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Sign on front of Renmin North Road in Shenzhen, China Wal-Mart Supercenter saying "Everyday low prices!" in Chinese.
Daniel Case, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Sign on front of Renmin North Road in Shenzhen, China Wal-Mart Supercenter saying "Everyday low prices!" in Chinese.

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR. The book is “Made in China” by Amelia Pang.

In “Made in China,” Amelia Pang tells us what happens to individuals caught in a complex tangle of responsibilities, corporate practices and relationships and the treatment of human beings across the world. Our protagonist is Sun Yi.

Sun Yi is in prison for his membership in a religion, Falun Gong. When Falun Gong started in 1992 it was praised by China. Four years later it had grown to around 70 million members and had rejected state control over its messaging. Overnight the government vilified the organization and began arresting its members to “correct” them. This included Sun Yi.

He manages, with great difficulty, to smuggle out a series of letters asking for help, hidden in products he was forced to work on. One of those letters wound up in a Halloween decoration sent to a K-Mart store in Portland, Oregon. It wound up on the news and triggered a search for the prisoner.

When Julie Keith purchased the Halloween decoration which had Sun Yi’s letter, she did what so many of us do without any thought and without knowing any better. She had just contributed to slave labor in another country. And not only slave labor, but religious persecution in another country.

She was innocently complicit. We, the lot of us, have little knowledge of the conditions under which our goods are purchased. Most of us just want a working product at a low price. Being aware which products are produced by slaves is usually, the last thing on our minds.

So, obviously, we just stop buying Chinese-made goods and stop outsourcing our labor. Right? It’s -complicated.

If you are old enough, you may remember Wal-Mart ads boasting about buying American-made products, Sam Walton’s “Buy American” campaign in the 1980’s. It brought Wal-Mart tons of great publicity. Despite the name, “Buy American” was a double-headed club which drove down supplier costs using Chinese and American firms against each other.

Wal-Mart sent its first direct-import buyers to China in 1976.

Sam Walton also completely changed the company from a merchandizing company to a logistics operation. While other large retail chains avoided small communities, Wal-Mart went right for them. The surrounding area is the market draw.

That is key to understanding the cost structure and responsiveness to global supply and local demand. Store locations are based within a few hours from any supply center.

In “The Retail Revolution,” author Nelson Lichtenstein states that in the mid-1980’s Sam Walton estimated that his company’s direct imports (no middlemen) were 5.6-percent of sales. That, however, hides from view the many suppliers to Wal-Mart who were importing the goods or parts for assemblies they sold on to Wal-Mart. That brings the estimated amount of imported goods sold by Wal-Mart at about 40-percent some 35+ years ago.

This was also when (1984) then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton helped a Bentley, Arkansas clothing manufacturer, Farris Fashions, get a contract from Wal-Mart when Van Heusen shifted from Farris to offshore sources. The contract with Wal-Mart brought in jobs, up to 350, and Farris became a poster child for Walton’s Buy American. However, it also turned Farris into what Nelson Lichtenstein called “Wal-Mart’s creature.”

Farris wound up unable to supply anyone else, employment went down to around 70 and when their particular flannel shirts went out of fashion so did their contract. They shuttered the plant in 2005 and the family is now raising beef cattle. Wal-Mart, by now, totally buried the “Buy American” program.

Buying any product means buying the entire chain of production and distribution. Knowing whether the goods produced use exploited and/or slave labor and other human rights abuses is hard to establish. For large marketers, events such as Tiananmen Square in 1989 and prison labor are just public relations problems. Said Sam Walton, “Keep this under the radar.”

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.

Selected References:

Sam Walton: Made in America – June 1993 by Sam Walton with John Huey https://www.amazon.com/Sam-Walton-Made-America/dp/0553562835

The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business June 8, 2010 by Nelson Lichtenstein https://www.amazon.com/Retail-Revolution-Wal-Mart-Created-Business/dp/0312429681

Spring Read 2023: In Touch with the World 2023 Spring ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
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