In the 20 years that followed World War II, the phrase “Made In Japan” was transformed from a synonym for worthlessness into a mark of exceptional quality. More recently, Korea’s reputation for quality has likewise turned around: The automaker Hyundai, for example, whose early U.S. offerings were memorably panned by one reviewer as “supremely shoddy,” today ranks near the top in quality worldwide.
Alas, Asia’s real powerhouse, China, has not made similar gains in its culture of quality, despite the nearly three decades that have passed since the Opening in 1978 when Premier Deng Xiaoping led the country to open trade with the outside world. In the area of building products, most of the quality problems I noted in this space five years ago still persist. Items such as cabinet hardware, faucets, and bathroom accessories–many of them destined for your local home improvement center–are beautifully finished and packaged, yet after installation quickly corrode or fall apart. The locksets I chose for my second home in China looked impressive in the box, but after three months of light use, five out of six had broken. Likewise, our Chinese-made toilet was the height of style, but due to a basic design flaw, didn’t flush properly and had to be replaced–ironically, with a U.S.-designed model also manufactured in China. It is especially vexing that such problems seem to occur regardless of a domestic brand’s price or alleged reputation.
One reason for these wide-ranging quality problems is that, in the mad scramble to cash in on China’s construction boom, building products are rushed to market with scant regard for performance testing, let alone time for evolutionary improvement. But an even more fundamental problem is that the Chinese continue to equate intrinsic quality with superficial appearance. Products don’t actually have to be good, as long as they look good.
Somewhat more alarmingly, this attitude carries over to the quality of whole buildings as well. Commercial facades carry elegant finishes of granite, glass, or stainless steel, yet the workmanship beneath–even in important public works such as airports and stadiums–often remains breathtakingly slapdash. In the city of Suzhou, where I spend my summers, a gleaming new sports arena that opened to great fanfare three years ago already has areas streaked with rust.
Given the great strides made by other Asian countries, one would think that such quality issues would have been addressed long ago. Yet not even problems that could be easily rectified–such as China’s famously garbled English translations–have improved much. A flashy PowerPoint presentation I was shown this year boasted of a government agency’s ISO 9001 certification, but was itself riddled with gross translation and typographic errors. In another example of the kind one sees every day, I came across a purportedly “Tournament Grade” sporting product that was boldly labeled “BADMINON SHUTTLECOKS.” Still, the prize for this year’s worst translation must go to the eyebrow-raising brand name I found on a set of bath towels: Kingshore.
Seemingly, the cavalier attitude of China’s old command economy–an era in which quality truly didn’t matter–continues to dog much of the present generation’s owners and workers alike. It may remain for yet another post-Opening generation to fully implement a culture of quality, but rest assured, it will happen eventually. There is, after all, a limit to how far low cost can get you.