15 April 2007

"Made in China" - Visible Globalization

Why study China? It’s the future, right? But what does that really mean to us – and how can we get a good handle on such a broad topic in our classrooms?

Made in China: Box 2

At a recent Minnesota Humanities Center seminar titled Made in China: Economy, Environment, and Globalization, the seminar's leader David Davies, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Hamline University in Minnesota, suggested that it would make the most sense for us to study the underlying forces of “Made in China” products and product labeling. Why? Because we all have something made in China. Just ask the students to check the labels on their clothes or the items they own! What better way to show that China matters – that China already has a strong presence in our lives.

As we teach about the underlying – and often invisible - forces of today’s vast and fast-paced globalization, we could, Davies suggests, explore the relationships that already exist between homegrown companies and China. Minnesota students might have very little idea that many prominent local companies, including Hormel Foods, Medtronic Inc., and the Cargill Inc., have a strong presence in China, producing goods for both American and Asian markets. Davies questioned the relevance of studying the popular “hot” issues of sweatshop and child labor. Why study the anomaly, he asked, explaining that most U.S. factories in China are clean, well run, and law-abiding. It would make more sense, according to Davies, to examine the underlying motivations for Americans and Chinese to do business with one another, the forms in which such two-way exchanges manifest, and the economic, social, and environmental effects of the exchanges. For example, why do the Chinese welcome U.S. companies and why are the U.S. companies interested in working in and with China? Why does one U.S. company (such as Wal-Mart) decide to open retail shops in China while another (such as Target) has decided against it? How do U.S. companies and their Chinese partners and employees adapt to globalization?

During the seminar, Davies made a rather provocative parallel between the images of Sam Walton used in Wal-Mart’s advertisements and inspirational posters created for the company’s Chinese consumers and employees and the propaganda posters of China’s former leader Mao Tse-tung, showing both wearing caps and socially appropriate suits, with the right hand raised to a fatherly wave. Perhaps partly in jest and partly to provoke us, Davies introduced the term Wal-Mao” to us! Whether one accepts his “Wal-Mao” theory or not, a comparative study of the images could lead to interesting class discussions about cultural values and symbols, the nature of cultural exchanges, and other underlying forces of globalization.

The seminar also introduced me to an excellent recourse, an award-winning documentary titled Mardi Gras: Made in China (2005), directed by David Redmond. The documentary makes thought-provoking observations of the global ramifications of the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans. The focus is on the Mardi Gras beads, made in China. The documentary reveals interesting contrasts between the Mardi Gras partiers, a New Orleans businessman who imports beads from China, a Chinese factory owner who produces the beads, his young female employees, and their families in rural China. Since the documentary includes some nudity typical of a Mardi Gras celebration (e.g., bare breasts and bottoms), it may need to be edited for younger viewers. However, I find the 80-minute documentary a very compelling way to make the invisible forces of the “Made in China” phenomenon visible to my students.

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