Made in China: Past and Present

The phrase “Made in China” (in Chinese, 中国制造), promulgated through the small white stickers slapped on almost every imaginable product, has been continuously defined and redefined. For people looking at consumer goods with the label “Made in China,” they might associate it with large factory-plants utilizing cheap, exploitable labor, quickly churning out thousands of mass-market products. In other words, the term “Made in China” has somehow become synonymous with “poor quality.”

Since 2015, the Chinese government has been trying to reinvent this term with their Made in China 2025 Campaign, which is focused on developing China’s domestic technological industries, including aerospace and biotechnology. As discussed previously, China is rapidly taking a larger market share of the world’s biggest tech companies, with Huawei leading the pack. New Chinese products, which incorporate significant investments of intellectual capital, exist in stark contrast to the phrase as we might know it today. And as China’s position in the advanced industrialized sectors improves, it makes sense that they would want to change the unpleasant impressions of Chinese products and the phrase “Made in China.” Now, the world might soon start to recognize China and “Made in China” for advanced applications of artificial intelligence and smaller, more powerful semiconductors.

“Made in China” has an earlier history than high-tech products or cheap consumer goods, though. The term was first popularly used during Japanese occupation during the Second Sino-Japanese War in the early 1940s, when Chinese civilians began to boycott Japanese and foreign-made products. At the time, China’s economy lacked a framework for effective industrialization in the way that we might imagine it today. For the Chinese civilians back then, boycotting foreign-made products and buying domestically became a way to contribute to what they called the National Salvation Effort, which put pressure on the Japanese economy.

The historical parallels between the Made in China 2025 Campaign and that of the National Salvation Effort are even more interesting. Many critics of Made in China 2025 have expressed concerns that China is obstructing free trade by giving subsidies for their own domestic industries and other unfair trade practices. This is ideologically consistent with ‘Made in China’ from the 1940s, which also promoted the practice of buying domestically and preventing foreign goods from entry.

Criticism of Made in China 2025 has been mounting within the international community. Indeed, Made in China has been the subject of criticism by President Trump amidst the tensions surrounding the renewed trade war between China and the U.S. This criticism has started to produce tangible results; according to the Financial Times, “A propaganda directive leaked in late June ordered Chinese media no longer to refer to the term [Made in China 2025].”

As China’s international trade policies and domestic industries change, how else might we think about the phrase “Made in China”?