China Books

Poorly Made in China by Paul Midler


Poorly Made in China is the title of recently published book about China’s export manufacturing sector. The title has been reviewed by a number of publications, including The Economist and South China Morning Post.

The book’s author, Paul Midler, has granted Danwei permission to run an excerpt. The book can be found on Amazon.

Midler writes for Danwei an introduction about his book:

Poorly Made in China is a reminiscence of my years spent in China manufacturing. The book explores a broad range of topics through a behind-the-scenes narrative set primarily in China. One of the book’s primary themes deals with a natural link that exists between business and culture. China is a different place, as most already know or imagine. The short excerpt involved an episode where I am traveling back to my hotel from an assignment. I haven't been working in manufacturing for long at this point, and I am curious about all of the random factories that I see along the way...

Excerpt from Chapter 3: "All We Need is Your Sample"

by Paul Midler

First-time visitors to the world of Chinese manufacturing are often surprised by what they find. Imagining imposing, industrial structures and filth and noise, they expect to see something inspired by Charles Dickens, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, or maybe even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

In reality, the working environment is not as oppressive, and the buildings themselves are simple in their design. Missing from many of these companies are common signs of industry; in fact, there are few smokestacks and no factory whistles. In southern China, the buildings are typically multistoried boxes made of reinforced concrete, the sort of bland architecture that brings to mind housing projects.

What gives away these buildings as being industrial is that they tend to come in pairs. The factory is the plainer-looking of the two, and its twin, the one with flashes of color, is the dormitory that houses the workers. Living in tight quarters, workers conserve space and keep their clothes fresh at the same time by hanging them outside their doors.

What would happen if I randomly stopped at one of these Chinese manufacturers and just walked in? I asked my driver if he minded. He glanced at me sideways, said nothing, and then gave a delayed shrug. We were about to pass one manufacturer when I asked him to stop.

A guard who sat in a shelter box by the front gate came out to approach the car. He went to the driver’s window, and I leaned down so that I could see him.

Shenme shi?” he wondered, wanting to know my business.
“I was just wondering. What do you make here?”

He considered me carefully and then asked whether I was a customer. It was a question that answered itself. If I were a customer, I would already know what they made. And since I did not know... The guard picked up a phone and spoke to someone in a muffled voice. I noticed that on the wall in his small station hung a riot baton and a rifle. Putting the phone down, he said nothing and lit a cigarette.

I stood outside, while the taxi driver took the time to move his car away from the gate, pointing it toward the main road as though anticipating the need for a fast getaway. A few silent moments passed, and then a stout man in a brown work shirt emerged from the factory. He came walking toward the gate at a brisk pace, his arms swinging.

Huanying! Huanying!” he said. Welcome! Welcome!

He grabbed my right hand with both of his, which were plump and calloused. He shook my hand for longer than was necessary, or comfortable, and I felt the sudden need to make excuses.

"I was just passing by your factory," I said.

"No problem," he said.

"I was just wondering..."
"Come in and sit for a while."
"I just wanted to ask you a question." 

"Sure," he said. "We’ll talk all about it."

When mixed with business, Chinese hospitality could be suffocating.

I tried to explain that I was merely passing through the area on my way back to my hotel. In other words, I was curious, but I wasn’t exactly up for a major detour. Going into his office would mean having a lengthy meeting, and then he would try to serve me tea, or try to take me out to dinner, and I didn’t have the time for it. Could he simply tell me what they manufactured?

Aiyooooh!” he cried, sounding like a man stuck with a sharp stick.

The look on my face must have suggested weakness or pity, because he then seized my arm and began pulling me inside. Having worried earlier that I might be chased off the property, I now wondered whether I would ever be allowed to leave.

Because the factory was located in a remote area, it was fair to assume that this factory boss didn’t receive too many random visitors. Still, he apologized for the state of the place and made excuses about why things were not in order. He appeared genuinely flustered by his lack of foresight, as though he should have presumed that foreigners would one day soon begin showing up at his factory unannounced. So many from abroad were coming to China to chase down merchandise; surely such random visits were the next, inevitable step.

