Chinese secret is the return to the global economy of
China's preeeminence in production and export, and the
sophisticated response to changing consumer desires,
that China’s economy has demonstrated for centuries
in a variety of products.
son broke the plastic toy gun the Russian mother had
bought a day earlier for a few dollars. The
response from the virtual community was that she was
a fool to think it would last.
season, that orgy of acquisitiveness beloved by billions,
is upon us. And the shops are filled with toys,
decorations, and all manner of inexpensive goods,
nearly all of them made in China. But would
it surprise the Russians that this year’s hot toy,
the Furby, is also made in China?
is more than just a stuffed animal. It chirps,
wiggles, and interacts with humans and even other
Furbies. Tiny motors and microchips drive it.
Its cost is around USA $30 but it is worth much more
to the frantic consumers who must have a Furby.
In Manhattan, lines
accumulated around the block at the FAO
Schwarz flagship store when the Furbies arrived.
Furby rationing all over the United States causes
scuffles when customers are left without
the coveted critter. Furbies are given as prizes
in radio contests, on NBC
's Tonight Show, and auctioned on Internet sites such
as Ebay or Yahoo
the USA company that recently acquired Tiger
Electronics, the creator of the Furby, will not
reveal details on the five Furby factories.
They are all, however, in China.
What Furby demonstrates
is the almost total dominance of the Chinese toy industry.
China (excluding Taiwan) controls 60% of the global
trade in toys—worth over USA $30 billion. And,
as Furby shows, it is not all plastic junk.
China’s toy industry
is surprisingly sophisticated. China manufactures
toys of all types, ranging from small plastic manufactures
to low-end high-tech toys such as the Furby, quickly
adapting to the insatiable demands for new and different
products. But credit is most often given to
the foreign companies that market and distribute these
toys, not the manufacturers.
To many consumers, “Made
in China” means cheap plastic. Perceptions of
the quality of Chinese manufactures haunt even Chinese
themselves. David Tang, a Hong Kong industrialist,
markets his goods instead as “Made by Chinese” at
Tang department stores, such as the one
on New York’s toney Madison Avenue.
see a familiar pattern in China’s rise to dominance
in the toy industry. In the typical Asian development
profile, industrial manufacturing begins with low-end
manufactures, such as toys, then leads to electronics,
consumer appliances, and onwards to the production
of autos, ships, computers, and so on.
A generation ago “Made
in Japan” meant plastic transistor radios and affordable
cameras. Most economic forecasters believe China
is on a similar development path, only beset more
by the false starts and pitfalls of transitioning
But China’s industries
are already capable of producing the full range of
industrial products and China has indigenous technology
capable of producing and launching its own satellites,
for example. And dominance of a particular export
manufacture is not new to China.
Until the 19th Century
China so dominated the manufacture and export of one
product that, to this day, it lends its name to it:
China. Chinese ceramics and porcelain exports
exhibited great enterprise in matching consumers.
For European and American markets, exported China
featured idealized landscapes or royal crests of the
destination countries. For Muslim markets,
geometric patterns and Arabic calligraphy were used
Furby’s Chinese secret
is the return to the global economy of China's preeeminence
in production and export, and the sophisticated response
to changing consumer desires, that China’s economy
has demonstrated for centuries in a variety of products.
real winners, of course, are consumers as more and
varied goods are available at better (lower) prices.
Consumers not only outside China but within as well.
Chinese children want toys too and the obsession among
Chinese schoolchildren for tamagotchi (a hot toy from
a few years ago) shows just how large the domestic
toy market can be. At one point, Chinese schools
forbid students to bring the toys to class, as they
were a constant disruption. Tamagotchis, like
Furbies, were interactive.
Ultimately, the opinions of the online Russian community
reveal more about the consumer expectations of refugees
from the former Soviet Union’s inefficient and unproductive
economy than they do about Chinese toys. Rather
than focusing on the label, what should be appreciated
is that so many toys, of such varied type and price,
are now available.
CAlmes for Sinomania!, 1998. All rights reserved.