent residence there. His poetry, fiction, interviews, and articles have been published by Philadelphia-area newspapers, magazines and anthologies, and he is currently planning another trip abroad. He is shown here at left, about to join the Maclehose Trail in Sai Kung.
Articles by the Professor
Column: Hong Kong Diary