Made by China in ... America?

Made by China in America
Made by China in America   

"Made by China in America," a documentary directed by Miao Wang about Chinese firms bringing manufacturing to the U.S. It is part of Morgan Spurlock's "We the Economy" series (www.wetheeconomy.com).

When I was a baby, my mom waited in line at 3am with her ration ticket to pick up the monthly allowance of meat. As fortunate dwellers of China's capital city, we received a little more than two pounds. In remote provinces, it was half or a quarter of that amount.

I was born in Beijing the year before Deng Xiaoping led China's economic reforms. I immigrated to the U.S. as a young girl, a year after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Three decades later, China is nudging alongside the U.S. as the world's second-largest economy. Americans have heard that China attracted significant foreign direct investment. It helped lift millions of Chinese out of poverty. It also resulted in the loss of American jobs to cheap labor overseas, particularly in the manufacturing sector.

In recent years, the Chinese economic boom has entered version 2.0, Chinese businesses have started acquiring and investing in American companies, even building factories on U.S. soil. Who knew the Chinese economic pendulum would swing back to revive the very manufacturing sector it had a part in decimating?

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Many Chinese businesspeople have studied or traveled extensively in the U.S. Many of them have sent their children over for an American education. They want to learn how Americans think and innovate. They want to learn how to compete in the global market, this time not just in the form of low-cost factories with the "Made in China" label.

We are arguably living on the brink of "the Chinese century." Some Americans see China's rise as a threat to the U.S. economy. I can't help but read some of that as an unspoken fear of Yellow Peril.

Miao Wang, filmmaker
Source: Jake Price
Miao Wang, filmmaker

I see Chinese investment in the U.S. as a positive opportunity for the U.S. as well as China. After all, these Chinese companies have to operate on the U.S. playing field, under U.S. regulations, contributing to the local tax base, and hiring Americans. The U.S. has the responsibility and advantage to guide these companies to better governance practices. In turn, China could play a role in helping to revive the U.S. economy.

While making the short documentary "Made by China in America," we zeroed in on the manufacturing sector in the South. During research, one particular story grabbed my attention: a spinning mill in China was closing down and moving to South Carolina, a state with a long history of textile production that lost a majority of its jobs to overseas labor 15-20 years ago. We went to South Carolina to speak with the local communities whose lives have been directly affected by the Chinese economic boom. Our story begins with the impact of version 1.0 and ends on version 2.0.

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Walking through the ruins of an abandoned mill, Jack, a retired textile worker, tells a poignant tale of the heydays of this state-of-the-art plant and its subsequent shutdown when jobs went overseas. Yet, he's ready to go back to the mills in a heartbeat if the Chinese bring them back, because, he says, "It's in our blood."

Danny, another factory worker, witnessed the emptying out of a facility that once employed around 500 people, and the friendships lost as a result. Today he's the only employee to transition with the building to the new Chinese owner. He's glad that jobs are coming back: "It's really brought hope to a lot of people that don't have jobs."

Chinese firms invested over $14 billion and created close to 80,000 jobs in the U.S. economy in 2013, according to studies by the Rhodium Group. These are small numbers in the scope of the U.S. economy, but, as we saw and heard from struggling communities like those in South Carolina, they are making a difference for local economic revival.

Manufacturing may not all be coming back to the U.S., but the very fact that Chinese companies are now investing in U.S. manufacturing is generating some hope for that sector.

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A Chinese proverb goes, "If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want ten years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want one hundred years of prosperity, grow people."

Chinese and Americans working together and learning from each other have immense potential to create long-term advancement in prosperity for all. I also hope that mutual understanding could lead to a more humanistic perspective of the world. Let's start by laying the foundation for that potential to be unleashed.

Commentary by Miao Wang, the director of "Made by China in America," a documentary on Chinese firms opening manufacturing facilities in the U.S. that is part of Morgan Spurlock's "We The Economy" series. Wang is an award-winning filmmaker focused on creative and cinematic films that inspire cultural understanding and a more humanist perspective of the world. Her films include Beijing Taxi, Yellow Ox Mountain, and Maine-land (work in progress). Follow her on Twitter @miaowang.

Watch filmmaker Morgan Spurlock discuss his new film series, 'We The Economy'

Morgan Spurlock demystifies US economy
Morgan Spurlock demystifies US economy