In our meta-ironic advertising-saturated age, the news, via Asia Business Intelligence, that a European firm called Alvito Holdings has registered a trademark for the phrase "Not Made in China" might come off as cute, in an entrepreneurially clever kind of way. How's that for a swift jujitsu move, taking the weight of globalization and turning it against itself? If you can't beat the prices of Chinese goods, make non-Chineseness a selling point.
Seen from a Chinese point of view, however, the joke is not so funny. One commentator called it an act of "barbaric discourtesy." The People's Daily quotes Dong Baolin, the former vice director of the trademark office of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, as saying that the trademark "would disgrace China's national prestige." Another Chinese trademark attorney complains that "it violates the dignity of China and hurts the feelings of the whole Chinese people."
Do they protest too much? Or does the pain shine a light on something deeper, on at least a couple of centuries of resentment at how the West has exploited and abused China? For many Chinese, the economic surge of the past two decades is a point of great national pride, the first step toward reclaiming what they see as their rightful place on the world stage. The country has blown right past the point where "Made in China" automatically implied shoddy, substandard goods, just as Taiwan and Korea did previously, and Japan even earlier. But the very phrase "barbaric discourtesy" is a clear sign that a chip on the Chinese shoulder dating back at least to the Opium Wars is still very much alive.
Alvito Holdings tried to register the same trademark in the U.S. but was beaten to the punch by an individual named Teresita Pastoriza. It's unclear whether the the USPTO will approve the mark. Last year, reports Managing Intellectual Property, it denied trademark status to the similar "Not Made in France." Meanwhile, Chinese trademark officials plan to raise formal objections in both the European Union and the United States, should the trademark be approved there, on the grounds that the "Not Made in China" phrasing is unfairly discriminatory.
At How the World Works, we're big fans of proper labeling. We'd like to be able to wave a magic wand at any product on the racks, and learn all about it: How much greenhouse gases were emitted during the manufacturing process? What were the wages of the workers who made it? And we'll concede that negative representations also have some value -- "no animals harmed in the making of this shampoo," "no trans fats in this crunchy salty snack." The more information, the better -- though we're not optimistic that most consumers will consider anything besides price in making their purchasing decisions. But "Not Made in China" conveys a different kind of negativity, an us-against-them mentality that is bound to breed resentment -- as is already clear from the Chinese reaction. What's so wrong with "made in the U.S. of A" or "made in the E.U."?