Paul Midler’s “Poorly Made in China”: Mischief, mayhem, soap

As a general rule, Imagethief dislikes business books, especially instructional ones. I find them tedious and most of them age faster than caviar on a car dashboard. There are, however, exceptions. Most of these are either books based on journalistic reporting of business events, such as, say, Kurt Eichenwald’s “Conspiracy of Fools”, or on personal narratives of business conducted in extremis. Tim Clissold’s “Mr. China”, to this day the definitive “doing business in China” narrative and probably on the shelves of many Imagethief readers, is the defining example of the latter.

One of the magnificent things about China is that it seems to provide a bottomless well of business-in-extremis stories. Like many PR pros, I followed with some interest the great product quality scandals of 2007 and 2008, not least because it has a direct bearing on my work when companies discover that something they manufacture in China is [choose one] toxic/sharp/disintegrating/radioactive/manufactured by child slaves. (That list could be extended, but you get the point.) I was thus pleased when a copy of Paul Midler’s “Poorly Made in China” landed on my desk some months ago. However, it went into the long queue on my nightstand and didn’t actually get read for some months until after I received it. Considering my recently ended blog hiatus, this was perhaps for the best.

In fact, despite my interest in the topic, I was a little reluctant at first to get stuck into Mr. Midler’s book. From the subtitle, “An insider’s account of the tactics behind China’s production game,” and somewhat staid cover art I was expecting something didactic, in the style of the business books I tend not to like. Do not, as the old adage goes, judge a book by its cover. I was pleasantly surprised to find that “Poorly Made in China” is in fact a well told personal narrative of Mr. Midler’s own experiences helping foreign companies to arrange manufacturing relationships in South China. Once opened, I found it entertaining and enlightening (a rare combination also recently attained by Jonathan Fenby’s “Penguin History of Modern China”, one of the books ahead of Mr. Midler’s in my queue, which I recommend to all China expats not already versed in modern Chinese history).

Most of the story concerns Mr. Midler’s work with an American client manufacturing personal care products (e.g. soaps and shampoos) in China. What could go wrong with soap, you ask? Plenty, it turns out, and the story revolves around the struggle of Mr. Midler and his client to maintain quality standards (of the product, the packaging, the factory sanitation — you name it) in the teeth of entrenched Chinese business habits that seem to give rise to corner-cutting at every imaginable opportunity and a few unimaginable ones. From this main thread Mr. Midler branches off into other interesting stories and illustrations.

“So what?” you may be saying to yourself. Chinese manufacturers cut corners at every opportunity. What else is new? Even my Singaporean mother-in-law knows this. “Keep a hand on your wallet,” she warned me when I announced my intention to move myself and her daughter to China six years ago. Needless to say, my personal experience here has been much more positive than she expected, but much of the mainstream reporting on the product quality crises of the last couple of years took a similarly one-dimensional China-as-villain tone.

With that in mind, the value of Mr. Midler’s book is two-fold. First, Mr. Midler tells his story as someone who, despite all the frustrations and adventures, seems to never have lost his basic affection for China. He never falls back on the trope of villainy. “Sister”, the owner of the Chinese soap factory that figures in much of the book, is presented not as a criminal or predator, but as someone trying very hard to succeed in a particular business context. This leads to the second, and main value of “Poorly Made in China”: Mr. Midler does an excellent job of explaining in a readable way that context of Chinese business, and the social, cultural, and economic forces that have shaped the practices of people like Sister. He explains how western buyers and Chinese businesses have created a delicate and sometimes dangerous symbiosis in an environment of ruthless competition, price pressure and complex webs of relationships. The book is critical, but not judgmental, which I found refreshing.

Even if you’re not in manufacturing or dealing with the consequences of manufacturing problems (as we PR people sometimes do), you may find the book interesting as a study in the forces that have shaped Chines business over thirty years of turbocharged economic growth. Many of these forces that have shaped Chinese manufacturers may be at work in your industry as well. They’re certainly at work in mine. Against this reality, efforts such as the following, while admirable for the move toward international public communication, seem modest indeed.

Disclaimer: The publisher and author provided Imagethief with a complementary review copy of “Poorly Made in China”. Make of that what you will. Imagethief gladly accepts review copies, but cannot guarantee that he will read or like books furnished.

Note: Title of this post with apologies to the marketing team for the film “Fight Club”.

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