What older person hasn't looked into the mirror, whether physical or metaphorical, and noticed, "I'm becoming my mother/father!"?  I've observed both tendencies in myself, but the latest revelation is that I'm becoming my husband.

For much of my young life it was illegal in the United States to buy or import products made in China.  Aware of this, I looked with awe upon a cheap Chinese toy in a Canadian gift shop, wondering perhaps if it might blow up in my hands or impart some poison into my body.  Still, when the ban was lifted, I saw no reason not to buy the Chinese products that began to trickle onto our shelves.  I grew frustrated with Porter's insistence on buying products made in the U.S.A. whenever possible, and embarrassed at his constant checking for the origin of items in the stores.  I'll admit it:  I laughed at his parochialism.  After all, don't Chinese families have as much right to live and eat and make money as American families?

I'm no longer laughing.  Porter was ahead of his time.  The trickle of products became a flood, and our choice now often is buy Chinese or do without.  Now I'm the one scrutinizing the labels, and rejoicing when I can find products made in the United States, Canada, the U.K, Switzerland, Indonesia, Bangladesh, even Vietnam, though the last not without some misgivings.  I made the transition before the revelation of poisoned toys, toothpaste, medicines, and food products from China, mostly because it had become a challenge, almost a game, to find alternatives.  But the game has turned deadly.

I'm glad we've gone beyond the days of pretending that Mainland China did not exist; it's right to continue talk, trade, tourism, and other forms of exchange between our countries.  And I'm still in favor of Chinese families eating.  But we're fools to put ourselves into a position of dependence with respect to a country so large, so potentially powerful, and so willing to ignore basic standards of decency, like not stealing and not poisoning children.  We've already proven how dangerous it is to be dependent on other countries' oil; this is no better.

Three years ago I reviewed The Real War Against America, the story of one company's battle with Chinese pirates.  At the time I thought the title a bit over the top; now I'm not so sure.  Not that I think the Chinese are deliberately attacking our country—though the weakness is certainly there should they want to exploit it—the actions are more amoral than immoral.  But "amoral" is perhaps worse; it might be easier to deal with someone who knows he is doing wrong than one who just doesn't get the point.

Take, for example, a recent article in Coin World, which highlighted a Chinese coin counterfeiter who sells his goods on eBay.  The issue is so serious that the magazine has made the articles available for free:  Part 1, and Part 2.  You need to give them an e-mail address, but nothing more is required.  Be sure to uncheck the box asking to be kept informed, however—unless you really want to be added to their mailing list.  What I find particularly scary is the man's complete openness about his work, because what he is doing is completely legal as far as China is concerned.  That he is lying, cheating, and stealing apparently makes no impression on him.

Then there is this overheard conversation, true in fact but with details blurred to protect the innocent...or a faulty memory, whichever you like.  It was between a Chinese (Mainland, not Taiwanese) immigrant to the U. S. and a co-worker, and went something like this.

Co-worker:  What religion do people have in China?

Immigrant:  No religion at all.

Co-worker:  None at all?

Immigrant:  Only money.   If they can make money by cheating you, they will cheat.  If you're not Chinese and they can make money by cheating you, so much the better.

I've met wonderful people from China.  It's a beautiful country and I'd love to visit it some day.  I don't think twice about buying goods from my favorite local Chinese grocery store (though perhaps I should).  And I'm not willing (yet) to make the sacrifice of not buying anything that comes from China.  Nonetheless, we can't have the harmlessness of the dove for long without the wisdom of the serpent, and I'm being a lot more careful now about my purchases.  The Chinese, as a people, are no more steeped in Original Sin than Americans, Bengalis, or Danes.  But when counterfeiting accounts for eight percent of a country's GDP, and one instance after another is revealed of poisonous ingredients substituted for legitimate ones to save money, I'd rather—until we have convincing assurance of repentence—I'd rather support countries with better records.

[Li'l Writer Guy is clearly in violation of the rules of his cloister.  Must...do...penance....]

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, December 5, 2008 at 5:46 pm | Edit
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My guess is the Confucian idea of filial piety does for the Chinese what it can do for the Japanese: allow a vastly different (and occasionally worse) treatment of strangers than of friends without burdening your conscience. I believe the unethical shortcuts some will take just to save a yuan are a practice that comes from their brand of communism. I get the feeling that the average Chinese still sees laws as something arbitrary imposed by a mercurial, authoritarian government, and therefore as something that can be broken as long as one can get away unpunished.

I've also heard it suggested that the counterfeiting will naturally cease once China has also become a country with intellectual property to protect. Didn't Japan do the same sort of copying before getting to where they are now and complaining about Chinese IP infringement? It's interesting for me to recall the comment of a guy I met this week who said he's heard a number of people complain about the US patent law's First to Invent rule and Continued Application practice, because they offer a convenient loophole to claim a patent as "already applied for."

Posted by Stephan on Saturday, December 06, 2008 at 2:39 am

I'm not conversant with patent law, so I can't comment on that complaint. I do know that there are abuses, such as those who patent specific strains of grain and then sue their neighbors for infringement when natural forces such as wind and animals spread the new strain to the neighbors' fields. But I also know that drug companies—to take a favorite villain as an example—would never be able to afford to develop new drugs if they had to fund all the research and others were allowed to take the profits.

Copyright abuses, however, seem more clear-cut to me: If the watch looks like a Rolex, ticks like a Rolex, has the Rolex name stamped on it, but is not made by Rolex, that's theft. I'm not happy with all the measures taken to prevent copyright violation, but there must be some way to distinguish between a teen who shares with a friend or two an mp3 version of a song he likes, and companies who make millions of dollars pirating other peoples' work.

