Tug-Of-War Over Trade

As China becomes the world's factory, U.S. manufacturers are getting hurt. Do the Chinese play fair? The answer is more complex than you might imagine

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Show me the money The world's spotlight is on the yuan

Jerry Rowland feels the dragon breathing down his neck. He's the CEO of National Textiles, a T-shirt maker in a state that has lost more than 37,000 textile jobs since the U.S. lifted quotas on Chinese imports two years ago. Unless Rowland's North Carolina workers suddenly become competitive with Chinese counterparts who earn just a few dollars a day, he fears his employees will be next. The plainspoken Southerner ticks off what he regards as China's unfair advantages: excessive government protection, an underpriced currency, cowed and underpaid workers, exports dumped below cost. If Washington won't help, Rowland says, he will have to move some jobs overseas. The new quotas slapped on some Chinese textiles last month, he contends, aren't enough. "Our government has done nothing," says Rowland, "just a little bit of hand slapping."

Half a world away, Yang Rong manages the privately run Jinhua Asset Underwear Co., with a factory tucked into verdant hills a few hundred miles from Shanghai that exports some of the world's sexiest lace bras. On his shop floor, surrounded by 200 young workers outfitted in pink kerchiefs and aprons, Yang points to the wall on which he has taped a laminated list of rules issued by Walt Disney Co., with which Asset Underwear has a contract to make clothing featuring Disney characters. The list prohibits, among other things, indentured servitude and "slavery." Yang thinks that's funny. His laborers come from villages across China to work 8-to-10-hour days for up to $120 a month and consider that a pretty good deal in a nation where urban per capita income is $78. Looking up from her C cups, Lou Xuxiao, 20, brags about the new electric moped "I never thought I'd own."

While Yang is sowing prosperity in China, the U.S.'s new penchant for protectionism could bust his big plans for brassieres. Asset Underwear, which grossed $10 million in exports last year, recently began negotiating with Sara Lee, maker of Playtex and Wonderbra, to produce some of its lingerie. But the new quotas on Chinese bras, bathrobes and knit fabrics have forced the Chicago company to withdraw. Yang is mystified. "Why can't the Americans stick to making what we can't?" he asks. "For little things like bras, nobody can compete with China."

Right you are, Mr. Yang, which is why the U.S.'s uneasy embrace of globalization is chafing against China's emergence as the world's workshop. China rules in stocking stuffers, but it's climbing the technology ladder too. Its huge pool of cheap labor--up to 500 million peasants are expected to migrate to cities in search of factory work over the next two decades--should provide 20 more years of growth for an economy that already produces a quarter of the world's television sets and washing machines and half of its cameras and photocopiers. U.S. towns built on products that seem uniquely American--think A.T. Cross pens from Lincoln, R.I.--have been devastated as employers moved whole factories to China.

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