The call to boycott Chinese products

A group of Filipinos based in the United States, convened by prominent business leader Loida Nicolas-Lewis and lawyer Ted Laguatan, has called for a boycott of China-made products as a way of protesting China’s bullying behavior in the disputed waters of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). They are not talking of a government-supported initiative, but of a purely consumer-led boycott driven by patriotic sentiments. What are the chances of such a call gaining any traction in the Philippines?

Let us leave aside for the moment any discussion of the possible political and economic repercussions of such a movement, and focus instead on its feasibility and sociological implications. My view is that a call to boycott Chinese products at this time may gain broad public support if it is made by credible public figures and social movements. But I am less hopeful that such a call will make any dent on Filipino consumer behavior.

Only a few things are capable of unifying the nation, apart from the successes of individual Filipinos in the international arena. The most potent of them is conflict with another country, especially with an imperial power that uses its bigness to assert its dominance over us and threatens our sovereignty and freedom. Our people fought as one against Spain, the United States and Japan. It is not an exaggeration to say that our young nation was born in the fires of these valiant anticolonial struggles.

There is thus no reason to think that Filipinos cannot unite against a power like China if the need arises. Despite the fact that Chinese blood runs in the veins of easily half of all Filipinos, there is no love lost between Filipinos and the Chinese. Anti-Chinese prejudice permeates our national psyche. This resentment has unfortunate historical roots. It has survived over the centuries, and indeed is renewed in strength as Chinese-Filipinos gain supremacy over the national economy.

Therefore, a call to boycott Chinese products can easily gain adherents precisely because, whether we like it or not, it will tap into this vast reservoir of barely concealed racial resentments. It is worth mentioning that this prejudice is reciprocal. The bellicose chauvinism that fuels Chinese pronouncements against Filipinos in the Chinese media today is of the same kind, but made worse by China’s politicians and military leaders who irresponsibly exploit these sentiments to push their own power agenda.

It would not be difficult to highlight the inferiority of China-made products, whether we are talking of Chinese cars, motorbikes, agricultural and industrial tools, or light consumer goods like household utensils, clothing, school supplies, and electrical and electronic products. Their sole attraction is their cheap price.  One should not look for quality, reliability, style or durability in Chinese products. These goods currently occupy the lowest rung in the hierarchy of imported goods, far below those made in Japan or South Korea. People buy them because they are incredibly inexpensive, offering great value to low-income groups, the way Ma Ling in the early years of the Chinese export drive gave the Filipino poor an affordable version of Spam.

Still, it would not be fair to characterize all China-made products in these terms. Four years ago, my wife and I decided to buy a brand-new Chinese car that cost us less than P400,000. We still have the vehicle, an 800cc mini-car that we use as a second car for short rides. A couple of friends from UP saw me driving it, and, after being assured that it runs well, promptly got themselves their own minis. The problem is that after two years, many of these Chinese minis fell into disuse because there were no replacement parts available and, worse, every service center for this Chinese brand had disappeared. Luckily, for us, a new dealership with its own service center opened just a few weeks ago. But the damage to the brand’s reputation has been done. I still believe it is a reasonably good car, though I am now hesitant to recommend it to my friends.

A campaign to boycott China-made goods would certainly hit Chinese branded goods like my car. But I doubt if it would affect the popularity of Apple products, which are designed in the United States but made in China. Many cars and motorcycles sporting the proud marques of European, American, and Japanese makers now use a lot of parts sourced from China. Many shoes and sports equipment, and affordable luxury items bearing the venerable logos of global companies are invariably made in China. Given the reality of worldwide supply chains on which almost all branded products now depend, it is no longer easy to determine which products are made where.

I grew up in an era when the goal of nation-building encouraged us to give preference to products made by our own people. I still think that the ideals that inspired many forms of economic nationalism should continue to remind us of the need to ceaselessly develop the productive capability of our people. At the same time, however, we cannot ignore the fact that today’s economies are so interconnected with one another that it is almost delusional to attach the names of nations to what are, in reality, global products.

A call to boycott Chinese products will no doubt catch attention, but it will do nothing more beneficial to our people than perhaps to stimulate discussion on the Chinese threat. It may revive the spirit of patriotism among our people by offering them a chance to validate this in their daily lives. But I don’t know how one can prevent the complex sentiments it will unleash from sliding into a destructive form of racism. This is what I fear, more than the expected retaliation from our haughty neighbor.