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Poorly made in China book cover "Poorly Made in China – An Insider’s Account of the Tactics Behind China’s Production Game" by Paul Midler is an interesting look into the personal experiences of an American manufacturing middle-man consultant working in Pearl River Delta. The book was sent to me for review and I must say that although I’ve read quite a few books on China, this one was slightly different and that made it much more pleasant than some of the rest. Surprisingly, it was a bit like reading Paul’s personal blog that included long details of his personal experiences, his personal life and his personal perceptions of modern China. The fact that Paul and I have a few things in common made it especially funny at times. If you think you might enjoy reading a hard-copy full-length blog-like account of personal encounters in China, as I do, you’d probably like this one.

Still, having fun with the way the stories are told was strongly contrasted by what I thought about what Paul’s add-on comments suggested about China. "Poorly Made in China" is a title begging popularity among China-bashing foreigners  looking to reinforce their negative stereotypes about China. It’s what the west wants to read to drive the China fear forward. "Sister", the manufacturing plant boss who is one of the dominant characters in the book is the ultimate Chinese "Witch of the East" that will do everything to stop little Kansas Dorothy from returning back home to the US from over-the-rainbow-land-of-Oz-China happy and rich. She’s all that the Chinese stereotype has been built up to in order to describe the cost war in China, she is the ultimate evil – she’s smart, stupid, clever, fast, slow, manipulative, innocent, exploiting, and unaware, in an extrapolation of opposites that makes it impossible for anyone, even a Chinese speaking business masters graduate western consultant like Paul, to understand how she thinks. And so, we’re left to conclude one main motivator – money. With every chapter Paul tries to figure out what makes her tick and every chapter comes back to the same extreme negative conclusions regarding Chinese culture, Chinese ethics, Chinese morals and Chinese way of life. Sister and the Chinese manufacturers are money sucking materialistic animals that would sell their souls and the world to make an extra buck, while the American companies are portrayed as innocent victims who are mostly forced to play along. Sure, there are moments of sympathy with the local Chinese and some criticism against the fast-money Americans that go along with the Chinese mind-games without understanding what they’re doing, but all in all this is a book criticizing China.

The peak of the book, I believe, is when Paul is so overwhelmed with his personal experiences of manufacturing in China that he stops using Chinese made products and resolves to looking for the product’s country of origin to determine whether he should use a product or not. One can not help but feel sorry for Paul for his loss of faith in the system he is trying to work with in a country it’s obvious he has some emotional connection to. Reading this, one can also not feel anything but sad for all the ignorant foreigners who keep using the Chinese products not knowing how bad things can get. Yeah, that’s us. "If only everything was made in the US", we hear ourselves thinking, "If only that… the world would be so much better". Our problem, we are led to believe, is that we let the Chinese do this, we let them take over the world with their inferior products, IP infringing, health hazardous, and cost driven malpractices.

Obviously, I’m uncomfortable with this message. It’s more than that, I’m deeply bothered by this attitude. While raising a smile when reading some of the cultural descriptions it often happened that the smile turned into shock and discomfort with Paul’s conclusions. In some of the texts I thought – if this was written about Jewish people (a common background both Paul and I share) or African-Americans this way, there’s a strong chance it would not be as well accepted. But when it comes to discussing China and the Chinese – everything goes.

I admit it, I’ve never worked in manufacturing and I know very little about that world and the Chinese context of how business are conducted in this industry, but there is something that I would like to share from my professional life on the topic. Working in IT with some of the world’s largest American based IT companies in multi-million US$ long term contracts I should point out that the cost-cutting and contract redefining behavior leading to reduced quality, inadequate design, lacking quality assurance, and a much inferior product than was originally agreed upon is a global business phenomenon that transcends industry, nationality or culture. If you think the American legal system and reputation sensitive companies don’t play rough in business, you’re either naive or blind. A nice related quote on that comes from the blockbuster movie Armageddon :

"You know we’re sitting on 4 million pounds of fuel, one nuclear weapon, and a thing that has 270,000 moving parts built by the lowest bidder, makes you feel good, doesn’t it?"

Though this doesn’t justify or clarify any of what’s described in the book, the point I’m making is that discussing this as if this is about Chinese or a unique Chinese phenomenon is at times misleading. In the Mattel case, which Paul mentions every now and again about the poisonous  toys produced in China, the case actually includes two aspects – one is the painted poisonous lead somehow used in Chinese manufacturing process and the second is a flawed magnet design at the US. The fact that such incidents occurred in the past elsewhere with the company and that they started occurring in China after all manufacturing was moved to China only suggests that while manufacturing is to blame there are some managerial responsibilities and general project management chaos that leads to those issues. Stats my professors like to throw around is that 80% of the world manufacturing is now in China, it would make sense that 80% of the manufacturing scandals would be China related. Mattel finally forced into apologizing to China had to do, ofcourse, with the fact that China can put pressure on Mattel to crawl back, but also that it was wrong for Mattel to throw all responsibility over to China in the usual western practice, it was a somewhat unfair too-easy uncalled for scapegoat strategy.

