“Reason for return?” a store associate asks as I hand her a pair of sneakers I bought online. “Quality? Fit? Damaged?”
I ask if she has “made in China” anywhere on that list. Even beneath the mask, her expression is unmistakable.
Whenever I mention I haven’t purposely or knowingly purchased a single Chinese-made product since the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, most people look at me as though I claimed to have been holding my breath that long. (For the record, I don’t see it as realistic to ask where every component in my computer is made.) Over the years, the reasons for my personal boycott have grown beyond the country’s repression of its own people to include the quality and safety of its products, its exploitation of African nations, its theft of our intellectual property, and the threat it poses to Hong Kong and Taiwan, the latter a model democracy that cannot even declare its sovereignty without existential consequences.
Most people are far less interested in the “why” than the “how.” They can’t believe I don’t own a smartphone, a purchase I only began considering when Samsung closed its last smartphone factory in China last year. Actually, it’s been far more challenging to live without basics like a stapler. Although mine is Danish, the dozens of varieties of office staples I can find at Staples are all made in China, so I stick with Taiwanese paper clips. There are a few other items literally not manufactured anywhere else in the world that I’ve had to survive without, but most just require the investment of time to source alternatives, as well as money and a little ingenuity. (Faced with the binary choice of raw bread or a $250 British toaster, I found a brand-new vintage Toastmaster model from the days when the company still made consumer appliances in the States, for just $25 on eBay.) And yes, avoiding Chinese goods can make holiday shopping more complicated, too.
The biggest challenge has been getting accurate information from the companies, many of which don’t disclose manufacturing information publicly.
“Fila apparel and footwear are manufactured in the US,” a representative repeatedly insisted to me recently before I ordered my sneakers. I had to return them. A few weeks later, a manufacturer of elliptical machines sold me a model he assured me was made in New Jersey. When I e-mailed the company to commend them for manufacturing their products here, a customer service agent replied, “I think the agent might have misinformed you. Our products are US-designed but are produced in China.” No wonder they’re confused. Apple labels its products “Designed in California,” obscuring all of the products it makes in China. No matter where I’m told a product is made, I don’t believe it until I see it on the box.
It may feel like it’s impossible to buy anything made anywhere else, but according to the Reshoring Initiative, from 2010 to 2019, 1,090 companies returned manufacturing to the United States from China. More often, factories are being relocated from China — where wages and other costs have gradually risen — to lower-cost countries like Vietnam, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. While the labor and human rights records of such developing countries are far from ideal, I believe no other nation matches China’s belligerence toward other peoples and its own.
Since Xi Jinping became president in 2013, China has become more repressive toward dissidents, and has put more than a million Uighurs — an ethnic and religious minority — in “re-education” camps. He prompted the National People’s Congress to abolish presidential term limits by a “vote” of 2,958 to 2, paving the way for him to serve as president for life (making Vladimir Putin, who just extended his term to 2036, seem humble).
US sentiment toward China has often been situational. Following recalls of unsafe Chinese products in 2007, a Gallup Poll found 65 percent of Americans were “making an effort to avoid buying products made in China” and 64 percent expressing “a willingness to pay up to twice as much for a product made in the United States as they would for a similar Chinese-made product.” This past May, following shortages of personal protective equipment here, 40 percent of Americans surveyed by the business advisory firm FTI Consulting said they wouldn’t buy products from China, versus 22 percent for India, 17 percent for Mexico, and 12 percent for items from Europe.
Some of that sentiment certainly seems influenced by President Trump’s xenophobia — he rails against American companies doing business in China, and continually suggests it deliberately spread the coronavirus. It’s bad enough that I’ve had friends and family members troll me with, “How does it feel to be on the same page as Trump?” But we aren’t on the same page: He called Xi “a friend of mine” and, according to John Bolton, “the greatest leader in Chinese history.” Trump’s family manufactured its apparel in China and other countries, not the United States (official Trump campaign apparel is made here, however). Worse, his disparaging language has led to racist attacks on people of Asian descent here in America. My opposition is to the leadership of China, not its people.
Last year, as Taipei and Hong Kong marked the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre with vigils while Beijing banned all coverage and discussion of the event, I realized China has only become more repressive during my boycott. As we enter a season in which top US imports from China — computers, cellphones, appliances, toys, and apparel — dominate our gift lists, I hope Americans of all political persuasions pay attention to their purchasing. You can have happy holidays without buying products made in China.
Andy Levinsky is the writer for Graduate Affairs at Regis College in Weston. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.