This weekend, I visited both Lowe’s and Home Depot looking for some new plants for my backyard. As I walked by all the newly arrived Christmas merchandise, I casually picked up a few to see where they were made.  You guessed it, from Santa to Rudolph, one by one they all clearly stated “Made in China”. I finally did find one item that stated “Assembled in USA from foreign and domestic components.” I was getting frustrated. After all, as a customs and international trade attorney for the past 20 years, including the first 5 as an attorney for U.S. Customs, I have made a living doing international trade. I wondered, what happened to our balance in international trade? What happened to “Made in America”?

Everyone knows that mountains of Chinese goods are daily shipped to and sold in the United States, but what about the reverse.  Fortunately, I also have that perspective, as I visit the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at least once a year for U.S. based clients importing from China or Chinese companies selling to the United States. I travel to China on an airplane, am transported to the hotel by car, and sometimes go down to the bar to have a drink.  The plane is made by Boeing, the car is a Ford, the hotel is a Sheraton, and the drink is a rum and Coke (Bacardi and Coca-Cola).  All of those iconic names are pure Americana. 

With 1.4 billion people in China, no wonder American companies,and the rest of the world, are tripping over themselves to get into the Chinese consumer market.  On October 28-29, 2009, United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will participate in the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) meeting in Hangzhou, China, along with U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke.  Since China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, the country has become one of the fastest growing markets for U.S. agricultural, fish and forest exports. U.S. exports to China increased from $2.2 billion in 2001 to $13.2 billion in 2008. Today, China is the fourth largest market for U.S. agricultural exports, and the largest for soybeans, cotton, hides and skins.

Chinese culture is 4,000 years old, and it was the Chinese who invented the compass, writing paper, and gun power, among hundreds of other items.  More recently, the Chinese have contributed greatly to making items affordable at your local department store.   While I certainly admire the cultural achievements of China, and especially its incredibly rapid economic development over the past 20 years, for some reason, I am still perturbed that so many of the everyday items I use come from China – from books I check out at the local library which say “Printed in China” to the 13 different styles of bird feeders that I recent looked at while visiting a Wal-Mart. Every single one of the bird feeders was “Made in China”!

Don’t get me wrong. I love to live in a world where my pasta is from Italy, my olive oil is from Spain, my asparagus is from Peru, my wine is from Australia, and my cheese is from France.  But why does it seem that so much of what you can buy in the stores, and not just bird feeders, is from China? From bicycles to basketballs…heck, even this Microsoft Wireless Comfort Keyboard 4000 that I am typing on right now is prominently marked “Made in China”.  I challenge you to find a television that says “Made in USA”.

Our trade balance with China is totally out of whack.  America needs to keep inventing, building, and selling its ideas and products to China, and to the rest of the world.   U.S. Government policies should encourage investment in the United States, and exports to China and the rest of the world.  Otherwise, in another 20 years, the powerful, American iconic companies such as GE, IBM, GM, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Apple, and Boeing will dwindle and even disappear altogether, as Chinese companies continue to expand market share worldwide.

Did you know that in 2008, for the first time in history,  there was more foreign direct investment into China than the United States, or that China now graduates 10 times as many engineers from college compared to the United States.  Or that there are more Chinese people who speak English than the approximately 300 million Americans. Those are alarming statistics.

We need to be more sophisticated and welcoming of foreigners. Did you know that many of the street names in Beijing are in English as well as Mandarin? Can you imagine all the streets in Washington, D.C. being in English and Mandarin?  Two way, free and fair trade is the answer to creating a balance of international trade.

In conclusion, I sure do look forward to my next trip to Beijing. I love Peking Duck, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall.  Hopefully, I will find on a restaurant menu a Napa Valley sauvignon blanc wine and Florida oranges, watch CNN International, admire the Chinese who increasingly follow the American traditions of Halloween and Valentine’s Day, see Chinese children’s books with Disney characters, and grab a mocha latte at the local Starbucks.  Yes, international trade and travel is a great thing. We just need more of it to be from America.