Mr. China Comes to America

For decades, every trend in manufacturing favored the developing world and worked against the United States. But new tools that greatly speed up development from idea to finished product encourage start-up companies to locate here, not in Asia. Could global trade winds finally be blowing toward America again?
More
David Høgsholt

Near the end of this year’s second presidential debate, Candy Crowley of CNN pointed out that iPads, iPhones, and other globally sought-after Apple products are all made in China. What would it take, she asked both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, to “convince a great American company to bring that manufacturing back here?”

I listened to this question with special interest, since I was following the debate, via hotel-room TV, from the Shenzhen manufacturing zone of southern China, where many of those same iPads and iPhones are made. For the few days before the debate, I’d been revisiting PCH International, an outsourcing company I’d first written about for this magazine in 2007, in “China Makes, the World Takes.” The company’s revenues have increased more than sevenfold since then and its workforce has grown almost as fast, despite the years of global recession. This is testament both to its own success and to the nonstop surge of outsourcing contracts to China.

The day after the debate, I walked through the famous Foxconn complex in the Longhua district of Shenzhen, where some 230,000 Chinese workers, mainly between the ages of 18 and 25, turn out products sold under international brand names, from Apple and Dell to Nintendo and Sony. Another Foxconn facility not far away employs another 200,000 people; throughout China the company’s workforce numbers 1.3 million. On previous attempts to get in over the years, I had never made it past Foxconn’s front gate—not surprising given the company’s policy of stiff-arming most foreign and domestic reporters. But a new PR team at Foxconn had apparently decided that closed-door secretiveness was making the company look even worse than it otherwise would. (If only this team were in charge of Chinese government policy—regarding the press, the Internet, letting people into and out of the country, and so much more.) Immediately after hearing the allusion to Chinese-made products on TV, I e-mailed an official at Foxconn and said that so prominent a mention in American politics would be a great news peg for a visit. I was fully expecting another turndown, but to my surprise, the company agreed. The next morning, I went to the factory and was told I could roam around and take pictures of anything I wanted, as long as I did not show or mention any of the brand-name products coming off its assembly lines.


 


What I saw at these Chinese sites was surprisingly different from what I’d seen on previous factory tours, reflecting the political, economic, technological, and especially social pressures that are roiling China now. In conjunction with significant changes in the American business and technological landscape that I recently saw in San Francisco, these changes portend better possibilities for American manufacturers and American job growth than at any other time since Rust Belt desolation and the hollowing-out of the American working class came to seem the grim inevitabilities of the globalized industrial age.

For the first time in memory, I’ve heard “product people” sound optimistic about hardware projects they want to launch and facilities they want to build not just in Asia but also in the United States. When I visited factories in the upper Midwest for magazine stories in the early 1980s, “manufacturing in America” was already becoming synonymous with “Rust Belt” and “sunset industry.” Ambitious, well-educated people who had a choice were already headed for cleaner, faster-growing possibilities—in consulting, finance, software, biotech, anything but things. At the start of the ’80s, about one American worker in five had a job in the manufacturing sector. Now it’s about one in 10.

Many factory managers say openly that they prefer women: women, they say, learn new jobs faster, handle high-precision work better, and pose fewer disciplinary challenges.

Whether you call the business history of the past 15 years the age of hedge funds, the age of Google (or its rival Facebook, or its other rival Amazon, or its other rival Apple), the age of Walmart, or even the cautionary age of Lehman Brothers and Countrywide, in no case would you call it the age of American manufacturing. Manufacturing’s share of the total American economy has fallen by about the same amount as its workforce share: it went from about 20 percent in the early 1980s to just over 10 percent now. For comparison, manufacturing accounts for some 30 percent of China’s total economy. Still, the U.S. economy is so much larger that our manufacturing sector, even in its battered condition, remains the largest in the world.

I’m used to hearing excitement from people at American infotech companies—or from biotech innovators, or people in other enterprises who believe the future is on their side. I’m used to hearing it in China. I’ve gravitated to tech topics and to fast-growing parts of the world because I like hearing from people with big plans and dreams. And this year, for the first time in decades, I have been hearing upbeat accounts from business officials and entrepreneurs engaged in American manufacturing.

The heart of their argument is this: Through most of post–World War II history, the forces of globalization have made it harder and harder to keep manufacturing jobs in the United States. But the latest wave of technological innovation, communications systems, and production tools may now make it easier—especially to bring new products to market faster than the competition by designing, refining, and making them in the United States. At just the same time, social and economic changes in China are making the outsourcing business ever costlier and trickier for all but the most experienced firms.

