BBC News


Page last updated at 13:38 GMT, Monday, 14 April 2008 14:38 UK

Made in China

Dolls being tested in China

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

In the run-up to the Olympics some opponents of China's regime are boycotting not just the games but all Chinese products. There have been many boycotts before, but with its dominance in manufacturing, those vowing not to buy Chinese face an especially tough challenge.

Sitting on the bus wending your way to work and wherever you are, you probably have a bit of China with you.

Listening to your iPod. Made in China. Fiddling with your key ring. Made in China. Label on the inside of your underpants irritating you a little bit. It more than likely says "Made in China".

If you walk down the high street and every garment's made in China, what do you do? Do you go naked?
Tim Spencer

When there was a boycott of South African products during the Apartheid era or of France by irritated Americans in the run-up to the Iraq war, those were political statements that might have meant a little privation for those involved. But they weren't on the same scale as China.

Opponents of China talk of its treatment of Tibet, its appalling record on human rights, jailing of dissidents, and even its attitude towards animal welfare when calling for a boycott. The Friends of Tibet group has called for such action, but it's impossible to know how many people are engaged in boycotting.

China's defenders suggest it is becoming more open and receptive to basic rights. And there are plenty of people who, while criticising China, regard the idea of a boycott as counter-productive. There are those who feel boycotts are too crude a device, affecting the lowest-paid labourers rather than just the regime. There is also a view that, particularly when it comes to China, constructive engagement is a better option than a boycott.

Cheap shops

Those who do choose to boycott can be a resolute bunch. Tricia Hall spends a lot of time in charity shops. A trip to the High Street means a slew of questions and baffled stares from shop assistants. "Where was it made?" "Dunno, doesn't it say?"

"When they are labelled it is easy enough," says Mrs Hall. "We are very careful. But they have a very large grip on the market.

Underwear being made in China
China is enjoying massive success in some sectors

"We do avoid the High Street. You can't trust them any more. I certainly don't go to the cheap shops."

Mrs Hall and her husband have boycotted Chinese products for a decade because of human and animal rights issues. Life has been easier for them as they are not big consumers.

But for those who with an electronic bent, for instance, things are more difficult.

Extra cost

John Yelland is struggling to print things out. He decided to start a boycott after seeing a video of dogs being mistreated in China. Now he can't find a new printer because they all seem to be made in China, or from Chinese components.

"I would rather pay a few quid more for the same product. You have got to be extremely careful. A lot of products don't specify where they were made. They might say made in Bedfordshire when the product is shipped in from China."

Car being made in China
Chinese factories are making cars based on British designs

It's the "component problem". Let's say you buy a television from a big name brand in Korea or Japan. It may be assembled in the home nation, it may even have been assembled in Europe.

But it's hard to imagine that of the dozens of different components inside it, some haven't come from China. Whether it's chips, LEDs or humble wires, there's a lot of stuff that could potentially not be from the place it was assembled.

"It's very difficult to go down to every single transistor or circuit board in every device," says Stuff magazine editor Fraser Macdonald.

Outsourcing wave

A boycott of Chinese products really meets its match in the field of consumer electronics.

There is some production still in Europe, particularly of expensive equipment, says Rob Follis, a public relations consultant for consumer electronics firms, but it is dwindling in the face of outsourcing to China.

Dolls on a factory line in China
Avoiding Chinese toys is difficult for boycotters

Follis has clients like hi-fi maker Arcam which manufactures mainly in Britain, and headphones firm Sennheiser, which manufactures in the Republic of Ireland and Europe, but they are no longer the rule.

Clothes don't have the same hidden mix of components as electronics, but China is coming to dominate the market in a way that makes life hard for the boycotters. Dalha Tsering of the Tibetan Community in Britain group doesn't always find it easy.

"I avoid buying anything made in China, from children's toys to shoes to all sorts of electronic equipment. Sometimes it is very, very difficult because the price is very, very different. I usually buy Italian for shoes."

Child's birthday

Alternative retailers like Ethical Threads or People Tree don't have any dealings with China. And for anyone spending a bit of money there's clothes made in Britain, and in Italy, as well as slightly cheaper options from the likes of Portugal and Eastern Europe.

Tim Spencer, from Wimborne in Dorset, has only been boycotting for a little over a week, since watching a TV documentary about China. But he can already see problems on the horizon. What happens when he needs to go clothes shopping?

Televisions in Japan
Televisions are often made in Korea or Japan

"If you walk down the High Street and every garment's made in China, what do you do? Do you go naked?"

And when the next child's birthday rolls round in November there could really be problems. Because one area of manufacturing where China dominates the world market like a colossus is toys.

There are big brands like Playmobil and Lego, whose production bases are in Europe. But they are the exception rather than the rule.

Alan Milne, of Equitoy, the Association for Toy Importers, says it is impossible to put a precise figure on the level of Chinese toys imported, with EU trade rules complicating the matter. But it was estimated last year that of all the toys sold in the UK, 85% are made in China.

Recent years have seen a steady stream of big names taking their production to China. British firm Hornby and the Swedish wooden train set maker Brio are among the recent departures.

Avoiding China is hard in the globalised world trade system. Something of Shanghai or Shenzen is in so much of what we own. Even the most hardened boycotter may inadvertently be buying the "wrong" thing.

Here is a selection of your comments.

