Travelling in the Orient

Pretty much a day was spent getting home from China last weekend. The plane took off at 1 o’clock Hong Kong time and we pulled into our driveway at home on Sunday morning at 1am. A 12 hour time difference gave us the unfamiliar novelty of seeing two sunrises and two sunsets in 24 hours as we rounded the globe.

Such a long flight allows time to think between in-flight movies, reading, and the odd nap. Truth be told, the chance to go on such a trip with our buddy Ken from Puslinch was great, but most of our life we have been a home-body, quite content milling about the county. It took a bit of muster for the trip but it was a great experience and perhaps one that will be repeated again if plans underway pull together. As we travelled in a comfortable, albeit somewhat cramped airplane, we couldn’t help but consider the early adventurers who sailed the high seas or traversed mountain ranges on foot.

Part of the rationale for going was a belief that the manufacturing jobs leaving our country for places like China would force North American governments to deal with the acute issue of such losses. Initially we thought tariffs or some kind of import tax would help keep jobs here, but there is more to it than that simple economic strategy.

Another misconception before seeing China first-hand was somehow thinking the place was a third-world, have-not country. While areas of poverty are visible, it was not overwhelming in its scope. Skyscrapers, massive public buildings, and green space disabused us of any notion that somehow the Chinese are behind the times. In some respects, they are ahead by virtue of their ability to move and accommodate their people.

Despite the incredible population numbers, there was no time that we felt overwhelmed by mass numbers of people. Perhaps the closest point to feeling claustrophobic was in the former British colony of Hong Kong, where it was not so much a people issue as it was that every step on walks downtown, our senses were challenged by bright lights, pungent odours, solicitations, and general noise. Double decker buses streamed past with no regard for pedestrians – and certainly none for visitors unfamiliar with traffic going the wrong way.

Experienced mates who had made the trek before noticed a significant improvement in food quality. Conversely, the prices of goods has also increased, by approximately 15% in one year. As readers can imagine, when workers make luxurious products for the new world, there is a point when those same workers will insist on better living standards, and in turn, better wages. Claims made historically by economists about third world living standards rising were perhaps right according to what we saw. We drew the conclusion early on that there was great irony in multi-nationals exporting technology to lower priced work zones, particularly in the field of electronics. Factory workers there will have touched many of those goods months before North Americans in a general sense even know the product is available.

There is however a juxtaposition in the pursuit of cheaper labour and less expensive products. That irony is the change in living standards for the West as Chinese and Asian workers fight for more business. Political leadership in China intends to move closer to a free market system. As the economy grows, workers should fare better and families should have improved conditions. However, if unchecked, the profits will only benefit the business owners. There does not seem to be any desire to adopt a democratic form of government, but the adoption of market economics will put pressure on the communists to keep workers happy.

For Canadians, there are a few points of concern. There is no question manufacturing jobs here are in trouble and we continue to question the absence of our democratically elected governments at the provincial and federal levels on that point. One of the major issues we uncovered during this trip was the cost of petroleum. When the bus stopped to fill up, it was approximately $15 US compared with a cost of $50 here for the same amount of fuel. No wonder we have competitive issues when the basis of most products today is one third of the cost to Canadian business. To suggest workers here who make a quality product are paid too much and responsible for high production costs does not bear out next to this discrepancy in the price of fuel – particularly when some of that fuel comes from Canada.

A further source of problems as we see it is the insistence of governments and citizens here to fight progress under the guise of zoning and planning issues. Businesses and governments themselves, hoping to improve infrastructure or building larger plants, are hampered by paperwork. While we agree planning needs to be considerate of the environment and neighbours, much of the red tape involved with securing land to grow business is devoid of common sense. We seem wedded to a system that curtails competitiveness with other jurisdictions by imposing strict rules and processes to progress.

Another bizarre sight was the minimal programs for recycling in the far east. Truck after truck at the trade show was hand-loaded with garbage bags. All the efforts of North Americans to reduce and recycle seems for naught when Asia essentially is provided with sorted, recycled product to make consumer goods – without contemplating savings within its own waste stream.

In terms of electricity, the waste is mind boggling as downtown streets and large buildings are lit with neon and flood lights to such an extent that it feels like daytime on some streets. The fancy lights look pretty, but point to misplaced priorities for countries deemed to be poor. Air conditioners blow cool air onto the street through open storefronts and central air seemed to be reserved for the largest of the new buildings. Window units dot the sides of old buildings, pointing to further inefficiency. The humid climate, despite it being a cooler time of year on our visit, tells us that in the summer, the waste is exponential.
Time did not allow a full analysis and detailed background of what we saw. Favouring stock performance and profit margins over manufacturing job losses might seem reasonable, but in the longer term we question the net benefit to our society in North America.

The sleeping dragon known as China is an economic powerhouse not yet fully realized. If customer service and quality continue to improve, there are dire days ahead for manufacturers in North America.

Canadians can’t all have good paying service-sector jobs or work for the government, so to us a strategy has to be developed that will keep skilled workers making quality products for sale domestically.