The Japanese Story 30 Years Earlier
Similar to how Americans reacted to challenges from Japanese products in the 1980’s, some Americans (as well as Europeans and Africans) are now calling for protectionist measures to be taken against goods imported from the People’s Republic of China (i.e. China).
In the 1980’s, some Americans feared that higher quality, lower cost Japanese cars and electronics would result in domestic job loss and a lower standard of living, and so encouraged fellow Americans to buy only products “Made in the USA.” Americans resented the idea that the nation America defeated in World War 2 had somehow quietly managed to rebuild itself and grow into a world-class competitor that challenged American ingenuity and superiority.
In an interesting side note, Japan gained its economic edge by building quality products using quality processes inspired by American W. Edwards Deming, who left for Japan after his ideas were first rejected by American companies.
Twenty years later, Americans now purchase Japanese products with little or none of the “Made in the U.S.A” fervor of the 1980’s. U.S. car manufacturers continue to lose market share to Japanese, German, and Korean competitors, and the major foreign automobile competitors (e.g. Toyota, Mercedes, and Hyundai) now manufacture many of their products in American factories which employ American workers.
Will the same story be true of China in 20 years?
America’s Uneasy Relationship with “Red, Communist China”
Unlike Japan, China does not have a democratically-elected, representative government, nor was China ruled by American generals after World War 2. China was allied with the U.S. and Soviet Union against the Axis Powers of World War 2, but shortly thereafter Mao Zedong defeated the U.S.-back Nationalists (Mandarin: Guomindang) and declared the birth of the People’s Republic of China.
America maintained a friendly, if uneasy relationship with China through the Korean Conflict and up to the 1980’s, but in the 1990’s discovered that low-cost Chinese goods pumped out by millions of poor Chinese workers allowed Americans to enjoy a higher standard of living. In addition, the Chinese government accommodated the United States Treasury by soaking up billions of dollars of U.S.-issued debt. Despite the “communist” name tag and the human rights abuses that occasionally marred political relations, American politicians and consumers voted with their wallets to cooperate with “red China.”
Current Economic Downturn Has Many Looking for a Scapegoat
While libertarians and free market capitalists would say that dialogue and trade between the U.S. and China has benefited the two countries (and consequently, the rest of the world) much more than isolation, Cold War rhetoric, or armed conflict ever could, there are now some Americans (and Europeans, and Africans) who are calling for the boycott of Chinese goods.
Unless boycotted Chinese goods were mandated to be replaced with goods made exclusively in America, a boycott would likely shift production to other low-cost countries such as Mexico or Vietnam, and would result in higher costs for American consumers and producers (who might still use Chinese raw materials as inputs for their products).
With each day the worldwide economic slump continues, the possibility of “boycott China” efforts taking hold gains footing. The irony is that U.S. consumers were quite happy to buy (and benefit) from “red China” when the world economy was humming along. Instead of organizing boycotts against products from other foreign competitors (such as Canada, Mexico, or Sweden), many economically-challenged Americans are falling back on outdated notions of China as a communist country whose people share a different set of hopes and dreams for a better future than does the average American.
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Sources: Wikipedia. The Atlantic, Library of Economics and Liberty