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Furby's Chinese Secret
  Furby's Chinese Secret

    What "made in China" means today

WASHINGTON, DC   Christmas 1998 —In an online discussion group for Russian immigrants to the USA, a woman asked whether everything labeled “Made in China” was junk.








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.

       Her 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.

       The Christmas 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?

      Furby 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

      Hasbro, 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  his Shanghai Tang  department stores, such as the one on New York’s toney Madison Avenue.

      Economists 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  to socialism.

      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 as designs.

     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. 

     The 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.

©Ben CAlmes for Sinomania!, 1998. All rights reserved.