Florida City Tries to Ban Chinese Products

Upset over recalls and political issues, one city weighs a ban on Chinese goods.

Oct. 24, 2007 — -- Made in China. These three words appear in virtually every household, office or school.

But one Florida city is considering stopping, or at least slowing, the flood of computers, coffee makers, artificial Christmas trees and other Chinese-made goods its residents buy each year.

Palm Bay, Fla., is considering voting on whether to ban the purchase of products made in China. If it passes, this central Florida town of 107,000 would be the first in the nation to enforce a ban on goods from one particular country, according to industry watchers. Residents would still be free to purchase whatever goods they want, but the city itself would face restrictions.

Mayor John Mazziotti proposed the ban after the latest spate of Chinese-made toy and pet food recalls. He cites the questionable quality and safety of the goods, China's rights abuses, its record of pollution and the fact that American manufacturing jobs have been lost to China as reasons for proposing the ban.

Some of the items affected include desks, chairs, lawnmowers, tires and numerous other items.

"I don't think people have the slightest idea how much is from China," said Mazziotti. "I remind people every day. Pick up that label and see where it's made. You might surprise yourself."

But is this just a political statement with no teeth?

The ordinance as written has many exceptions. It only applies to Chinese-made products costing more than $50 or those in which more than 50 percent of parts are manufactured in China. In addition, the city may purchase a Chinese-made product if it is not available otherwise. Finally, if an alternative product, for example an American-made wheelbarrow or an Indian-made rain jacket, costs 150 percent or more of the cost of the Chinese-made product, the city can opt for the one made in China.

If the ban passes, Palm Bay will have to make additional efforts to avoid Chinese-made products. Currently small purchases are made by each individual city department, according to the purchasing and contracts division. They need only to obtain quotes for products or services above $2,500, which makes it easier for a department that needs to order stationery or buy a laptop or microwave oven. Ensuring it does not come from China will complicate a purchase.

Low-cost Chinese imports have saved U.S. consumers more than $600 billion in the last decade, according to a Morgan Stanley report. In that same period, prices in the United States have risen 16 percent, but they have fallen in nearly every category where China is the top exporter, according to author Ted Fishman in his book "China Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World." That category includes such products as laptop computers and toys.

Since he introduced the proposed ban, Mazziotti said he has received more than 70 e-mails -- 90 percent in support -- from residents of what he called his "blue-collar town."

Many Americans share the sentiment.

After the recall in August of millions of Chinese-made toys containing lead paint, 65 percent of Americans said they are making an effort to avoid buying products made in China, according to a Gallup poll conducted that month. In the same poll, 64 percent indicated they would pay up to twice as much for a product made in the United States instead of a similar Chinese-made product.

But is it even possible to avoid buying products from China?

Of all worldwide imports to the United States, 16.1 percent are from China, according to the Census Bureau. That makes China the second-largest trading partner for the United States, after Canada. From January to August of this year, the United States imported $205 billion worth of products from China. For some products, China often seems like the only source. For example, 80 percent of toys sold in the United States are made in China.

The idea of an economic boycott is not new. The U.S. embargo against Cuba, in effect since 1962, may be the most well known. Just last week, President George Bush imposed new sanctions on Myanmar (Burma) in response to a military crackdown on democracy protests.

Cities and states too have sought to influence policies around certain issues. During apartheid in South Africa, several cities, including San Francisco, divested from companies doing business in that country. In 1996, Massachusetts enacted a law that prohibited the state from purchasing services from companies doing business with Myanmar, which the Supreme Court later struck down. And several cities have declared themselves "nuclear-free zones," including Takoma Park, Md. In 1983, it passed an ordinance prohibiting the city from purchasing products produced by a nuclear weapons producer or investing in industries and institutions engaged in nuclear weapons production.

But no other city in the United States has enacted a ban on Chinese goods, according to Jim Brooks, manager for international programs at the National League of Cities. "I have not heard of such a broad, sweeping purchasing rule concerning China or, for that matter, any other country," he said. "Not in that kind of depth and breadth."

Doug Farquhar, program director for agriculture and trade at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said he also has not heard of a state law banning Chinese products. But he said Pennsylvania introduced a resolution urging Congress to restrict imports from China. "The resolution did not pass," Farquhar said. "But it got the attention of the Chinese consulate. They sent several dignitaries to our office."

At the Houston office of the Consulate General of the People's Republic of China, Jijun Fu, director for government relations and media, said this is the first time he has heard of a city attempting a ban on products from his country.

"It's unfair," Fu said. "If they are talking about quality, U.S., Japanese and European Union statistics show that 99 percent of products from China are good quality. Even for the 1 percent that are disqualified, you cannot blame it all on the Chinese producers. It is also the designer's problem."

Fu said the ban will not have an effect on trade between the countries, but pointed to the costs for the city. "Chinese products have a reduced cost for the American customer. They will suffer from this ordinance."

George Wang agreed. He is the president of the U.S.-China Exchange Association, which promotes economic cooperation between U.S. and Chinese local governments and companies and works with the National League of Cities. Wang said it is understandable that a city would propose a ban especially after the product recalls this year.

"But from a rational perspective, it's not the best way," he said. "This is not a two-country game. Globalization is a 200-country game. If jobs go to China, will they come back to the U.S. if you boycott Chinese products? If you dig into this issue, you will see it's not so simple."

Wang said that the city, as a rational consumer, would need to compare the benefit and the cost of avoiding Chinese products. "What you would like to do and what you can do are two different things," he said. "The consumer always goes where the price is lower."

That is exactly what worried Palm Bay Councilman Pat Woodward. He is opposed to the ordinance as currently written. Woodward said the logistics are unclear, such as determining if more than 50 percent of a computer is made in China.

"It's a question of expending staff resources on making those determinations. It would not be a wise use of taxpayer dollars," Woodward said.

He said he would support an ordinance to buy domestic rather than foreign as long as price and quality were equal. But he also said the city had more important things on which to concentrate. "I certainly understand the concern and frustration. I'm not sure local government is the place we want to practice international trade."

Mayor Mazziotti said the ordinance may be changed, including raising the $50 threshold because it may not be possible to find alternatives for many Chinese-made products. At a meeting last week, council members decided to schedule a workshop to more fully address the details of the proposed ban.

No date has been set for that workshop or for the final vote on the ordinance, according to the city clerk.

"Palm Bay is not going to change the world but this raises public awareness," Mazziotti said. "We are losing out on this war of economics. It's free trade for them but not for us."