The Rise of Made-in-China Diplomacy | #vacation | #seniors | #elderly
On Amazon.com, if you search for running shoes, drop the price point to around thirty dollars, and scroll past the initial pages, you’ll eventually encounter brands that you’ve never heard of. Some seem to follow an alphabetic theme—Zocavia, Zocania, Zonkim—while others are pure etymological puzzles: Biacolum, Qansi, NYZNIA. Study the product images, and pieces of the puzzle start to connect. The Qansi Men’s Sneakers Mesh Ultra Lightweight Breathable Athletic Running Walking Gym Shoes look exactly the same as the Biacolum Men’s Running Shoes Non Slip Gym Tennis Shoes Slip Resistant Air Knitted Sneakers Walking Workout Sport Shoes, which in turn appear to be identical to the Zocavia Men’s Running Shoes Ultra Lightweight Tennis Gym Shoes Slip On Mesh Fitness Slip Resistant Walking Workout Shoes. The language of these listings could be described as Amazonglish: awkward but basically intelligible, redundant but highly searchable. Often, a product description has just enough linguistic accuracy to sail past a computer’s grammar check. Zocavia: “Ultra lightweight material leaves few weight on your feet.” Zocania: “Your feet can breathe easy in the latest iteration of fabric upper.”
One word that almost never appears in Amazonglish is “China.” Marketplace Pulse, which analyzes e-commerce, has said that nearly half of Amazon’s top sellers—those with more than a million dollars in annual sales in the U.S.—are in China. An Amazon spokesperson recently described this as inaccurate, although he declined to disclose the number of Chinese sellers, saying only that the majority of third-party venders on the U.S. site are based in America. On product pages, Chinese sellers rarely advertise their location, and the Zocavias and Zocanias don’t mention where they are manufactured. For more information, it helps to head over to the Web site of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, whose registrations are full of useful details. (“The wording ‘Biacolum’ has no meaning in a foreign language.”) On the trademark site, Zocavia and Zocania, which sound a little like tennis-playing twins from Serbia, are in fact registered to the same person in Guanting Village, Danling County, Sichuan Province. These brands, along with Zonkim, Biacolum, NYZNIA, and dozens of others, are under the purview of a company called Kimzon Network Technology. The Kimzon headquarters are on the sixteenth floor of an office building in the city of Chengdu, where, in the pandemic spring of 2020, the owner told me that he was reconsidering his approach to the American market.
It was April 26th, and Li Dewei wore a black Bluetooth headset, a black long-sleeved T-shirt, black trousers, and black sneakers that had not been made in any of his three factories. Li, who owned the company with a partner, was only in his mid-thirties, but he had the serious demeanor of an older man. Chengdu, like all Chinese cities, had already brought the pandemic under control, and Li told me that a week earlier he had stopped requiring masks in the workplace. But he had just started coping with the economic fallout of the virus. The previous month, Li had laid off fifty workers—a third of his Chengdu staff.
Li said that things would have been worse if not for the stimulus checks sent out by the Trump Administration under the CARES Act. Because Li sold directly to Amazon customers, he could track sales closely. “We check the statistics every day,” he said. “After the American government started issuing the money, the next day we saw an increase in sales.” By the time I visited, two weeks into the stimulus program, Kimzon’s American sales had almost doubled, although they were still slightly lower than usual. “We don’t know whether the current consumption with the U.S. government aid is a short-term trend,” Li said.
Not long before, Li had had a series of discussions with his partner and some other export entrepreneurs. They had determined that June, 2020, would be a critical month. “If by June the virus is totally under control in the U.S. and the E.U., then we can rebound to the normal level,” Li told me. But the entrepreneurs had all concluded that it was unlikely that the U.S. and other Western countries would handle the pandemic well. Li was also concerned about the ongoing political conflict between China and the U.S.
In a typical year, seventy per cent of Kimzon’s sales were in the United States, with another twenty per cent in Europe and ten per cent in Japan. Kimzon sold nothing in the Chinese market. For Li and his partner, the solution seemed obvious: reduce American exposure by selling Zocavia, Zocania, and the other brands to Chinese consumers. “Many things in China are not being badly affected by the pandemic, like logistics,” Li explained. His staff had already redesigned some shoes and was preparing a domestic marketing campaign; the goal was to have as much as a third of their business in China within a year. Li expected that after three months he would know whether the plan might succeed.
In August of 2019, I had moved with my family to Chengdu, where I teach journalism and English at Sichuan University. It was the second time I had arrived in the region during a period of troubled U.S.-China relations. In 1995, the two countries had entered a tense phase after the U.S. State Department granted a visa to Lee Teng-hui, the President of Taiwan, who had been invited to give a speech at Cornell, his alma mater. The Chinese government responded furiously, conducting a series of missile tests in waters near Taiwan. In March, 1996, the U.S. sent ships to join two aircraft carriers in the region—the greatest show of American military strength in Asia since the Vietnam War.
