Having spent a fair amount of time in China over the past 18 years, and having witnessed its spectacular rise, I’ve always been puzzled that this remarkable nation still cares so little about the quality of the things it makes. Today, more than 30 years after the Opening in 1978, China has yet to address this shortcoming: Everything from dime store trinkets to high-rise buildings continue to show an astonishing indifference to detail.
As a Westerner steeped in the Protestant work ethic, I’ve written thousands of words and done much hand-wringing about Chinese quality over the years, wondering when China would follow in Japan’s footsteps — when it would finally pull off a miraculous reversal in its attitude toward quality, as Japan did in the decades after World War II. It hasn’t happened, and from what I can see, it probably won’t.
All of which has gotten me to wondering if it’s my own Western concept of quality that’s become obsolete. Perhaps making things last has become pointless in a world that changes so quickly.
It wouldn’t be the first time there’s been a fundamental shift in the prevailing idea of what constitutes quality: America’s own early history furnishes a parallel. For obvious reasons, the relatively crude buildings and manufactured goods of the young United States couldn’t compare to those of the Old World — one reason wealthy Americans in the early 18th century still insisted on importing their building materials, hardware and dishes from Great Britain.
Naturally enough, the British remained more than a little condescending toward their renegade former colony, whose building and manufacturing efforts fell far below English standards. This was, after all, an England whose houses were built with cut stone and massive oak timbers, whose cabinets used fine hardwoods in places you couldn’t even see, and whose steam engines were routinely polished, painted and pinstriped in gold.
Yet by the time the Yanks showed off their latest products at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, it began to dawn on the Brits that America’s mass-produced products, as coarse as they appeared, were overtaking their own. This passing of the torch was symbolized by the towering Corliss steam engine that formed the fair’s iconic centerpiece, but it was apparent in all kinds of exhibits, from to stoves to clocks to furniture.
From the British viewpoint, nothing had changed. They had scrupulously upheld their accustomed standards of quality, steadfastly insisting on the very finest workmanship even when — like those gilded steam engines — it had no conceivable purpose. The eventual result of this shift in perception was an end to Britain’s industrial pre-eminence, and the beginning of our own.
It’s likewise possible that the world is once again changing, this time in a way that’s unfamiliar to our Western frame of reference. Perhaps China builds quickly, cheaply and with indifferent quality because the pace of change no longer demands permanence.
Then again, perhaps the point is moot. China comprises nearly one-fifth of the world’s population and serves, by our own admission, as “America’s workshop.” Its attitude to quality — like it or not — will inevitably affect our own.