Sweatshop Stars and Stripes

How Chinese communism is profiting from America's post-Sept. 11 love affair with the flag.

Published December 11, 2001 8:30PM (EST)

Since Sept. 11, many Americans have responded to terror by going shopping. And at the top of our shopping lists has been our very own American flag.

The Stars and Stripes now flutter from porches, yards and cars across the land. People who have never bothered with the flag are raising their new banners high.

But what, exactly, are we supporting when we buy flags? Well, for starters, a repressive communist regime intent on denying its own citizens the freedoms for which the American flag supposedly stands.

America's flags, until now, have been made largely at home by the kind of ma-and-pa industry that makes the nation great. Most are family businesses that have stitched Old Glory with care since the Civil War. Some have even taken an oath, as members of the National Independent Flag Dealers Association, not to sell foreign-made flags or flags made from imported materials.

But they have not been able to keep up with demand since Sept. 11. So the nation's largest retailers have turned to China, where manufacturers have rapidly retooled to meet consumer thirst for Old Glory.

The U.S. has fought China both politically and militarily, in part because Chinese people continue to be denied many basic liberties, including free speech, free elections and freedom of religion.

Yet China is churning out the flag of freedom as never before.

The Shanghai Mei Li Hua Flags Co., the largest in China, reported receiving orders for more than 500,000 flags from U.S. retailers in the week after the terrorist attacks. The factory sells medium-size flags to U.S. distributors for about $1 apiece, flags that are then sold to American consumers for $15 or more.

A single factory order of that size is equal to all the American flag imports from China in 1999. And that's just one factory.

Another, the Jin Teng Flag Co. in China, reported orders for 600,000 flags one week after the terrorist attacks.

U.S. flag makers say they aren't concerned about the loss of market share. It's the principle that bothers them.

"The real issue is that a flag that represents the ideals of America would have been made by someone in China who's making 20 cents a day or something like that," said Tibor Egervary, director of sales and marketing at Valley Forge Flag Co. in Pennsylvania, which makes the flags that fly over the U.S. Capitol. "That's what's most abhorrent to us."

It's abhorrent for several reasons. First, Chinese factories are notorious for their unjust and even deadly working conditions, where laborers face low pay, long hours and physical danger. The American flag stands for, among other things, workplace liberty and decent pay for an honest day's work. Americans who buy flags made in China are saying that the promises of justice and equality underlying the Stars and Stripes are empty promises.

"We think it's ironic and unfortunate that a lot of the American flags are being made in China," said Dan Hennefeld, industrial specialist with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. Americans who buy these flags, he said, "are supporting sweatshop conditions over decent conditions and supporting not only sweatshop conditions, but in many cases, forced labor and really unfree conditions."

Even worse, some Chinese flag factories are actually state-owned, which means Americans who buy these flags are directly supporting the repression of Chinese citizens.

Second, flags made overseas don't meet the quality standards our nation's flag deserves. Many are printed poorly, made from tissue-thin cloth or sewn irregularly. Some don't even meet the dimensional standards required of the U.S. flag, appearing too square or too rectangular when they hit the shelves. One collection of flags at a national retailer in my area was shaped more like a long beach towel than a proper flag.

A lasting symbol of the war on terrorism, for many Americans, will surely be the SUV or minivan all aflutter with the Stars and Stripes. The plastic "car flag" has emerged as the finest marketing revolution of the war. A patch of red-white-and-blue on the end of a plastic stick that clips to a car window, it has sold by the millions since Sept. 11, and nearly all come from China.

These flags cost pennies to make, but major retailers sell them for up to $12 each, and already they're littering the highways, their tiny masts having snapped easily in the turbulence that surrounds a two-ton SUV at 80 mph. I've seen them abandoned in gutters and skittering across traffic lanes as the oblivious hordes motor by to the next shopping destination.

Nearly all these car flags are flown in violation of the U.S. Flag Code. Among other things, the code states that the flag should never be flown in a tattered, ripped or soiled condition. It should be kept clean and safe and be lit at night. Also, car flags should be flown from a front bumper, not a window, "because the flag must always lead, never follow."

Some retailers have apparently taken pains -- contrary to federal law -- to conceal the country of origin of the flags they sell. I visited one local retail outlet where boxes of cheap car flags were stacked on the sales floor, the shipping labels cut off or concealed by other labels. Only by looking carefully, and surreptitiously, did I find labels indicating their Chinese origin.

The individual flags had no wrapping or labels, and the product-code stickers did not indicate a country of origin. This is a violation of federal trade law, which requires each individual product entering the U.S. to be labeled so the consumer can identify its origin.

In some cases, the original "Made in China" product code sticker had survived on the original packaging, only to be covered by another sticker containing merely a barcode and the letters "USA", a clear attempt at deception and another violation of federal trade law.

At a local supermarket, car flags were dumped in a bin and wrapped in plastic without any labeling. None had tags of any kind. But deep within the pile, a tattered plastic wrapper covered with Chinese characters was found that may have been part of the original packaging.

One of America's leading junk-mailers has also jumped into the flag game. Benjamin Suarez, owner of Suarez Corporate Industries in Ohio, recently began offering U.S. flags through one of his many subsidiaries. In full-page newspaper ads appearing across the country since Sept. 11, Suarez offered a package of 12 U.S. flags in various sizes for $29.

The ads do not say where the flags originate. An operator on the company's toll-free line revealed that the flags are made "overseas with our allies." When asked the country of origin, she replied "Taiwan." When asked for the manufacturer's name, she said this was "not available."

What can caring consumers do? Leading U.S. manufacturers launched a campaign after Sept. 11 urging consumers to buy only U.S.-made flags. The group distributed store-window signs urging consumers to "Say no to imported flags: Just say 'I'll wait.'"

Consumers could also support the Genuine American Flag Act, recently introduced in Congress by Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio. The bill, HR 3107, would ban importation of foreign-made U.S. flags, but it has received scant attention.

Says Strickland: "It makes no sense that American flags, our most visible symbol of this great nation, should be purchased from China and other countries that deny the freedoms for which our flag stands."

Finally, Americans could stop and consider the consequences of their patriotic acts.

Patriotism in these times seems akin to the blind fervor that surrounds a winning football team. Fans who've not attended a game in years suddenly clamor for tickets. And though scofflaws and drug addicts may populate the team, the fans cheer on and buy more souvenirs.

Support for country and freedom is not measured by flag sales, or, despite the president's urgings, shopping excursions. No, patriotism is measured by noble deeds, thoughtful action. As long as we're being urged to spend, we could at least spend wisely.

Our appetite for foreign-made flags has already surpassed 3 million this year, Egervary says, double the previous record. He expects the total to reach 5 million before year-end.

"To some extent, people do look the other way if they're more interested in expressing their patriotism," he said. "Needless to say, that's horrifying for folks like us."

By Matt Weiser

Matt Weiser is a freelance journalist.

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