Can we live without Chinese goods?

“Filipinos think saying something is the same as making it happen,” is a classic line from a 1995 novel about the Philippines by British writer Timothy Mo.

The observation springs to mind as we ponder the call of some supposedly nationalistic quarters in Manila for a boycott of Chinese products, in a tit-for-tat over the Spratlys dispute.

“All the big slogans, all the talk, it’s a blanket over a big hole . . . you fall in and break your leg,” one of Mo’s characters declares in “Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard.”  So one wonders if those promoting the boycott have really considered whether Pinoys can be as militant as the Vietnamese, who also claim the Spratlys, and if we can realistically live without Chinese goods.

Shouldn’t we instead be asking what’s happened to our own industries and why we’ve become so dependent on made-in-China products that admittedly are pervading the rest of the planet?  Can the ordinary citizen get along in today’s world without all those cheap, easily available goods?

Just look around the country these days.  Farmers even in the most remote barrios have no recourse but buy Chinese-made flip-flops (or rubber slippers) and other necessities for their families.  Very few Pinoys today make chinelas from old tires or abaca anymore, nor much of anything else that’s indispensable.

It’s no secret that the Philippines can’t compete with Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, all of which manufacture and export some commodities of value.  Even former “economic basketcase” Bangladesh today is listed as being the third largest exporter of textiles and ready-made garments.

The Philippines once produced rattan furniture, abaca, wooden and shell products, but local craftsmen and artisans apparently gave up in the face of the Chinese onslaught and now work abroad as seamen, laborers and drivers.

All this reminds me of another book called “A Year Without Made in China – One Family’s True Life Adventures in the Global Economy.” Journalist Sara Bongiorni wrote about how her family coped without Chinese goods for one whole year.  A writer who follows economic trends, Bongiorni launched her venture after being hit by the realization that her country is so awash with Chinese goods that most consumers are hard put to find anything made in the US.   It’s not just wholesale US outlets and budget stores that sell Chinese-made appliances, clothes, toys and foodstuff, but even high-end shops  offer not-so-sloppy imitations and even fairly well-made stuff.

Indeed Bongiorni’s conclusion was that the wide-awake Oriental dragon swamped the American market while the Yankee donkey was dozing and taking it easy.  Wryly narrating the ways she and her husband managed their shopping (always time-consuming, often expensive, sometimes hilarious), she scoured catalogues and the Internet and travelled to distant stores to make purchases.  Always asking about “country of origin” before buying the family’s necessities, she often irritated salespeople, though a few backed the idea and urged her to “Go for it!” Her soft-hearted mother needled her about depriving workers in China’s sweatshops of their livelihoods.

The decision to avoid Chinese goods for a year, she said, was not politically motivated, nor meant “to kick China out of our house.”  She just wanted to see if an ordinary American family could get along without Chinese goods, as well as find out how much was still being produced in the US (not much!) and what was available from other countries (a bit more).

That great post-Second World War boom, which had bought a plethora of made-in-USA goods, is gone. All the fine inventions from American factories like washing machines, vacuum cleaners, pop-up toasters, steam irons, hair dryers, etc., which the world once prized, have vanished from that continent.

The outsourcing to China of US production happened, thanks to US-based labor unions and workers whose demands grew increasingly untenable.  Ironically, Marxist principles about workers’ rights took stronger root in the US than in Communist China where coolie-like workers slave for long hours and low wages, with few complaints.

But all that is changing today as more workers engage in sporadic uprisings in that vast country which Beijing controls with an iron fist.

Can Pinoys really embark on an experiment like Sara Bongiorni’s and thumb their noses at China while making a point about sovereignty over the Spratlys?  Will President Noynoy’s recent visit to Beijing produce more than the usual diplomatic language about better relations?  Will the proposed boycott be trumped by other parties fervently calling for prayers to solve the dispute?  Will the lofty plans for a boycott degenerate into the usual feeble pleas for help from On High?

That seems likely, since seeking divine intervention in lieu of human effort is such a deeply ingrained tendency in the Philippines that Mr. Mo’s statement about our being fine talkers but lousy doers is validated once again.

Indeed the country seems fated to be the perennial laggard behind the rest of “godless” but dynamic Asia.

– This article appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on September 10, 2011 –

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