Of Chinese Wheelbarrows and Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program

I have been wanting to write about China for a very long time. My interest in China predates my interest in Japan by several years. I began studying the Chinese language my freshman year of high school and continued studying it through high school although I never reached more than a rudimentary ability with it. By studying the language I became exposed to Chinese culture and its rich (and lengthy) history. But in college I got caught up in the “Rising Sun” fad and switched my focus to Japan.  I ended up getting a degree related to that nation and spent most of the 1990s there.

My personal experience with Japan has made me deeply skeptical of the current thinking that China will supplant the United States as the world’s great superpower. But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore what Beijing does and act as if its economy is going to cool and its leaders are going to mellow. Far from it. We need to seriously consider what motivates the Chinese and how their viewpoint on everything from foreign relations to economic globalization differs from our own.

I recently bought a wheelbarrow at a home and garden chain, spending about $90 on a model that was three times the cost of the cheapest one sold there. It came completely disassembled and was made in China – as was every wheel barrow sold there and at all the home stores in the area. I wasn’t intimidated by the fact that I had to put it together in the least. I have assembled things from Ikea furniture to servers and everything in between. But after an hour this thing is still sitting on the porch unfinished.

Shoddy workmanship that cut corners to save pennies or even fractions of pennies made putting it together an exercise in frustration. For example, instead of punching square holes into the metal to match the square locking heads above the threads, the Chinese company drilled round holes in the wheelbarrow pan. This may have saved the company a few tenths of a cent per pan, but it made stripping the screws inevitable as they spun when bolted and dug out the metal hole to the diameter of the locking head. Other metal pieces hadn’t been pressed properly, forcing me to bend them and shape them into place. The warning “Do not tighten nuts until you have completed assembly of all parts,” appears before step 1 of the five step assembly instruction. The reason for this warning is the ill-fitting, poorly machined parts. If everything was machined properly everything would fit together properly and it wouldn’t matter when bolts were tightened.

This is a wheelbarrow – a tool designed for a very simple chore: hold and haul yard waste and dirt around. But its very existence is indicative of much more.

When did America stop making wheelbarrows and did anyone beside the workers who made them notice? It’s quite possible that Americans built shoddy wheelbarrows; after all I only drive Japanese branded cars (some made in America, by the way) because I got tired of the American ones I owned dying at 40,000 or 50,000 miles. But the Honda I drive is 10 years old and on its way to 200,000 miles; it is a much better car than the Chrysler I pushed into the dealership to trade in at 50,000 miles. Thanks to globalization I got a better car.

But this wheelbarrow isn’t better than the American ones I grew up. My parents had an all metal wheelbarrow that lasted over 20 years. Looking at this Chinese made wheelbarrow, I’ll give it five – and that is if I can fix the stripped hole in the pan. Here globalization has taken away a better product and replaced it with a poorly made one.

It’s not just wheelbarrows. I don’t shop at Ikea anymore because I got tired of throwing away my purchases after two or three years. When we moved the moving company made us sign a waiver absolving them of damage to Ikea furniture. Luckily for us there was little left.

Globalization is supposed to allow choice, but when I searched at several stores yesterday for a better made, preferably American-made wheelbarrow, I couldn’t find one. All were made in China to the same sloppy standards and often by the same manufacturers.

North Carolina used to be a state known for furniture manufacturing. The industry is gone today, and the empty factories litter the landscape. Our family has given up buying new furniture and we now shop in second hand and antique stores looking for solid, well-made wood furniture. Try to buy solid furniture today, and you’ll find that you have deal directly with carpenters and small outlets that specialize in Amish made furniture.

Even countries like Mexico are feeling the pinch. Many of the jobs that left the USA for cheap labor there have moved on to China. When I find products made there or in other nations like Brazil, Honduras or Colombia it’s a relief from the guilt that underlays all my transactions with the Middle Kingdom. That guilt derives from supporting a nation that has chosen to become an adversary of the United States in all areas.

Being a communist country, China takes a Marxist view of the free market. Whereas free marketeers emphasize the win-win nature of basic economic exchanges, China views such transactions as zero-sum with a winner and a loser.

