Increasingly, my husband and I became queasy as we reached for clothes, toys, and various household items. We wondered who made them and under what circumstances? What were these workers paid in relation to what we're paying for them? How did their manufacturers dispose of the industrial waste generated by the production of these consumer goods?
We bought anyway. But we bought with guilt looking over our shoulders. Then in 1991, Playthings magazine printed a special "Who Makes It" issue listing, among other things, a directory on "Who's Who in Importing." China was well represented as a maker and exporter. That same year the press noted that a consortium of U.S. interest groups, led by the Democracy for China Fund, announced a boycott of Chinese-made toys. Dubbed as the "Toycott," it alleged that child labor was being used to produce toys for export to the United States. The following year, the Toy Manufacturers of America reported that $3.3 billion worth of toys mad e in China were sold in the United States alone.
Few Americans can imagine the bleak living and working conditions in China. It's troublesome to do so. It's easier to walk away. I couldn't, nor could my husband. One day he suggested that we boycott things made in China. I took a deep breath. Not being a family to favor boycotts and sanctions, this seemed a bit much. We are not xenophobic and our concern was not the trade deficit, but rather, human rights and environmental abuses in a country that sets little store in either.
It's one thing for an adult to conclude not to purchase goods made in China. But how do you explain to a boy with an appetite for diecast cars, trains, and other playthings that the toys he wants might be made by a child in a sweatshop? How could we preserve the joys and fantasies of his childhood while instilling in him concerns for social justice? But we didn't feel right about not involving him because we knew that as David grew older he would be entering more of the world morally, intellectually, and physically.
As Catholic parents, we held the conviction that we must make a difference in our son's growing level of social consciousness and conscience. We wanted him to be always aware that one human being, with his or her actions, can make a difference. We were equally committed to raising David to care about the people and things in his world and to be willing to do something about it when called upon. A passage from the Book of Proverbs addressed our dilemma: "Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it" (22:6). Prayer, reflection, and trust in God led us on our path. Ironically, so did a Chinese proverb: "The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step."
Example, attitude, and caring discussions guided us earlier regarding our family's role in environmental issues. The Berenstaill Bears and "Sesame Street" helped along the way. At that time, we explained to David that if everyone did something every day to care for Mother Earth, she would be a cleaner, healthier, and happier place for all living things for a long time. Since then we have seen and felt the results of our conservation efforts.
From that experience, we knew David would be willing to do his part to make a difference in another global context. Still, it was a hard, sharp moment when we told David he could not have the flashy 3-inch sports coupe that he'd been coveting for 10 minutes. He was not happy to hear this because we did promise him a toy if he earned his "job" stars for the week.
I told him that buying something had two values attached to it, much like two seats on a seesaw. One end had a material value and the other a moral value. The material value was what it meant to you to have that thing. The moral value was whether it was right or wrong. If the moral value was "wrong," we could not buy it. I told him that as we had worked the last two years to take care of Mother Earth, it was also important to care for the people with whom we shared Mother Earth.
Now we needed to be aware of the right or wrong of our buying decisions. And this particular car was wrong because buying it encouraged people to mistreat the people who made it in the faraway country of China. I explained that someone very poor and uneducated in China probably worked from morning to night to make these cars. Maybe that someone was only 11 years old and was paid so little that it would take a long, long time to even buy one for himself. l explained that the boss of whoever made this car was probably not very nice to the worker and that these things must change.
It is not the way God wanted people to be treated. Perhaps, I said, if we stop to think about these things when we buy, we can bring about a better life for these people so far away. We also told him that we, his parents, needed to change the way we bought and that we would all work together. We would help him make his decisions to buy, and we would always consider choice to be part of it. Soon we found an equally appealing car: one made in France.
When we arrived home, we looked for China on the globe. Where something is made, we told him, is found on the front or back of the container, usually in the corner, and almost always in tiny print. The key word he should look for, China, begins with a capital "C" followed by small letters "h-in-a." How many countless times over the following year would David cross a store aisle with a packaged toy to ask us, "Does this say China?
