Chinese consumers still don't trust goods made in their own country. The latest buy-abroad craze? Japanese toilet seats. Why the country must pull up its pants and stand proud.
BEIJING — Chinese finance writer Wu Xiaobo recently posted on a social media account, "Go to Japan to buy toilet seats."
Apparently, he'd gotten a taste of these fancy electric bathroom accessories available in Japan, which can cost upward of $300 and offer automatic disinfection, bidet services, warmers, perfumes and "masking noises."
The post generated a lot of attention, and it wasn't long before the leading China bathroom brand Jomoo invited Chinese media representatives to visit its factories so it could, well, pooh-pooh the notion that its toilet seats were below par. Even Premier Li Keqiang mentioned the topic, saying he believes in "being open-minded and opposes trade barriers so that consumers can have more choice." But, he said, Chinese enterprises should upgrade themselves to be more competitive.
As one market researcher says, these so-called smart toilets have a penetration rate of over 95% in Japan, whereas fewer than 3% of the Chinese population have ever used one. This obviously indicates huge room for growth.
That Chinese tourists travel as far as Japan to buy and bring back rice cookers, toilet seats and other commodities is no longer really news. So why has "the toilet seat issue" become such a big deal? Probably because it exposes deep-seated consumer anxiety about goods being "made in China."
Jomoo toilet seat, made in China — Photo: Official Facebook page
It's well known that affluent Chinese classes would rather travel to America, Europe, Japan or Hong Kong to buy goods than pay a lesser price at home for items made in China. In fact, a government agency estimated that about 450,000 Chinese tourists visited neighboring Japan during the recent Chinese New Year, spending as much as $960 million.
There are several reasons why Chinese tourists go far to buy basic wares. First, there is a certain difference in quality between Chinese goods and foreign brands, even though the difference is exaggerated. Second, there is simply a grass-is-greener notion among Chinese consumers, wherein they believe goods made abroad are better than what they can buy at home.
Take the toilet seat as an example. As many know, Chinese hotels with three or more stars don't equip their bathrooms with domestic brand toilets. It has become an entrenched industry practice, and consumers have taken note.
A huge systematic project
A country's manufacturing industry is built on a chain of links — value system communication, industrial standards, corporate branding, and of course its citizens. No matter which link goes wrong, it will be reflected in product quality.
Though the Chinese tendency to buy toilet seats from Japan is a funny example, we must acknowledge that the embarrassment of being "made in China" goes far beyond this particular kind of merchandise.
If Chinese-made goods are to be competitive in the market, China's national image must undergo a top-down revolution.
As Bao Xinhe, a member of the National People's Congress and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, put it, we have to promote "made in China" as "made with Chinese intelligence," from top scientific and research institutes to small and micro enterprises.
Obviously, China is perfectly capable of perfecting a basic toilet seat technology. The crux of the problem is that Chinese research institutions look down on investing effort into "small innovations," preferring instead to put all their energy into the grand national scientific propositions.
Meanwhile, small companies fall short in investment capability. This explains why Chinese-made goods have been trapped by low growth where homogeneity, price wars, high costs and low efficiency have always been the shadowy keywords.
Pure technical and branding problems are not hard to solve, but they are a question of time. It's probably not up to any individual company or industry to change Chinese consumers' stereotyped impression of Chinese-made goods. Only when the whole nation acknowledges and acts with institutional changes and a new brand strategy can fundamental improvement be made.