He asked me to sit in his office, and I managed to convince him to start with the factory tour instead. This was no showcase factory. It was a rough-looking place, and I noted that the benches and stools had been banged together with wood scraps. Along one grimy wall, by a workbench, one of the workers had written the same Chinese character over and over.

Zheng, Zheng, Zheng, Zheng, Zheng, Zheng, Zheng...

In Chinese, it meant “correct,” and it was a character that was made up of precisely five strokes. The workers had apparently been using this ancient character as a way to keep a record of how many pieces they completed. It was a counting system comparable to the American way of drawing four vertical lines followed by a diagonal mark made at the count of five—the sort of thing you saw in the movies—scratch marks made on a wall by a prisoner who was tracking the days as they passed...

There are currently 19 Comments for Poorly Made in China by Paul Midler.

Comments on Poorly Made in China by Paul Midler

I too have seen the Zheng character written onto the walls at many small foundries.

Just finished this book. It was great. A must-read for anyone doing business in China. Midler nails the true balance of power in the importer/manufacturer relationship.

The five-stroke character for zheng (correct) is commonly used throughout the Chinese character countries for tallying into units of five. It's a commonplace, worth a line at most.
Midler should be grateful for the access he enjoyed. If he tried to pull this stunt at a metal factory in the UK West Midlands, or anywhere in Japan, he would have got pretty short shrift. (Yes, I do speak from experience.) In fact, when I have tried to see inside a plant in China, buxing, buxing was always the answer. No go. It is not easy to see inside the workshop of the world.

Three uses of the the teen favorite "random" or "randomly" in such a short extract (and another in the intro) does not entice me to read any more of what this random guy has to say about his China experiences...

I got the impression that the highlight of the trip for Mr. Midler is the Chinese character, "Zheng". Finding out what it means made up a big part of the research into this "random" book.

Enough of this anecdotal garbage about China by the amateurs, to regale the bumpkins with college degree at home, who would like to tell themselves how enlightened they are about the rest of the world without making greater effort, say, of reading Jon Spencer or Lattimore. The commercial compromise they seek out is "light readings" like this.

Hardly an amateur, a man who not only did business in China, but thrived. One would think that this alone would qualify him to write.

Unless the dig was meant as an amateur *writer*, in which case it can be safely disregarded. Writers seldom have anything interesting to say other than about themselves, and people who have had interesting life experiences make good authors. Author isn't the same as writer.

Experience begets insights, which I have yet to be convinced that Midler's book provides any.

Mere years do not mean experience: see George W. for a fine example of how one can stay an amateur, inept at practically everything, forever. And, in general, the same applies to Western expats in Asia. Nights spent at Malone's nursing a pint may be pleasurable but perhaps do not necessarily contribute to "China experience". Even MBA admission officers in US are not that naive anymore.

And far from anecdotal.

I know for a fact that Mr. Midler spent many years in China from Sichuan, then Yunnan, to Guangzhou and then Shantou. He definitely is not one of those "live in a 5-star hotel for 4 weeks then write the know all China book" kind of guy.

Methinks Orpheus is feeling the heat because *his* "definitive tome" has not been published yet??

@LoveChinaLongTime: that instinctive suspicion of ulterior motive when meeting dissent is often ascribed to Chinese. I guess you have just proven the stereotype unfair.

RE "many years in China from Sichuan, then Yunnan, to Guangzhou and then Shantou": see my post re years vs. experience.

Your powers of deduction are astonishing, Orpheus. Here we have a short excerpt in which the author visits a factory and tosses in an observation about tally marks on the wall for a bit of color, and you conclude that not only was that the highlight of his trip, but that his experiences are little different than drinking in an expat bar.

I'll grant you that the excerpt is not really substantial and doesn't say much of anything about the author having rich experiences or justifiable conclusions, but by the same token, there's nothing to justify concluding that he's an idiot writing garbage.

I only know Jon Spencer through Blues Explosion. Care to share?

