When news broke last week that Ralph Lauren was supplying U.S. Olympians with “made-in-China” uniforms, Senator Harry Reid couldn’t hide his anger, political opportunism or lack of concern for how his response might be received abroad. He told a group of reporters at a press conference for a Democratic jobs bill, “They should take all the outfits, put them in a big pile and burn them and start all over again.”
Had Reid muted his remarks -- say, suggested that future uniforms be made in the U.S. -- few in China would have noticed or cared. After all, “China bashing” as a U.S. political phenomenon -- one that only increases in popularity during election years -- is well-known in China. Suggesting, however, that Chinese-manufactured goods be burned is not. And so, the Olympic uniform controversy soon filled Chinese news programs, microblogs and editorial pages.
Most commentators focused on what they perceive to be the narrow-minded hypocrisy of cynical American politicians. Take this inflammatory but representative tweet on Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblog, from Yang Rui, a notoriously jingoistic host on the English-language channel of the state-owned China Central Television:
I just finished the live London Olympic countdown broadcast. Regarding American senators wanting to burn those “made-in-China” uniforms in an election year, I just said one sentence in the prologue: It’s a joke, right? I asked: Would they like to burn those “made-in-China” iPhones? Most iPhones are made in China, so they also take away Americans’ jobs? How much does Apple earn in China? This publicity stunt in an election year is so disgusting.
Yang’s tirade is extreme only in tone. Insofar as he blames Reid’s comment on the overheated rhetoric that emerges from U.S. presidential campaigns, he’s fully in the mainstream. The more moderate “CCTV Commentators,” a group Sina Weibo account registered to CCTV’s stable of editorial commentators, tweeted this wary observation on July 17:
Some American politicians complain about the made-in-China uniforms. There will always be voices that attack globalization during election years, or when the U.S. economy is in the doldrums.
Several Chinese commentators have tried to delve deeper into why U.S. politicians focus on globalization in election years, with many lamenting (perhaps with fake tears) America’s alleged former role as an upholder of free trade around the world. Of these commentaries, none is more pointed than that of Wang Yusheng, the executive director of the state-chartered China Foundation for International Studies; on July 17, he wrote in Shanghai’s Liberation Daily, a paper owned by the local Communist Party committee:
The U.S. always praised itself for pushing "economic globalization" and "unrestrained free trade," emphasizing or even continuously "enlightening" other countries that this is the irresistible trend of history. For years, American multinational corporations set up in, operated in and profited a lot in China and around the world. But, what about now?
Wang offers three unflattering possible answers to the question, one of which invokes the Boxer Uprising of a century ago, a Chinese nationalist rebellion that targeted foreigners and Christians:
Some say that [America’s new attitude] is the result of American narrow nationalism, and some say that it is the "American edition of the Boxer Uprising." But I’m afraid that the real reason is that it reflects America’s determination never to be "number two" and its unconfident soul colliding. ... According to certain American senators’ logic, should they not smash or burn other Chinese products in America, from shoes to clothes to cars?
Naming Chinese-made products that Americans might next burn, after the uniforms, has become a bit of a low-grade parlor game among Chinese microbloggers (iPhones are, by far, the favored candidate). A few commentators have also suggested turning the tables and burning American products. Predictably, these are not the most level-headed tweets. Shao Bing, a highly regarded poet, rants:
It’s understandable that Europeans hate Americans. It’s appropriate to describe Americans as thieves. Their Olympic uniforms were made in China and some senators made a big fuss about it and demanded that they all be burned. According to their logic, products from Apple, General Electric and the popular Buick automobile series must be thrown into the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, I don’t buy "Made in the U.S.A" things.
Others extrapolate that Reid's actual slight is a parable of how the U.S. refuses to recognize China as an emerged -- rather than an emerging -- power. On July 15, Lin Mu He, chief executive officer of a Beijing-based investment firm, tweeted on Sina Weibo:
We are still living slaves to the Yankees, and they still look down on us as cheap labor. They bully us too much. Hearing these Yankee words, I really feel uneasy! We are still a country of manufacturing, in other words, considered the lowest rung of society by America.
Most responses to Reid rely not on anger but on humor to highlight perceived American hypocrisy. At the same time, many commentators believe that Reid’s remarks, and the U.S. outsourcing debate as a whole, are part of President Obama’s campaign to bring manufacturing back to the U.S., while highlighting Romney’s Bain years. From these two strains comes an awkward joke that’s emerged in various forms over the last couple days. Zhao Chao, a senior writer with the sports channel at Sina.com, a major Chinese internet portal, who claims to have seen it tweeted by a Chinese man living in Japan, retweeted it in this form:
In which country was Obama manufactured? Will they burn him too? Obama thinks "made-in-America" is best, but then why wasn’t his father made in America?
This kind of personal attack is common practice on China’s microblogs. It is not, however, the message that the Communist Party or its state media organizations want to project. That’s not to suggest that the Party and its propaganda apparatus disagree with mainstream sentiment. It’s just that they feel the need to phrase it differently, as they did in a July 16 editorial issued -- and widely circulated -- by Xinhua, the state news agency:
The Olympic Spirit, which has nothing to do with politics, chants mutual understanding and fair play, so tagging the uniforms with politics by those U.S. politicians exposes narrow nationalism and ignorance, and violates the original Olympic Spirit.
On the night of July 27, U.S. athletes will enter the Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony, wearing Ralph Lauren-designed, Chinese-made uniforms. Due to time constraints, the U.S. Olympic Committee is unable to promise uniforms manufactured at home until the 2014 Games. At least one Chinese microblogger still has high hopes for the 2012 U.S. Olympians: “After they burn their uniforms I’ll look forward to a nude Olympics opening ceremony.”
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
To contact the author of this story:
Adam Minter at email@example.com