The China Price

Got an email from an attorney/client/friend yesterday with a link to an IndustryWeek Article (Why Is China Cheaper?) and a note saying that I needed to give this “CLB’s dumbest article of the month award.” We do not actually have such an award (should we?) so for that reason alone, it is not in contention. Bad articles on China abound, but this one stands out because it is in a very influential magazine and because much of what it is wrong on has been repeated so often it is beginning to pass for truth.

The main point of the article is that China manufacturing is cheaper than US manufacturing for reasons that go far beyond wage disparities. I do not dispute that point, but I do dispute much of what it says in support of that claim.

Her article starts out well by describing the costing differences between manufacturing a stuffed teddy bear and a Frisbee. It points out that about 70% of the cost of manufacturing the teddy bear goes to labor, whereas the labor costs make up only around 20% of the manufacturing cost of the Frisbee. It then notes how because China deals in such massive quantities of the plastic resins that go into the Frisbee, its material costs for the Frisbee will be “as low as it could be.” I am not sure whether the article is saying the plastic resins will cost less in China than in the United States and I am not sure whether that is true or not.

The article then tells us that labor is cheap in China because China has “one billion people living at the poverty level.” This is by far the highest number I have seen listed for those living at or below the poverty level in China, but so be it.

As a result, wages have finally been rising by about 15% per year over the past four years. It took suicides by workers in the summer of 2010 to achieve additional improvement in wages and working conditions at plants that were more like prison camps with dormitories for workers to live on site and fences around the buildings so workers couldn’t leave the premises.

Okay.

This argument contains its own flaw. Wages in China have increased (fairly briskly) every year since the late 1980s and the average wage for workers in urban areas was four times higher in 2006 than in 1995. As the article itself points out, wages have been rising “by about 15% per year” since 2006. With these statistics, is it really fair to claim that it took “suicides by workers in the summer of 2010” to achieve additional improvements in wages? Also, is it implicitly saying it is not fair to the United States that China has so many poor people and that those people should not be employed? Or is it saying something else?

The article’s third reason for China being cheaper is that China’s workers receive “nothing” when they are injured on the job:

Third, there are the costs of compliance to health and safety regulation and environmental regulations. These costs are less expensive in China than in the United States because the Chinese government imposes few health and safety or environmental regulations. China doesn’t provide workman’s compensation insurance for their workers so workers hurt on the job don’t receive any compensation when they are injured to the point that they are disabled.

The article is both right and seriously wrong on this. Of course, the cost to comply with health and safety and environmental regulations is way less in China than in the United States. I say “of course,” because even if both China’s regulations and its enforcement of those regulations were exactly the same as in the United States compliance would still be considerably cheaper in China because medical care and wages (and pretty much everything else) are considerably cheaper in China than in the United States.

But beyond that, the article is right to claim China does not enforce health and safety and environmental regulations nearly as rigorously as the United States, but it is wrong to claim China does not have workers compensation when it does and it is also wrong to claim “workers hurt on the job don’t receive any compensation when they are injured to the point that they are disabled”, because they almost invariably do. Again though, a worker who loses a finger in China might get $500 while a worker who loses a finger in the United States might get $50,000. Is the writer of this article seeking to increase workers compensation in China or decrease it in the United States?

The article then argues that China’s VAT law works in its favor as against U.S. manufacturing:

Next, there is the cost of taxes and duties. China is one of over 150 countries that utilize a Value Added Tax (VAT) system. It is a tax only on the “value added” to a product, material, or service at every state of its manufacture or distribution. The VAT rate is generally 17%, or 13% for some goods. Chinese companies receive a VAT refund from the government for materials of products produced for export. American imports to China are charged a VAT, but the U. S. doesn’t have a VAT to charge Chinese imports.

Help me out here readers because I am just not seeing it. Maybe I am missing something here, but I do not see how China’s VAT has anything to do with its manufacturers being able to produce for less. I just do not understand how charging the VAT for domestic sales, but refunding it for exports reduces Chinese manufacturing costs. Could I not argue that the VAT actually increases manufacturing costs by reducing domestic sales and thereby making it tougher to achieve economies of scale? Is not this exactly what pretty much every country does with its VAT and exactly what U.S. states do with their sales tax?

The article then makes a completely off-base factual argument I am seeing and hearing more frequently of late, which is that foreign companies cannot go into China without a Chinese partner:

In addition, the Chinese government requires foreign firms to have a Chinese “partner” company, who maintains the majority interest, takes most of the profits, and has the real control of the company.

This is just completely false. When I wrote a Wall Street Journal article on China Joint Ventures back in 2007, “only 27% of new foreign-invested businesses used this legal mechanism [Joint Ventures] in 2006, compared to well over 50% in 2001.” I would guess that percentage is less than 20% today. China allows foreign companies to go into China alone in just about all industries other than media, military and mining.

The article also gets it wrong on China R&D and technology sharing:

More seriously, China now requires U. S. companies to share their technology and relocate their R&D centers to China if they want to have access to Chinese markets.

This statement is just so wrong I hardly even know how to attack it. First off, there are hundreds of thousands of U.S. companies that have “access to Chinese markets” without having any presence in China at all. Every U.S. company that sells a product or a service to China has “access to Chinese markets” and many (most?) of those companies are not even in China, much less sharing their technology and relocating their R&D centers there. Then there are the foreign companies in China that do no R&D there and zealously protect their technology. China does not require U.S. companies set up an R&D facility in China or share their technology with China to have access to China’s markets. Apple Computer, KFC, The Gap, McDonalds, Price Waterhouse, and an endless list of other American companies thriving in China give lie to this bizarre claim. There absolutely have been many instances of what the article describes (see the Chevy Volt), but fortunately, that is not the norm.

Unsurprisingly, the article also attributes the China Price to China’s undervalued currency:

Above all, there is the ever-present currency manipulation, where China undervalues their currency by an estimated 30%-40%, which simply makes every product that China ships out 30-40% cheaper than those of a potential American competitor.

I am not going to dispute that the Yuan is undervalued, but 30-40% seems high to me. Is it?

Lastly, the article talks about dumping and I am not going to fight her on that.

What do you think? Am I being too harsh? Does this article have it right?

I just think that with election season upon us, it is more important than ever that we get our facts right.

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Photo of Dan Harris Dan Harris

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network. 

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network.  His work has been as varied as securing the release of two improperly held helicopters in Papua New Guinea, setting up a legal framework to move slag from Canada to Poland’s interior, overseeing hundreds of litigation and arbitration matters in Korea, helping someone avoid terrorism charges in Japan, and seizing fish product in China to collect on a debt.

He was named as one of only three Washington State Amazing Lawyers in International Law, is AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (its highest rating), is rated 10.0 by AVVO.com (also its highest rating), and is a recognized SuperLawyer.

Dan is a frequent writer and public speaker on doing business in Asia and constantly travels between the United States and Asia. He most commonly speaks on China law issues and is the lead writer of the award winning China Law Blog. Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Business Week, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The ABA Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times and Inside Counsel have all interviewed Dan regarding various aspects of his international law practice.

Dan is licensed in Washington, Illinois, and Alaska.

In tandem with the international law team at his firm, Dan focuses on setting up/registering companies overseas (via WFOEs, Rep Offices or Joint Ventures), drafting international contracts (NDAs, OEM Agreements, licensing, distribution, etc.), protecting IP (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), and overseeing M&A transactions.