I started trying to avoid Chinese products upon hearing about the business of muscling in on the (already dubious) cheap labour, particularly clothing, markets of their struggling neighbouring countries. It's not that hard to avoid obvious purchases and a great way of curbing what is beginning to prove an unsustainable rate of consumer spending.
Catherine, Manchester, UK

Several years ago I tried to avoid buying clothes I though might be made in poor conditions, but as a plus size student I found it very difficult and eventually gave up. I thought more clothing products were made outside of China than in China but after checking all my clothes labels I'm wearing today, only one item was not made in China (two products didn't say), so I'm surprised. I'm not actually boycotting Chinese made products myself but have respect for those who are and wish them luck. I hear kettles are very hard to find.
Emily, Liverpool, Merseyside

I noticed this trend three years ago while shopping for a new pair of sandals in America; not a single pair was made outside China. I try not to buy Chinese whenever possible, and I figured there must be other people like me who would be prepared to pay more for things if they only knew where to look. To address this need, I am starting a website called which will enable ethical consumers to choose products from non-Chinese manufacturers.
Guy, Oxford, England

I would support those who boycott China for a good reason - e.g. if they've seen how bad things are in the country. But there's a fine line between believing strongly in something, and simply being self-righteous. I suspect many boycotters belong to the latter group and do not even know why they are boycotting China.
Andy Wu, Cambridge

Along with thousands of other people, mainly women, my wife lost her job to foreign competition. She was a sample technician for a large supplier of ladies underwear, which supplied the largest clothing retailer in Britain. I would love to avoid anything that had effectively created a loss of jobs here, but unfortunately I and my wife find that a near impossibility, but its not for want of trying.
A Royston, Stockport

Boycotting chinese made goods it not going to work and playing "hard ball" with them won't either. Engaging them in an open discussing is probably the only constructive way to move forward on the issues of human rights and tibet. Both of these are complicated issues that can't be solved over night or with the wave of a hand. People need to be realistic and understand that these things take time and a few generations from now am sure things will be much better for everyone.
Nicola, London

People always have something to preach or complain about, the majority of them are either being hypocritical or do not have a real understanding of the problems. In this particular issue, boycotting is really an insignificant action to instill a bit of self-righteousness in oneself or to feel a little less guilt about what they have (or even what they are). China as a country has been through too many struggles to care whether a few consumers are boycotting them or not.
Olivia, London

It is possible to buy goods made in other countries. I have been avoiding Chinese goods for years, but it takes time and trouble to find out the country of origin. If it is cheap, the chances are that it is Chinese , so look for proof that it is not. I recently bought a helmet from a Korean manufacturer and only after getting home found the "Made in China" label covered by the lining.
Tim Betteridge, London

Not only is it well nigh impossible to avoid buying Chinese, but it is very unlikely to have any effect, except making the boycoters' life difficult, so why bother? Is it just a sort of "holier than thou" demonstration? If we want to influence China, we have to talk to them - kindly - putting aside our own selfish pride and sometimes uninformed opinions. Nobody is willing to listen to criticism from someone who is abusive, hypocritical and/or doesn't know what they are talking about.
Jan, Swindon

Why don't you argue that the existence of China has helped stabilise the world economy by lowering the production cost on almost everything? Without it, people's everyday expenses will go rocket high. Rich people can certainly afford few pounds more on non-China made stuff; how about there are millions who cannot. You will face starvation if you want things all made over here, because there will be plenty of strikes going on, demanding more money, more holiday, you name it.

The guy who starting boycotts China after just a TV documentary, I feel so sad for him. It seems that he is the one who has no opinion of his own; maybe another different documentary will change his mind again. I certainly can make a documentary by just filming outside the pubs on a Saturday night, and then show to Chinese people, and I am quite sure they will be scared. I think they will also start to wonder if it is a good idea to send their kids to the UK for education. People always say that there are two sides on every story; it seems to me that BBC only has one side when the word China comes alone.
Miao Hao, St Andrews, Scotland

In this age where politicians lack the integrity to do the right thing, a consumer boycott is the most effective way of making your opinions count! As for China - their greed will hopefully force them to turn the corner.
Mark, London

The ability of consumers to demonstrate their dislike of a countrys politics by not funding their economy should be encouraged. Much like food products having to list their ingredients, consumer durables should list which countries had input into their manufacture and to what degree. Money is the real superpower, and this could be the new global democracy.
Jason, London

If I am a Chinese national, I will boycott English, French, German and US products. To support thugs, arsonists and murderers and claim violation of human rights has got to be height of hypocrisy.
Goh Lip, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia

I've been boycotting Chinese products for about six months now, in response not only to China's abysmal human rights record, but also in reaction to US companies outsourcing American manufacturing jobs. It's hard, but not impossible. There are a few good sites online that give the names of products still manufactured in the US, including clothing, toys, and electronics like televisions, washer/dryers, etc. I'm sure that there are similar sites for the UK. By buying products from US manufacturers, I feel that I'm using my money to support my country's economy and fair labor practices. We consumers have a lot of power in our wallets, if we choose to use it.
Cristin, New York, NY

There are two big problems I identify in the China boycott movement. Firstly, China is regarded as the "in" and "fashionable" country of the Western world's elite. If big corporations adopt attitudes of, "China is good for business, so who cares about its human rights record?", it becomes difficult to do anything. Secondly, the biggest problem in the anti-China movement is that its aims don't fulfil the SMART acronym: - specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. The political correctness movement against apartheid succeeded because it had the very specific aim of legislation being passed to allow people to vote in South Africa regardless of race. We aren't really sure what we want with China and we aren't sure how to determine when we have succeeded.
Graeme Phillips, London, UK

I have long ago boycotted China – since the mid-1980s. I lived in the US and it was quite easy to boycott because the origin of everything has to be stamped on the product. In the UK this is not so easy. There is no law that says goods have to tell you where they were made. However, you can usually tell from the price. That darling little number that cost you five quid most likely came from China. The Olympics only highlights the injustices that China masks to the rest of the world. Social consciences need to be turned on for more than just for the summer of 2008. While my lonely pound doesn’t make much of a dent in China’s GNP I am doing something – what are you doing?
UKBelle, Essex, UK

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific