Economy

Remaking “Made In China” (Especially For Chinese)

After all these years, are people still suspicious of the quality of products Made in China? Shi Jihongof the Xinxiu group luggage makers says the answer is a resounding 'Yes'.

Handbag shop in Beijing (LeoAlmighty)
Handbag shop in Beijing (LeoAlmighty)
Wang Fang and Li Li

Sun Yafei, the CEO of 5lux.com, an e-commerce platform for luxury brands in China, is routinely embarrassed at the point of sale. Customers continue to ask regularly whether or not the goods come from the advertized country of origin. For instance, the country of origin of Swarovski is Austria, though products manufactured in Austria are rare. Indeed, they are mostly made in Asia, including China. And this is a problem for many, but mostly Chinese.

Miuccia Prada, the owner and lead designer of Prada, adores the shoes made by the Chinese, and not just to excuse all of Prada's China-made products. In the mid-1980s, many internationally known brands started outsourcing to the coastal areas of China. Today, there are well established manufacturing systems in provinces like Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Canton. What puzzles Sun is the fact that Prada, a brand particularly demanding in its hand-made standard, approves the quality of goods made in China ... so why don't the Chinese ?

In order to create his own brand, Sun Yafei spent a lot of time looking for suitable Chinese manufacturers. His requirements were their experience as international suppliers, their overall regulation, the advanced degree of their equipment, their delivery capability, and above all, the price.

In Xiamen, Fujian Province, he visited a factory with only a hundred or so workers, but which manufactures for more than 20 famous brands, including Armani. In their leather room, every worker wears gloves and masks, according to the dust management requirement.

From the design, the cutting center, the molding and up until the end product, there's are control stations in all procedures. Not to mention that these brands also send their own quality control team and inspectors to ensure standards.

Some factories also design their own products. In Sun's view, they are absolutely qualified for the international competition. To understand the "authentic Italian craftsmanship that claims to be the result of human wisdom," Sun also visited numerous Italian manufacturers.

What impresses him most is the small number of workers. Three to five people could make up a workshop, producing in a "slash and burn" way, including top brands like Gucci. Secondly, unlike what's often imagined, a lot of Italian workshops don't do one hundred percent hand sewing. Machines are very commonly used to guarantee the stitches are regular.

Yang Yelin, the vice-chairman of Canton's Shoes and Leather Industry Cooperative also visits a lot of Asian and European supplier factories. In his view, a lot of Canton's manufacturers are capable of reaching the so-called purely hand-made quality, or even better.

For the American luggage and handbag brand Coach, 85% of its goods are made in China. Victor Luis, president of the international department of retail business, says that handbags are different from other goods and require certain procedures to be done by hand. It is the same way of making things in Italy or France as well as in China. So a Coach bag always carries a tab saying "This bag was made in China by our best craftsmen."

Sun Yafei says Italy's factories remind him of Chinese ones in the 1950s. As a matter of fact, because Italy is not on the anti-dumping list of America and European countries, a lot of Chinese enterprises from Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province have set up factories there and brought in masses of low-cost Chinese workers. A lot of Italian factories simply outsource their orders, including to the Chinese factories located in Italy. Their products counts as "Made in Italy," though more precisely they should be called: "Made in Italy by Chinese."

Europe's "soft power" edge

Yang Yelin thinks the difference between a Chinese brand and an internationally known brand lies mainly in cultural and historical connotations. Chinese brands are usually very young whereas famous ones are often more than 100 years old, and carry a cultural and historical heritage. Apart from their soft power advantages, there isn't any quality difference between Chinese and international bands, he says.

Shi Jihong estimates that 95% of the world's brand luggage is currently produced in China. Yet in a mainstream view, China's luggage manufacturing is still at the lowest end of the smile curve.

But the trend is changing. Currently, Xinxiu's R&D department makes up 10% of its total of employees. This was unimaginable before.

Back in 2001 when Xinxiu first started working for Samsonite, the American luggage brand, Shi had 30 sewing machines and had to adjust his management continuously to match Samsonite's requirements. But the experience in satisfying the demands of international brands helped Xinxiu to grow. For instance, in order to produce a plastic handle that is hard to break for a German brand, it went into the research of handle molding, and eventually even set up its own factory.

Paul Melkebeke, vice-president of Samsonite's Asian market says that "the Chinese providers react very fast to markets. They can deliver within weeks; that's impossible in other countries." He also points out that "We can find all the know-how and links here."

After cooperating with Samsonite as an OEM partner, the Xinxiu group has become, to a certain extent, a rival.

In comparison to other rising markets like Vietnam, India and Brazil, Yang Yelin believes that China's industrial chain will continue to prevail, no matter whether we consider the materials, the R&D, the design, the know-how, or the distribution logistics. In his view, Vietnam's technological level is inferior, Brazil is badly situated geographically, while in India religions and culture create weak points.

Besides, China has a huge domestic market that can support its world leading manufacturing position, Yang added.

Nonetheless, Shi Jihong thinks China depends too much on foreign markets. "When the international market sneezes, we'll catch a cold... We are forever worrying where our next bowl of rice is." In addition, export-oriented business in general has a lower profit margin. Some enterprises' net profit is only around 3-5%, he says.

So his ideal, as the chairman of the Pinghu Bags Association, is to promote the sector's industrial chain, integrating all upstream and downstream businesses, and thus finally come up with China's own brands that can rival Prada. He is confident that in the near future, China will own its own top luxury brands. But China has to face its international rivals with a different attitude. If China is to change the reputation of China made goods, it first needs its own people to reverse their mentality. Easier said than done.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - LeoAlmighty

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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