That summer, I arrived in Chengdu as a Peace Corps volunteer. Along with another young American, Adam Meier, I was assigned to teach at a college in a remote part of Sichuan. Bill Clinton was running for reëlection, and he was frequently attacked by the Chinese state-controlled media. Years later, one of my students wrote a letter in which she described her feelings at the time: “Not long after you became my teacher, I read a piece of news comment that said [if] Mr. Clinton took presidency, one of the reasons was that he would take stronger measure on China. Those days, I hated to see you and Mr. Meier.”
But any such opinions were kept quiet. In Sichuan, people generally took a pragmatic approach to politics, and the college accepted the risk of American teachers as part of Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening” policy. Most students came from poor rural families, but they had tested well enough to major in English. Along with language classes, they took mandatory political courses with throwback titles like Marxism-Leninism and Building Chinese Socialism. Yet even a glance outside the classroom showed how quickly Chinese socialism was being dismantled. During my second year, the government stopped providing graduates with guaranteed jobs, and the local housing market was privatized, a process that was happening across the country. Some of my most ambitious students left for provinces like Guangdong and Zhejiang, where the export economy was starting to boom.
Bill Clinton turned out to be better for China than anybody would have predicted. In his second term, Congress granted China permanent trading privileges, and Clinton began the process of negotiating for China’s admission to the World Trade Organization, which happened in 2001. Throughout successive Administrations, the U.S. mostly followed a strategy of engagement with China. Even President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy, which was intended to counter China’s growing influence in the region, seemed to have little real effect.
When I returned to Chengdu, the material benefits of the reform era could be seen everywhere: an extensive subway system, a brand-new Sichuan University campus, a high-rise business district where Kimzon and other companies were situated. In my classroom, I felt the change at the most visceral level. My students laughed when I showed class pictures from 1996—at five feet nine inches, I had towered over my students. Now, because of rising living standards, it seemed that I was shorter than most of the boys I taught. Last year, a study in The Lancet reported that, out of two hundred countries, China has seen the largest increase in boys’ height, and the third largest in girls’, since 1985. The average Chinese nineteen-year-old male is now more than three and a half inches taller.
Almost all of my students came from urban middle-class families. The majority were enrolled in a program that sent them to the University of Pittsburgh for their final year or two, joining the nearly four hundred thousand Chinese who study in the U.S. every year. But, at Sichuan University, even students bound for America still took political courses with throwback names: Basic Principles of Marxism, Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. Next to the building where I taught, a recently completed structure had a gleaming four-story glass façade and a row of enormous golden characters that read “Marxism Institute.” The building reminded me of my students: bigger, stronger, better dressed. The institute had been designed with a large parking garage in the basement, because nowadays a lot of Chinese Marxists buy cars.
The Communist Party’s control was even more powerful than I remembered, and relations with the United States were even worse. Before Donald Trump took office, a consensus had already been building in Washington that the Chinese had benefitted too much from the bilateral relationship. Trump Administration officials frequently advocated “decoupling”—separating from China in economic and technological realms. In the spring of 2018, Trump started imposing high tariffs on Chinese products, and China countered with measures of its own. Exchange programs also came under pressure, in part as a response to a brutal Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang and the suppression of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. During my first year at Sichuan University, Trump abruptly ended the China Peace Corps program, along with all Fulbright exchanges with China and Hong Kong.
In Chengdu, most people seemed to respond as they always had. Li Dewei told me that he had no strong opinions about American politics, and that, after tariffs were imposed on his shoes, he simply raised his Amazon prices by fifteen per cent. “The tariff is paid by the customer,” he said.
In my department, all instructors helped out at a writing center, where students could make appointments for tutoring sessions. Before I arrived, there had been a plan to purchase scheduling software from an American company. But the deal fell through, and an administrator told us in meetings that he believed the reason to be fallout from the trade war. So the department found a U.K. company, Fresha, that provides software for salons, spas, and massage parlors. Whenever I received notice of a tutorial, the student was described as a “customer,” and promotional e-mails pitched me on added features like special settings for “Mani-Pedi or Couples Massage.” In April, the massage e-mails suddenly got a lot more urgent: “The COVID-19 crisis has triggered a tsunami of Salons and Spas switching to Fresha from their current expensive scheduling solutions.”
On May 14th, I met Li Dewei for dinner, and he told me that Kimzon was struggling with the shift to the domestic market. “Sales aren’t good yet,” he said. He thought that style might be an issue, so Kimzon was producing shoes with white soles instead of black, believing that these would appeal to Chinese consumers.
In March, when the pandemic first began to have an impact in America, Kimzon had reduced its production to five hundred pairs a day. But now it was up to two thousand, close to normal. Although Li had laid off people in design and marketing, he never downsized assembly-line workers. He told me that the top priority was to protect the supply chain.
Despite all of Li’s business on Amazon, he had never visited the U.S. His background was modest: his parents had grown up in farming families, and their educations ended with primary school. Both of them found assembly-line work at a blanket factory, and eventually they started their own small blanket workshop. They spent much of their disposable income on educating Li and his two siblings. Li excelled in high school, and he was admitted to Sichuan University. After graduating, he went to work for a family friend who ran a shoe factory in Fujian Province, where Li learned the trade.