Editor’s note: Arrol Gellner is currently on an extended stay near Shanghai. Following is one of a series of columns comparing the built environments of America and China.
It’s hard to believe now, but the phrase "Made in Japan" was once synonymous with laughably poor quality.
After the devastation of World War II, Japan’s industrial exports of the 1950s were indeed clumsily designed and poorly built. Yet within the span of a decade, a remarkable thing happened. A few Japanese products — first transistor radios, then cameras, then televisions — began to equal and finally surpass the quality of their American-made counterparts. During the 1970s, Japan’s auto industry followed suit.
In a stunning turnaround, "Made in Japan" became an assurance of exceptional quality.
Not so the phrase "Made in China." When the People’s Republic opened up to the world in 1978, China’s industrial products were pitiable, much as postwar Japan’s had been. The parallel ends there, however. Despite roaring economic gains and the passage of 30-odd years, China’s product quality in general remains abysmal.
This state of affairs matters to the U.S., since so many Chinese-made building products are sold here. And with China vying for superpower status in the coming years, its culture of quality, such as it is, will eventually have worldwide implications.
When I built my own home outside Shanghai, I was anxious to give China’s products a fair trial, and I pointedly chose the best domestic brands available.
For example, I installed handsome, flawlessly finished Chinese lever handle lock sets on all of the interior doors. Within six months of light use, every single one of them had broken. Likewise, an outwardly attractive Chinese-made toilet failed to flush properly no matter how carefully it was adjusted. Top-of-the-line cabinet hardware, beautifully finished when new, quickly corroded or fell apart. After a string of such fiascos, I decided that China’s products were not yet ready for prime time, and reverted to buying imported American wares.
China’s disinterest in quality is troubling in a society that aspires to be the next major player of the 21st century, if not a reigning superpower. The problem, I think, lies in China’s headlong rush to catch up with the West. Its industries are often less concerned with nurturing reputations than simply elbowing their way to the front of the pack, using any expedient necessary.
Most Chinese manufacturers are content to simulate good quality by superficially copying reputable overseas brands (sometimes right down to approximating their names). Others ballyhoo adherence to international quality standards — but mainly, it seems, for marketing purposes. The results of such lassitude are only now coming home to Americans.
In Florida, Chinese-made drywall used in thousands of new homes has been held responsible for toxic hydrogen sulfide outgassing that caused health problems and corroded ducts, pipes and wiring. Test results found hydrogen sulfide emissions at levels of up to 100 times that of non-Chinese drywall. A court ruling requiring the affected homes to be gutted and rebuilt will cost developers dearly.
Since recovering such damages from notoriously flighty Chinese firms is typically a fool’s errand, at some point wholesale buyers of Chinese products — at any price — will think twice before taking on this magnitude of risk.
Eventually, even discount-happy American consumers may begin to have second thoughts about their Chinese-made "bargain" purchases. And while China’s apparent indifference to quality may be our problem for now, it will be China’s problem in the long run.