Together, we would repeat the process of looking, spelling, and, if it bore the made-in-China label, helping him make another choice. We applied our family plan consistently, lovingly, and always with the option for choice. We prayed that we would make a difference.
We told David that we would not buy products made in China until China improved its human rights record. We explained that he shared Mother Earth with people living in different countries with different customs, dress, food, and beliefs. We were alert to opportunities todiscuss and teach the positive aspects of China, as a nation and a culture. Simultaneously, we spoke of the freedoms that we have and reflected on how God has amply blessed our family.
One store manager of a national franchise said that even if he were to unload his shelves of these items, the corporate office would simply relocate them. It is always hard to stand against the tide, especially when it has become a tidal wave. When I needed a thermometer fast, I scamled my options at the drugstore, scooped up the digital thermometer by Sunbeam, and dashed home. Taking it apart, I was insulted: made in China.
Eager for David to learn how to fish, we purchased a bamboo rod in one of America's commercial shrines. We dashed to the nearest fishing hole to have David cast his first line. Ripping off the nylon wrapping, I was stunned: made in China. What could possibly be gained by a manufacturer as American as apple pie producing a thermometer in China? With all the bamboo growing in this country and with the little skill required to make a fishing rod, why China? It boggled my mind.
I could only guess that they were probably made by the same hard-worked, nickel-an-hour laborers who churned out children's toys. What I paid for that thermometer or fishing pole was no less expensive than if they had been made in the United States. Clearly there was a markup, but at someone else's expense. Examples abound of simple, commonplace items, once the production pride of America, now being made in China. The 12th edition of the Directory of American Firms OPerating in Foreign Countries lists the following fimls, among others, operating in China: McCormick of Baltimore (flavorings and specialty foods), H.J. Heinz of Pittsburgh (food products), Johnson & Johnson (baby products), and Warner-Lambert (confectionery products).
With the floodgates lifted, with most-favored nation status renewed, American companies have rushed to set up business on Chinese soil. More are on their way. China's booming economy, now the world's third largest, offers U.S. firms a bonanza of money making opportunities.
So why do U.S. firms want to do business in a tyrannical nation run by long-entrenched dictators? It's simpler and cheaper. Why bother with Environmental Protection Agency regulations in the U.S. when you can freely pollute elsewhere? Why be concerned about Occupational Safety and Health Administration fines when worker safety conditions do not matter? Why deal with bothersome union workers when you can acquire a "disciplined" labor force at a military-run "reeducation" camp? In short, the Chinese government suppresses life's fundamental rights that here in the United States would cost corporations time, money, and accountability.
Leading journalists are making efforts to bring some of this to light to the American public with headlines such as "Santa's elves went East this year," "This column not made in China," and "Women labor for pennies in clothing factories abroad." Even cartoonist Bruce Tinsley's Mallard Fillmore reflects the growing indignation Americans are feeling toward China's labor practices.
Todd Carrell, former Beijing bureau chief for ABC News, wrote in the Los Angeles Times last year of the path of China's new money game. He asserted that the corrupt Chinese Communist Party oligarchy and their families control most of the power and wealth while the majority of the Chinese population, poor and uneducated, is "caught in the vise of greed, plunder, and official caprice." These are the people "accustomed to government repression and persecution, to struggling against their betters, to treachery and betrayal."
James D. Seymour of Columbia University's East Asian Institute wrote in the September 1994 issue of Current History that "[The Chinese] government is essentially the private property of officials; citizens are not allowed to know what their leaders are up to. The result is endemic corruption and a modernization process that benefits some but punishes most."
We know that David, who has learned love as a moral fiber within his life, will grow up with a strong sense of respect for life everywhere and in everything. Our family's plan of action has built family closeness. We hope it has created memories for our son to fall back on and be proud of in years to come. At the very least, when David is grown and has become successful in his life's pursuits, he will hold high the supreme value of human dignity and not fall prey to the notion that money is the end all in life.
We hope that he will have also learned that one person can make a difference through prayer and action. In the meantime, we pray for the Chinese people. We pray for American multinationals with operations in China. We pray, also, that our actions will bring more good thanot a nd tha t our son will see it bear fruit in his lifetime.