@Joel: thanks for the kind words on my "powers of deduction", of which I am generally known---OK, OK, that's enough applause for now.

The excerpt, as it stood in the quotation, is nothing but "anecdotal garbage". As to the whole book, if the excerpt is "not really substantial" and doesn't say much of anything about the author or the book, why was it offered here in the first place? Usually one would expect that, in the reviewere's opinion at least, the excerpt is reasonably representative of the book. And I, among others, felt "underwhelmed". And yes, I "got the impression"---didn't say "formulated the conclusion"---that the book is no good. Since when does a personal impression require in-depth research and background validation? Not a standard Danwei writers often hold themselves against.

While we are at it: look at how many lines are dedicated to "zheng" and honestly tell me it's just trivial. Incidentally, I found the author's comparison of "zheng" to prisoner "tracking the days as they passed" rather silly. Perhaps a reflex of someone indoctrinated about the "commie society" being one big prison? Now, Joel, that's a "speculative" barb, not a "deduction".

Typo: Jon Spence, not "Spencer". Sinologist. Author of "God's Chinese Son", "Chan's Great Continent", and
"Return to Dragon Mountain".

PS: "I would hope that a wise Chinese man with the richness of his experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than...... China Bounders".

RE: "Mr. Midler spent many years in China from Sichuan, then Yunnan, to Guangzhou and then Shantou."

So the British colonialists in 19th Century were mostly qualified cultural commentators, then? Some of us really need to read up on Maughm, Conrad and Greene.

Even the great Rudyard Kipling has not been given the benefits of doubt that some believe Mr. Midler is entitled to.

Anyone with business experience in China will know how accurate his book is. Most of the negative comments I've read about his book come from people who obviously haven't read the book and/or have no real business experience in China.

True believers are so funny.

@Orpheus - Holding up Jonathan Spence as a worthwhile read? Please, the guy is a university-bound intellectual, who has never worked in industry in China or anywhere else, and who, judging from last year's dull-as-ditch-water BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures seems to believe that China is headed towards Confucianism. Spence is an ivory-tower braniac, end of.

The excerpt from Midler's book is okay in an "ain't that funny that they do that in that there China" kind of way, all I can add is that doing that in my old place of work down in Shenzhen would lead to you getting thrown out on your ear at the very least. The guy's website seems to be entirely about just how lame Chinese products are, which is hardly Pulitzer-winning stuff, but there's nothing I would object to that much. Orpheus, if you really object to this book here's a tip - don't buy it.

Hey, nobody said Spence is perfect; but reading him at least gives you some historical knowledge that may offer you some perspective in reading the Chinese society. What do you get out of Midler?

Besides, I have to name someone so that I don't end up saying the more obvious and less politic, that China attracts third-rate intellects and inept "professionals" from the developed world. Whether that has to do with contemporary China itself being third-rate is not the point. The tragic fact is that as a consequence of losers rushing in, trees get felled to make garbage like this, comfortably reinforcing the prejudice without anything new.

Thanks for the tip, FOARP; I need it because I would otherwise buy what I called garbage. You saved my life.

I have been to Taiwan visiting suppliers and spoke to them abot their dealings in China, and the responses i have received are quite similar to what i have read in the book "POORLY MADE IN CHINA".
The Taiwanese are not the Chinese and for the most part they seem proud of this, but some of the tactics that the Chinese use to lure naive business people in are shared; I know because some of these tactics where used on me personally, a small business owner. As for the Chinese, i have almost commited to a factory manufacturing goods for my customers and as usual, the supplier is willing to send top samples. Obviousley everything will be perfect initially, even the pricing seems great for now (still do not know how they will make a profit though) but i am really not sure................

i am still not finished reading this book but.. i can say that this book is worth to read! it gives me a lot of knowledge of how manufacturing business in china works.. and it answers a lot of my questions!

I read the book over one year ago. I've been working for a Chinese manufacturer for three years and I gave the book to one of my clients after I finished it. Most of the content has turned out to be the script to my own and my Canadian client's experience.

Is everyone's experience like this? Surely not but it does seem common.

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