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In May 2020, the Chinese and Indian armies clashed on the Ladakh border and 20 Indian soldiers were killed. In the resulting anti-China patriotic fervor, Indians began boycotting all Chinese products. The Indian government even banned hundreds of Chinese apps including popular ones like Tiktok. These apps were collecting data on Indians and sending them to China, which obviously was a big no-no as we were on the brink of war with them.
Make in India VS Make in China
Boycotting Chinese was fine. But the problem was Indian products weren’t just good enough or simply didn’t exist. Like mobile phones for instance. The Indian brand, Micromax which had once dominated the phone market, was now an outdated brand whose features were no match for the Chinese phones. Fortunately, we had an option in Samsung, a South Korean brand. During those days of patriotic fervor, I myself bought a Samsung phone for my daughter. This even though a typical Chinese phone offered more value for my money. It was an opportunity for Samsung to grab the market, and it did so till China suddenly went into reverse gear.
Why did China retreat?
In mid-Feb 2021, the Chinese army abruptly ended its 9-month long standoff with India in the Himalayas, and retreated leaving us Indians jubilant but somewhat nonplussed. Losing face is like the biggest no-no for the Chinese. So why did the Chinese willingly lose face in front of the whole world? Looking back, I think there were several reasons for China’s unexpected retreat.
Losing face, big time
China must have realized that it stood to gain very little if it went to war with India. Sure it was losing face by retreating but it could be much worse. Though India was the underdog, it had already demonstrated itself to be a pugnacious, battle-hardened opponent unlike the Chinese army of soft little emperors (a term denoting the spoilt brats of China’s single-child era). In fact, the Indian army had humiliated China twice in the recent border clashes and seemed to be eager to avenge its defeat in the 1962 war.
Besides, India was engaging with China at several non-military fronts, which was putting China’s misdeeds in the spotlight for the whole world to see.
Drawing attention to human right violations in China
Ordinary Indians had gone ballistic on the internet to draw attention to China’s misdeeds including the use of free slave labor of the Uighurs and Falun Gong in their manufacturing industries.
That revelation pales in comparison to the exposure of China’s massively profitable organ harvesting business, which history will possibly rate as the most inhumane genocide of all time (my next article will be devoted to this).
Emboldening more countries to call China’s bluff
The bad press of the clash with India was also exposing the malevolent intent behind Chinese global activities like the Belt & Road Initiative. Many of China’s debtor countries were emboldened by India’s standing up to China. In fact, Kenya announced it would not hand over their port to China. To sum up, Xi Jinping's grand plans are beginning to fall apart.
Uniting the Opposition
The recent QUAD summit showed that India was capable of uniting countries to present a joint front against Chinese aggression. This joint action by the USA, Japan, Australia, and India is harder to ignore than a protest by a single country.
On the economic front, China was bleeding badly as a result of its trade disputes with the US and to a lesser extent because of the Indian market
closing up. Also, Joe Biden has been showing signs of revving up the anti-China stance advocated by his predecessor, Donald Trump. With US companies like Apple relocating to India, China must have realized that it made more economic sense to lower the heat on the Indian war front.
The results have already started showing. Xiaomi, the Chinese mobile phone giant recently made ₹500 crores on just one of its brands in two weeks. See the news clipping.
A few days ago, Iran and China signed a massive deal to counter the Western alliance against Iran’s nuclear ambitions and China’s aggression. This is a bit surprising as China has been viciously suppressing the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities for years. Iran probably had no choice as they have been under sanctions from the West for their own actions. But other Muslim countries are finding it harder to swallow China’s anti-Muslim stance and pretend all is fine. This may account for Pakistan’s recent peace moves towards India.
Is slave labor the secret of China’s low prices?
In the last few weeks, a series of exposes have indicated that China may be using a million or more Uighurs as forced unpaid laborers in their cotton industry. Companies like H&M and Nike have finally been forced to face up to the facts, and reluctantly question the Chinese government. In its typical big bully fashion, China has shut down H&M stores in China for daring to question it.
Just think about that for a moment. A million people working for free.
That gives China a huge edge in pricing which could help it completely capture the global cotton market, put its competitors out of business, and become a monopoly.
Is this a far-fetched idea? I don’t think so. It sounds like a very Xi Jinping-like idea. Big in size, big in impact, and totally amoral.
Have we been supporting slave labor?
Here’s the thing. We have no clue if cotton is the only industry that China is using slave labor in to drive down costs. The linked article would indicate that many more industries are taking advantage of slave labor. Here’s an excerpt from that article, and don’t miss the irony of it being called ‘Xingjiang Aid.’
