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Why is China cheaper? Truths and myths

by Dan Harris in 'China Law Blog'

Got an email from a client/friend yesterday with a link to an Industry Week Article 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 I fear it is beginning to pass for truth.

The article is in IndustryWeek Magazine and it is entitled, "Why Is China Cheaper?" It is written byMichele Nash-Hoff, President of ElectroFab Sales. She is also the author of the book, Can American Manufacturing Be Saved?

The main point of her 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 she 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. Ms. Nash-Hoff 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 cost of manufacturing the Frisbee. She 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 Ms Nash-Hoff is saying that the plastic resins will cost less in China than in the United States and I am not sure whether that is true or not.

Ms. Nash-Hof 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 Ms. Nash-Hof herself 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 she implictly saying that 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 she saying something else?

Ms. Nash-Hof'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.

Ms. Nash-Hof is both right and seriously wrong in this argument. 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 China's regulations were exactly the same as those in the United States and even if the enforcement of those regulations were exactly the same in China as in the United States, compliance would still be considerably cheaper in China. Compliance would 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, Ms. Nash-Hof is right to claim that China does not enforce health and safety and environmental regulations nearly as rigorously as the United States, but she is flat out wrong to claim that China does not have workers compensation when it does and she is also flat out wrong to claim that "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. I wonder if Ms. Nash-Hof is seeking an increase in workers compensation in China or a decrease of it in the United States?

Ms. Nash-Hof 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?

Ms. Nash-Hof then makes a completely off-base factual argument that I am seeing and hearing much 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 false. Completely 100% 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.

Ms. Nash-Hof also gets it wrong when it comes to 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 that are thriving in China give lie to this bizarre claim. There have been instances of what Ms. Nash-Hof describes (see the Chevy Volt), but fortunately, that it is not the norm.

Unsurprisingly, Ms. Nash-Hof 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, Ms. Nash-Hof talks about dumping and I am not going to fight her on that.

What do you think? Am I being too harsh on Ms. Nash-Hof? Is she right?

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


Dan Harris is founder of the Harris & Moure law firm, a boutique international law firm focusing on small and medium sized businesses that operate internationally. China is the fastest growing area for the firm. Dan writes ChinaLawBlog.com as a source of China legal and business information.

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