Despite Outcry, Many Americans Can't Live Without Chinese Goods

July 23, 2007
In 2006 China exported $290 billion worth of products to the U.S.

Even as protests grow about U.S. imports from China, many Americans may find it hard to manage without the range of products that dominate or in some cases monopolize the marketplace. Safety concerns over Chinese-made goods prompted further comments in Congress over the past week and led President George W. Bush to establish a new panel to review the safety of imported goods.

Yet economists and consumers say that Chinese-made products have become so ubiquitous it may be next to impossible to wean Americans off low-cost imports.

Sara Bongiorni, a journalist and author of "A Year Without 'Made in China,'" which tells of a yearlong effort by her family in 2005 to avoid buying any Chinese-made products, said the experiment showed how intertwined the two big economies are. "Swearing off Chinese products forever seems impractical, since it might mean we'd never again buy a cell phone, a squirt gun, or one day maybe even a television. We don't want to give up those things for good," wrote Bongiorni. She said she discovered that toys, toasters and small electronics come mainly from China, as well as many other consumer goods.

China exported some $290 billion worth of products to the U.S. in 2006, a significant chunk of the $9.2 trillion dollars of U.S. consumer spending. "Chinese goods may not make up everything we buy, but they sure are a major portion," said Joel Naroff, an economist who operates a consulting firm Naroff Economic Advisors. Naroff said that based on the data, "we should be able to live very easily without having to buy Chinese products. But that just may not be the case, especially for lower- or middle-income families."

Naroff added: "Many goods have components that are made in China but assembled elsewhere. Most manufacturers couldn't care less where the component was initially produced. They only care that it is cheap and fits their needs."

In the wake of the scare, Utah-based vitamin maker Food for Health International started labeling its products "China-free." "We did this to improve the level of confidence in the people taking vitamin supplements," said executive vice president Gary Kolman, who noted that China makes about 85% 90% of the world's supply of synthetic vitamin C and a high percentage of other vitamins.

Yet Peter Morici, economist at the University of Maryland, said he does not see the China export juggernaut slowing despite the range of concerns in the U.S. "The trade deficit with China keeps rising," he said. "If there is a consumer movement out there it has yet to come to any consequence." Morici said the notion of a boycott having any major impact is "hard to fathom."

"The only way this would work is if it spread to Wal-Mart, which is China's biggest merchant," he said. "If people said they wouldn't go to Wal-Mart because of Chinese products that would change things."

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2007

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