A free market capitalist will say that in the sale of my wheelbarrow I exchanged $90 that I didn’t need for a wheelbarrow that I did need. From my perspective as a buyer, I give away something that I don’t want in exchange for something I do want. The sale is a “win” for me. Conversely the Chinese company through the retailer sells me a wheelbarrow that it needs less than my cash. The sale is therefore a win for the manufacturer.

Marxists don’t see it that way. In their view I lose part of my wealth in exchange for a piece of junk. I am made less wealthy through by the transaction, whereas the Chinese company gets wealthier. Since money is power in capitalism, as an American I am weakened while the Chinese nation is made stronger.

China views all transactions this way, not just economic ones. This zero sum nature of relations hearkens back to its colonial period when under occupation by Germany, Great Britain and Japan China was forced into political and economic circumstances that were to the benefit to the occupiers and to the detriment of China.  It explains the deep nationalism that drives China in its relationship to the outside world, and its knee-jerk reaction to do the opposite of whatever the United States or other major power proposes.

The North Korean problem isn’t an American or a Korean problem; it’s a Chinese problem. Imagine an unstable Mexico run by a hermit with a taste for Russian hookers, Chivas Regal, and nuclear missiles. Would the United States expect the European Union or Russia to handle the situation? Absolutely not. These nations would expect the United States to intervene and stabilize its region. Yet for some reason American, Russian and European leaders allow China to ignore the North Korean problem and use Kim jong-il for its own advantage. North Korea therefore becomes a tool to weaken the outside powers to the benefit of China since in China’s view,  that weakness makes China stronger.

Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons has even rattled its traditional supplier the Russians who recently have come around to supporting stronger sanctions against the Teheran regime. But in the zero sum world of Chinese foreign policy, whatever the Western powers propose must be resisted, drawing China closer to Iran.

China cannot imagine a system whereby both sides win or both lose. This basic failure of imagination on the part of its leaders make China a difficult power to deal with, especially by foreigners who fail to appreciate the Chinese point of view or understand its underlying mindset.

UPDATE: I took the wheelbarrow back to the home improvement store and picked up the cheapest one they had – a $30 model. I figured that if all the wheelbarrows were poor quality, I may as well spend as little as possible on one. I gave it to the Kid to assemble, and he dutifully followed the instructions. Step three called for two 3” carriage bolts, but the box only contained one – and an extra 2 1/4” bolt that wasn’t long enough. So I’m going to call the store and see if they can Fedex me a screw since I won’t be in the neighborhood anytime soon.

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7 Comments

  1. Jim Hlavac:

    You write: “China views all transactions this way, not just economic ones. This zero sum nature of relations hearkens back to its colonial period when under occupation by Germany, Great Britain and Japan China was forced into political and economic circumstances that were to the benefit to the occupiers and to the detriment of China. It explains the deep nationalism that drives China in its relationship to the outside world, and its knee-jerk reaction to do the opposite of whatever the United States or other major power proposes.”

    Actually, this view goes back almost certainly to the very beginnings of China. The imperial history of China is replete with the idea of zero-sum economics, and a socialistic way of looking at power, and exercising it thusly. It has not changed much. The communist leader is as much an ancient emperor, with the cadres akin to eunuchs and courtiers. Even 2000 years ago almost all economic activity was state owned or state sponsored, just like today. Much as its foreign policy has almost always been to see China as this special place and the rest of mankind to be enemies of the people to be countered at every turn. That’s what that stone wall was about back then, that’s what the internet wall is about right now.

    I agree with everything else here, about the perils of China, but this is nothing new under the sun.

  2. Scott Kirwin:

    Jim
    Good point. Chinese paranoia does predate Marxism. What I’ve been thinking about is how one counters it.
    In terms of economics it’s easy to say “Well, my wheelbarrow allows me to save money spent on a landscaper, which is a win to me. It doesn’t matter how the Chinese perceive the transaction as long as I’m happy with it.”
    But I’m not happy with the transaction, and instead of having more choices today I have less; try finding a new wheelbarrow not made in China.
    Plus that money is being used to undermine American foreign policy all around the world. It’s not just in Iran or North Korea, but in Africa, South America, and even within the USA through cyber attacks and intellectual property theft.

    It seems to me that our politicians either want to kowtow to China or nuke it. I think there’s a middle path between those two extremes but what that is, I’m not sure.

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