The book does a fairly good job of showing the fallacies in American thinking about the opportunities in China. Paul knows something is wrong and smells trouble when the American businessman can’t figure out how the Chinese factory is going to make money. The game that’s been played throughout the book by the foreign importers is pushing for the lowest prices, assuming but not demanding a certain standard when contract is signed. They focus on the price and assume quality which is rarely explicitly stated, articulated or elaborated, and often actively turn a blind eye when they do know how things are done. Paul accuses the importers of playing along with these games, but seems pretty sympathetic towards their crushed-in-the-middle situation between the Chinese manufacturers and the American retailers, pointing the blame at law-less China. While there might be truth there, I think that whether manufactured in China, Taiwan, Japan or the states, this will all be the same anywhere if management or contractors push for this dangerous game. One thing to be said about the successful Chinese is that they will do an excellent job of adjusting to what ever it is that you want them to adjust to, even if it’s flawed contracts and dubious business practices. What ever wrong is taking place in China when it comes to western businesses, I disagree with Paul that this is mainly about China but agree with Paul that we need to take a much closer look at how we do business in China and what morals, conduct and ethics we bring in to the game.

Before another hot-headed commenter explodes at my non-mainstream comments I will repeat what I answered in a previous comment :

[I'm not] suggesting cutting slack for China or not exercising morals and ethics when doing business in China. Quite the contrary, I would like to see more of that on a global scale. We, the foreigners, [...] simply don’t do that. This is where I’m feeling uncomfortable.

The other point was that when it comes to judging a culture different than our own which we’re not familiar with we should approach with extreme caution. Especially when we decide for others how they should live and what they should do. Applying general stereotypes to a culture or a country suggesting that we know better is a very problematic attitude. We, the foreigners, simply do that ALL the time.

Stories should be told, observations should be shared, [Paul] has my greatest appreciation for the work [he's] done in bringing those stories out into the open, but when it comes to judgment and criticism we are to try and realize that the situation might be a bit more complex – as [he] does at times try and point out. Reinforcing stereotypes is easy, trying to see things objectively is far more difficult.

Bottom line – I recommend you have a look and make up your own mind, it is worth your time. Do let me know what you thought about the book – I’m interested.



Tags: book review; china business; paul midler; poorly made in china;


  • http://www.filination.com/blog/ Fili

    Jay – Thanks for commenting on that. I appreciate your opinion and I agree that Paul generally does a good job, but I think we somewhat disagree on the conclusion as we tend to blindly touch two different parts of the China elephant. Would be happy to hear more about your personal experiences.

    Andrew – Thanks. Interesting set of sites you have there. Would be interesting to hear your encounters with the “Poorly made in China”.

  • http://www.filination.com/blog/ Fili

    Jay – Thanks for commenting on that. I appreciate your opinion and I agree that Paul generally does a good job, but I think we somewhat disagree on the conclusion as we tend to blindly touch two different parts of the China elephant. Would be happy to hear more about your personal experiences.

    Andrew – Thanks. Interesting set of sites you have there. Would be interesting to hear your encounters with the “Poorly made in China”.

  • http://www.intouch-quality.com/ Andrew Reich

    For someone who has “never worked in manufacturing and knows very little about that world” you are dead on in your opinion. This is my industry (see http://www.quality-wars.com) and i will tell you that the issue that is so often made out to be the shortcomings of China suppliers, is actually the laziness and oversight of American importers.

  • http://www.intouch-quality.com/ Andrew Reich

    For someone who has “never worked in manufacturing and knows very little about that world” you are dead on in your opinion. This is my industry (see http://www.quality-wars.com) and i will tell you that the issue that is so often made out to be the shortcomings of China suppliers, is actually the laziness and oversight of American importers.

  • http://www.intouch-quality.com Andrew Reich

    For someone who has “never worked in manufacturing and knows very little about that world” you are dead on in your opinion. This is my industry (see http://www.quality-wars.com) and i will tell you that the issue that is so often made out to be the shortcomings of China suppliers, is actually the laziness and oversight of American importers.

  • Jay

    As I read Mr. Midler’s book I kept thinking “wow, I’ve experienced the same thing!”. I’m in business in China and I couldn’t find anything wrong with the author’s discription of the facts. I thought he was quite objective and I couldn’t agree with his conclusions more. But the best thing he does is give newbies a great lesson in what to prepare for.

  • Jay

    As I read Mr. Midler’s book I kept thinking “wow, I’ve experienced the same thing!”. I’m in business in China and I couldn’t find anything wrong with the author’s discription of the facts. I thought he was quite objective and I couldn’t agree with his conclusions more. But the best thing he does is give newbies a great lesson in what to prepare for.

  • Jay

    As I read Mr. Midler’s book I kept thinking “wow, I’ve experienced the same thing!”. I’m in business in China and I couldn’t find anything wrong with the author’s discription of the facts. I thought he was quite objective and I couldn’t agree with his conclusions more. But the best thing he does is give newbies a great lesson in what to prepare for.

  • http://www.filination.com/blog/ Fili

    Jay – Thanks for commenting on that. I appreciate your opinion and I agree that Paul generally does a good job, but I think we somewhat disagree on the conclusion as we tend to blindly touch two different parts of the China elephant. Would be happy to hear more about your personal experiences.

