Casablanca On The Yangtze

As China continues to grow into its role as a dominant player in global manufacturing, there's no reason to think it can't muster the same creativity that marked Japan's rise to the top. Where does that leave U.S. manufacturers?

Anyone under the age of 40 might be shocked to learn that the phrase “Made in Japan” was not always a guarantee of innovative design, cutting-edge technology and consistent quality.Indeed, buying a Japanese-made product in the years immediately after World War II was the equivalent of paying good money for a house of cards. You knew the thing would fall apart eventually; the only question was, how soon?

But the Yen was dirt cheap against the dollar in those days, so Japan became the “factory to the world” for the simplest of reasons: the price was right. Then, as if overnight, all the unreliable junk that had flowed out of the East suddenly disappeared. By the mid-1960s, the quality revolution initiated in Japan a decade before by the statistician W. Edwards Deming was bearing fruit.

In the years A.D. (After Deming), the quality and originality of Japanese goods improved with exponential rapidity. Pocket-sized transistor radios that worked like a charm were the precursors of more impressive contrivances. In 1968, a little-known company called Sony introduced the Trinitron color television – a product so superior to its competitors that it earned a special Emmy award from the American broadcasting industry. The following year, the stylish, high-performance Datsun 240Z sports car swept away the notion that Japanese automobiles were always clunky, wimpy and prone to self-immolation.

Yet despite the evidence of their growing technical skill and manufacturing savvy, the Japanese were still derided as a copycat nation, unable to muster the creativity and inventive genius that were the hallmarks of American industry.

Then came the Sony Walkman, the kanban system, flash memory, Toyota’s Prius hybrid vehicles – so many eye-popping developments that Japanese inventors now hold more U.S. patents than any other nationality.

Remember Sylvania televisions? Magnavox? American Motors? For that matter, remember Ford? All had their clocks cleaned by the so-called copycats across the Pacific.

Today, of course, there’s a new bad boy on the block – even bigger and more rambunctious than the first of Asia’s giant killers. So let’s compare the situation of 1946 Japan with that of 2006 China.

Japan was a nation devastated by war and hobbled by defeat. China is considered a nation devastated by Communism and hobbled by widespread poverty, ignorance and corruption.

Japan worked her way up from desuetude as the “factory to the world.” The Big C is doing the same – a copycat nation if ever there was one. But while it’s true that China’s 1.3 billion people have lived behind the Bamboo Curtain for more than half a century, let no one believe they have forgotten all that they once were, nor doubt they are capable of scaling similar heights again.

How many copycat nations invented the iron plow, steel, the compass, the crossbow and kites?

The Chinese were also first to use petroleum and natural gas as fuels. They invented belt drives and chain drives, the wheelbarrow, paper, pasta and parachutes. They came up with moveable type, the fishing reel, lacquer, the stirrup, porcelain and the umbrella, not to mention matches, chess, gunpowder, fireworks, grenades, playing cards, paper money and even watertight compartments in ships.

Chinese cuisine alone is so vast, varied and, yes, inventive that it puts to shame the culinary arts of every other culture.

Unlike the postwar Japanese, the Chinese today don’t need an Ed Deming. They can see what his concepts produced in the islands on the other side of the East China Sea, and they can use Japan’s manufacturers as models to emulate. And with more than 60,000 Chinese students in American universities annually – roughly 80 percent of them in graduate schools earning advanced degrees in engineering, mathematics, the sciences and business administration – they are gleaning the best of American technical and managerial knowledge and absorbing the lessons of creative thinking and entrepreneurial drive.

In addition, China has been expanding its own system of higher education, making enormous investments in new campuses, laboratories and the like. Already they have doubled the number of students earning bachelor’s degrees and nearly doubled the number taking master’s and doctoral degrees.

So why would we expect China – with nearly ten times the population of Japan – to be any less successful than its Asian neighbor at developing innovative solutions that could easily supplant and displace established products and technologies from even the most powerful U.S. manufacturers?

The Chinese computer maker Lenovo – which in 2005 acquired the PC division of a little U.S. outfit called IBM – now employs circuits designed by Chinese engineers and software written by Chinese programmers in formerly all-American products.

In January, the Geely Automobile Co. became the first automaker to display a Chinese-designed and -manufactured car at the Detroit auto show. The CK sedan will carry a sticker price under $10,000 when it goes on sale in North America two years from now.

Even before then, Chery Automobile Co. will be selling a China-made luxury vehicle in the United States beginning in 2007. Chery’s cars are intended to compete with BMW, Mercedes and Lexus.

Couple these developments with the woeful level of interest in engineering and science and apparent utter lack of competence in mathematics among current American students and you arrive at a curious conclusion: U.S. manufacturers rushing to outsource production to China today are probably the last of their breed.

Is it really such a stretch to imagine that in the not-too-distant future the Chinese will be outsourcing their production to the U.S., or that Americans alive today could see their own country tarred with the sobriquet “factory to the world?”

The evidence suggests that it isn’t a question of if, but rather when. It seems inevitable that China is poised to innovate her way right past every other country on earth.

As Bogart said to Bergman at the Casablanca airport: “Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon – and for the rest of your life.”

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