In March 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a report Uyghurs for sale: ‘Re-education’, forced labour and surveillance beyond Xinjiang, which identified 83 foreign and Chinese companies as allegedly directly or indirectly benefiting from the use of Uyghur workers outside Xinjiang through potentially abusive labour transfer programs. ASPI estimates at least 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang and assigned to factories in a range of supply chains including electronics, textiles, and automotives under a central government policy known as ‘Xinjiang Aid’. The report identified 27 factories in nine Chinese provinces that are using Uyghur labour transferred from Xinjiang since 2017.
After China and India clashed on the border, I had tried to avoid buying Chinese products but I haven’t been too successful.
I did get my daughter the Samsung M31 phone, from the Korean giant. It’s a good phone, but the underpowered Samsung Exynos chip meant that my kid kept borrowing her mother’s iPhone SE 1 every time she wanted to make a video.
The only other electronic device I bought in that period is a pair of wireless buds (the equivalent of the Airpods) by an Indian company called Boat. Turns out this company is importing it from China, and then selling it in India. Made me feel silly. The quality is not bad though one of the buds shuts down once in a while for no reason. Meanwhile, my daughter received the One Plus buds as a gift from her aunt. It’s a Chinese brand, and she says it’s very good.
When quality takes on patriotism
Anyway, a few days ago, one of my patriotic friends decided to buy the Redmi Note 10 Pro by the Chinese company, Xiaomi. The Redmi Note series is probably India’s best-selling phone, and this one claims to be made by Xiaomi factories in India. So technically, it’s a phone made in India.
My friend told me he has no choice but to buy Chinese as there are simply no options except for Samsung and Apple. Samsung can’t match Xiaomi in features, while Apple’s sky-high pricing rules it out (it’s also made in China). My friend’s current phone, the Redmi Note 4 is falling apart after four years of rough use. He says if there was a non-Chinese option, he would take it but there just isn’t.
Since I’m a bit of a gadget freak, my friend had asked me to help him identify a good phone, and I had to admit that the Chinese Redmi Note 10 Pro was the best value for his money.
What I had not bargained for was that my being a gadget freak would lead to my being sucked right back into the consumerist buying frenzy. After all, I insist on high-performance phones but hate spending more than Rs 20,000 on one, and I didn’t think you could match my expectations at that price. Right?
Wrong! While researching mobile phones for my friend, I came across a flagship phone with an exchange offer. They were giving over ₹10,000 for my Poco F1 phone which I had bought for ₹14,000 two years ago (an exchange price for my Redmi Note 4). Add the cashback that was being offered for my credit card, and I would just be paying ₹17,000 ($227) for the phone.
Xiaomi’s marketing was bang on. I was snagged, hook, line and sinker and dragged back into the consumerist world which I thought I had escaped.
The phone in question was the Mi 10T, a premium phone from Xiaomi’s flagship Mi series. That juicy jargon on the pack is a clue to what drove me to spend hours watching YouTube reviews of the phone. I learned that though the phone has quite a few compromises, I can live with them. Like it doesn’t have an AMOLED screen, audio jack, wireless charging, the Pro version’s 108-megapixel camera with OIS (optical image stabilization) and the base model has just 6GB RAM. The lack of the flat AMOLED screen was the only thing that bothered me, but the rest was manageable. However, I have never used an AMOLED so I wasn’t going to miss it, and the Mi 10T screen although not really flat, is rated among the best ever phone LCD screens.
The idea of buying a Chinese phone still bothered me. But I told myself the phone was ‘Made in India’ (see red patch on the pack). Reassured that there was no slave labor involved in its making, I hit the ‘Buy’ button.
‘See no evil’ isn’t working
The truth is I conveniently ignored the fact that parts of the phone are made in China. In fact, the phone’s charger clearly states it is. This means the phone is just assembled in India, rather than being made here. Though it’s unlikely, I can’t rule out the possibility that the Chinese-made components could be made with slave labor.
If so, is that how Xiaomi is pricing its phones so low and killing off the competition? I have been using that Mi 10T for a few days now, and it’s a marvel of technological perfection. The exchange price, including credit card cashbacks, is hard to beat for a phone with a flagship 865 Snapdragon chip.
When push came to shove, I skipped the exchange deal as Amazon was selling it for ₹27,000 without the exchange offer. So I took that deal and should be able to easily sell my Poco in the used phone market for ₹10,000. All in all, I felt pleased with myself for having got the phone for a net price of just ₹17,000 or $227.
But deep down, I feel guilty. Is my appetite for cheap stuff helping perpetuate China’s slave labor? I gave China the benefit of doubt but was I right to do so?
Only transparency can prevent others from falling into the same trap.
If the world is buying stuff made in China, it has every right to insist on the right to visit those Chinese factories and verify human rights are not being violated. And if China refuses, the world needs to say no to Chinese products.
Else, we will all have blood on our hands.