Interesting thought about the communist influence, and the effect on people of arbitrary laws. What's missing in the equation is the idea that something might be legal, but still not right. If you attempt to stamp out all religion, I think that's what you'll get more often than not, however. Chuck Colson has a good column in the most recent Christianity Today on a similar effect in the West. Unfortunately, it's not available online, or at least not yet, but here are a couple of quotes:

[W]orldviews do matter. The dominant attitude of recent decades says there are no moral truths—that we should simply live for the moment and get whatever we can out of life. This worldview has led to the chaos we are experiencing. By contrast, the Christian worldview teaches us to live within our means, defer gratification, and treat others honorably—all requirements for sustaining personal prosperity and the free-market system.

But our markets can remain free only if individuals behave responsibly and police themselves. We are not doing that today; we have ignored moral restraints, even labeling them intolerant.

The long-term casualty of this debacle is freedom. When free societies abuse their freedom, governments step in.

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, December 06, 2008 at 7:17 am

I've been frustrated this year, trying to find Christmas cards not made in China—rather interesting for a country with "no religion at all," though I suppose it does fit in with the comment that the true religion is money (which, alas, is not limited to China). We found a few in Williamsburg, Virginia, but not enough that were acceptable to us. Today I resumed the hunt, and did not need to go further than one store. I was in the neighborhood of the Evil W Store, as I had taken to calling Wal-Mart after their corporate mistreatment of one of Janet's friends' family. No chance, I though, but I was nearby and thought it worth checking. Lo and behold, not only did I find acceptable cards not made in China, but everybox of cards was made in the U.S.A. Big points for Wal-Mart on this one.

I also bought some pants hangers, and those were made in China. I suppose they had some excuse, however, since they were of bamboo. :)

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, December 06, 2008 at 1:40 pm

SC, I think you're confusing copyright with trademark (in the Rolex example), though that doesn't affect the validity of your point. However, in my opinion, society would be better off if copyright and patent laws were abolished (or at least curtailed), while trademarks should be maintained. Maybe I'll write my own post on the topic later...

Back on the China topic, I knew a Chinese PhD student in computer science at Carnegie Mellon whose e-mail tag line was "now let technology be our religion".

Posted by Peter V on Saturday, December 06, 2008 at 9:32 pm

Oh, Technology is only one of the gods in the pantheon of Progress, not a religion in itself. But it is one of the major gods.

Posted by Stephan on Sunday, December 07, 2008 at 3:03 am

I'll be interested in your upcoming post, Peter. :) The recent extension of copyrights for so long a time may be a bit onerous, but isn't the laborer worthy of his hire? Why shouldn't composers and authors be compensated for their work? If they are cheated by publishers in the matter, as some are, that is certainly an issue, but a separate one.

What makes music different? One of the many issues that took us away from a previous church was their insistence that members could be paid for babysitting, cleaning, and any number of other functions, but not for music, forcing the professional musicians in the congregation either to be absent from their own church during Christmas and Easter or to forgo income from the seasons that keep musicians in the black.

How would you encourage the production of new books, music, and other forms of art? I'm open to other ideas than copyright, although not to the idea that they should be paid for creative work only as hired hands, since I believe strongly that we need more self-employed folks, not fewer.

Copyright also protects the author from people who would alter his works without permission, which is an artistic integrity issue. I believe the company that was releasing versions of films with objectionable parts cut out was shut down for copyright reasons. Now, I do think that was a huge mistake, as a little cleanup would greatly increase the audience for many films, but I get the point. What if someone decided to write more Narnia stories, making Aslan a weak or evil character? The movies have done enough of this legally—if it were a free-for-all, who knows what might happen that would wrong both C. S. Lewis and the stories?

Posted by SursumCorda on Sunday, December 07, 2008 at 7:04 am

Rather that trying to answer everything now, let me just say that of course I agree that people who create "information goods" (such as music, software, books, etc.) deserve to be paid for their work (and not just as "hired hands"). I'll leave the practical matter of how to accomplish that for another post.

I also think there should be some enforceable requirements for truth in attribution, so that if someone wants to modify a creative work, they must not pass it off as either their own original nor as the original author's, but confess that it is an unauthorized modification of someone else's work. So for we agree (I think) but perhaps you would go further and prohibit such an unauthorized edition entirely (as does current law, with some exceptions).

I think the current system is more than "a bit onerous". Rather it is extremely destructive because it prevents much creative work by making it prohibitively expensive or illegal.

Posted by Peter V on Monday, December 08, 2008 at 9:57 am

s/So for/So far/

Posted by Peter V on Monday, December 08, 2008 at 10:00 am

We do agree on much. But how do you see copyright law as preventing creative work? I would, indeed, prohibit unauthorized editions of someone else's work in most cases. I someone wants to be creative, he should get his own story and characters, or else draw on the vast array of public domain characters. If he choose the latter route, I would have him be very careful, as I hate playing fast and loose with historical people, but I don't think there's any way to enforce that.

One thing the tight hold the C.S. Lewis estate has on his works has done is save us from someone writing, as many have sought to, "more Narnia stories."

What creative works would require running afoul of copyrights? All I can think of is they way choir directors often modify anthems to make them work better with their particular choirs. I imagine they may technically be in violation, since they're modifying the work without permission, but I don't see anyone getting upset about that. (A much bigger issue is the near-universal habit of choir directors of photocopying music, but that's something else altogether.)

Posted by SursumCorda on Monday, December 08, 2008 at 8:19 pm

I found glow sticks at BJs that are made in the USA and were a good price compared to Oriental Trading! Too bad my kids are past the glow stick age. I'll have to save them for Thanksgiving.

Posted by NMKB on Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 9:41 am

Sounds good to me! I'm not past the glow stick age yet.

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 10:32 am