    Andrew – Thanks. Interesting set of sites you have there. Would be interesting to hear your encounters with the “Poorly made in China”.

  • http://ww6.directinspection.com? Renaud

    As Jay wrote, Midler is quite objective. He gets to his conclusions logically. The problem is that the facts he describes are not representative–he only gives examples of really bad customer/supplier relationships. That’s why it is well suited to support China-bashing opinions, you are right.
    It is a book for the general public. Importers would only see a list of not-to-do things. The best part of the book is the psychological analyses of each part of the transaction. Overall I really enjoyed it.

  • http://ww6.directinspection.com? Renaud

    As Jay wrote, Midler is quite objective. He gets to his conclusions logically. The problem is that the facts he describes are not representative–he only gives examples of really bad customer/supplier relationships. That’s why it is well suited to support China-bashing opinions, you are right.
    It is a book for the general public. Importers would only see a list of not-to-do things. The best part of the book is the psychological analyses of each part of the transaction. Overall I really enjoyed it.

  • Raymond

    Being an industry insider I very much enjoyed the book, especially the cultural observations which are spot on. I however don’t agree with his conclusion that the US companies he mentioned are victims. But if he meant they were victims of their own bad management and negligence then I would agree.

  • Raymond

    Being an industry insider I very much enjoyed the book, especially the cultural observations which are spot on. I however don’t agree with his conclusion that the US companies he mentioned are victims. But if he meant they were victims of their own bad management and negligence then I would agree.

  • MUrali

    While returning from China on my 4th trip, I read this book in HK airport. Wish I had read this book few years earlier! Many of those things had happen to our company too. But there is no denying that some of the chinese manufacturers have become so big and professional that they are easily raising above the rest, practicing superb quality policies. The trick is to find them!

  • MUrali

    While returning from China on my 4th trip, I read this book in HK airport. Wish I had read this book few years earlier! Many of those things had happen to our company too. But there is no denying that some of the chinese manufacturers have become so big and professional that they are easily raising above the rest, practicing superb quality policies. The trick is to find them!

  • MUrali

    While returning from China on my 4th trip, I read this book in HK airport. Wish I had read this book few years earlier! Many of those things had happen to our company too. But there is no denying that some of the chinese manufacturers have become so big and professional that they are easily raising above the rest, practicing superb quality policies. The trick is to find them!

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  • Ara Pacius

    As a Chinese I really appreciate when a foreigner, after all the bad things happening in China (toxic this, toxic that), is making the effort to be objective and still sympathize about China. You are not doing an easy thing, hehe
    I cant find the book so havent read it, but I guess it is most likely all true. What I want to emphasiz is, all the negative incidences in the book, are the result of the evilness of Chinese, but ignorance.

    I have once even read a story where parents found a dead duck next to a field (by poison meant for rats) and cooked it for their son, without thinking a second that this could be fatal. They are just so IGNORANT.

  • Ara Pacius

    Just realise I am missing a very important word in my above post-NOT
    [all the negative incidences in the book, are NOT the result of the evilness of Chinese, but ignorance. ]

  • Johnny

    I am Chinese Singaporean, have ben in manufacturing for 3 decades including in China, Japan, Israel, US and France. Like Murali, I found Midler's book would have been useful when dealing with small factories in China where price competition and pressure is strong and the tendencies to cut corners is high. But from my experience, anyone who went into a new supplier without specifying quality requirements and just pressing for the lowest price and without regards to the fact the company had no prior business (as was Sister's company) was bound to end up in hot soup.

    I can also add that the problem does not seem to be cultural as Mr Midler, a Jew, seemes to think. About 10 years ago, at the start of the technology boom, I had the same experience dealing with several Israeli contractors who bidded technology contracts at such lower prices than their French, American and British competitors, we had to overlook some of the key quality clauses of the Request for Proposals and awarded an Israeli firm in Haifa the contract. Needless to say, we ended up with unbelievable quality problems, poor documentation, and almost inexistent post-sales support. Unlike Mr Midler and his client Bernie, however, we made our decision to award the contract to the Israeli firm despite the obvious inadequacies in quality assurances and were prepared to accept some “surprises”. Unlike Bernie who did not bother too much specifying quality requirements and worse, entrusted quality control to an external consultant and who seemingly is a novice in quality control (Mr Midler, who did not come across as someone with any reasonable background in quality assurance despite his claimed “years experience in manufacturing, which unfortunately he did not describe to readers), we stationed QA engineers in Haifa to fix the problems. In the end, we paid more for the product than quoted, but we avoided the quality, although we continued to have business headaches with all our Israeli manufacturers for many years. Our eyes were opened. We were honest that if we wanted better margins, we had to accept trade-offs, and we factored the cost of implementing our own on-site quality control program rather than blame the Israelis for every one of their shortcoming. Mr Midler's book, read by first time entrants to off-shoring is fine. To extent these experiences to a general guide to relations between America and China, especially to influence american politics, or as a generalization of modern Chinese mores and ethic would be dangerous.

  • Payton_vege

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