For Americans, the most important factor is the emergence of new tools that address an old problem. The old problem is the cost, delay, and inefficiency of converting an idea into a product. Say you have an idea for—anything. (For me, the list would start with silent leaf blowers, which I’d give to all my neighbors as gifts.) Before you can earn the first dollar from the first customer, you have to decide whether the product can be built, at what cost, and how fast, so you can beat anyone else with the same idea.

For the first time in memory, I’ve heard “product people” sound optimistic about hardware projects they want to launch and facilities they want to build not just in Asia but also in the United States.

The need to reduce costs has driven much of this work outside the United States. The possibility of saving time may bring some of it back. For instance, at Lime Lab, a small industrial-design firm in San Francisco, a design engineer named Adam Mack told me that technologies including 3‑D printing were revolutionizing the process of deciding what to build and where. Three-dimensional printing refers to computerized molding or related systems that can produce tangible objects in a matter of minutes or a few hours, on the basis of designs created on a screen. This dramatically speeds up the process of creating a prototype and then trying out variations and working out flaws.

“Before, you could sit around and talk about something you wanted to make,” Mack said. “Now you can have a prototype of an injection-molded part in your hand the next day, and confer with factory managers about how much it would cost to build.” By making manufacturing generally more attractive and feasible, new tools will—so I heard many times—lead to more good jobs in America than we would have thought possible only a few years ago.

“A revolution is coming to the creation of things, comparable to the Internet’s effect on the creation and dissemination of ideas,” Linus Chung told me at Lime Lab, in San Francisco. (Chris Anderson, formerly of Wired, has recently advanced a similar case in his book Makers.) Chung is an American-born, Stanford-trained manager who now works for PCH International and is based in Shenzhen. This past June, PCH bought Lime Lab as part of an expansion into America to encourage more start-ups and manufacturing work here. “There is a whole new interest in hardware in Silicon Valley,” said Phil Baker, a product-development expert who has worked with Apple and other companies since the 1970s. “I’ve never seen a more exciting time in the hardware business.”

Why “exciting”? Let’s consider the changes affecting China, and America, and manufacturers everywhere.

The Big Picture

For the past 30 years, all of the largest forces have pushed in favor of China’s manufacturing expansion, from very low labor costs and a deliberate policy of welcoming foreign investment, to ever faster and cheaper global cargo-shipment networks, to a deliberately undervalued Chinese currency. Within the past two years, nearly all of those advantages have become more complicated. (In his accompanying article for this issue, Charles Fishman explains some of the large forces pushing in favor of America’s manufacturing renewal.) In China, wages are rising, workers are becoming choosier, public resistance to environmental devastation is growing, and the Chinese “investment led” model is showing strain.

That model has involved a kind of hyper-Keynesianism far beyond what the United States experienced even during the most government-run periods of the New Deal. China has created jobs by building factories, highways, railroads, and dams—and airports where there are no cities, and cities where there are no people. “Americans are used to thinking of ‘savings’ and ‘investment’ as absolute goods, because we’ve done too little” of both, Michael Pettis, of the Guanghua School of Business in Beijing, told me. “But there is such a thing as too much savings and investment and infrastructure, and too little consumption, all of which we see in China.” If the American public challenge is “reinvestment” of all varieties—in education, in infrastructure, in a sense of community, in everything but houses—the Chinese counterpart is a need for a comprehensive rebalancing. Indeed, Pettis’s forthcoming book on the Chinese economy is called The Great Rebalancing. Reliance on exports needs to come into better balance with domestic consumption; economic growth with environmental sustainability; political liberties with the new level of economic prosperity; and on down a long list.

Some observers inside and outside China think that the strains are too great and the system too rigid to allow the necessary rebalancing in time for the party to maintain political control. For instance, Minxin Pei, a native of Shanghai who now teaches at Claremont McKenna College in California, has been warning for more than a decade that the economic, social, and political imbalances of the Chinese system would reach a breaking point just about now—and that Communist rule would have to give way to a multiparty system. Many others contend that, on the contrary, the Communist leaders will manage somehow to address each of today’s problems just before any one becomes an outright emergency, as they have done time and again for 30 years. Whichever view proves correct, the relevant point for Americans is a convergence of trends that make operations here more attractive and feasible, just as the cost and friction of operating in China are increasing.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Saving Central: One High School's Struggle After Resegregation

Meet the students and staff at Tuscaloosa’s all-black Central High School in a short documentary film by Maisie Crow. 


Elsewhere on the web

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Business

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In