Big dreams behind our basic goods

You can probably find it stamped on the shower curtain you slide open in the morning, on the "souvenir of Nova Scotia" coffee mug you grab off the shelf, and on the running shoes you slip into.

It's the "Made in China" label.

Two-way trade between the United States and China exceeded $120 billion last year.

Many US firms now hungrily eye an emerging China market, hoping to become top purveyors of cellphones and other goods.

China pursues its own agenda, with marked success. Its trade surpluses with the US - the amount by which exports exceed imports - grew from $10.4 billion in 1990 to $85 billion last year.

China's beating its neighbors at the foreign-trade game. The share of imported footwear that the US bought from China, for example, shot from 9 percent in 1989 to 60 percent in 1999, according to the US Commerce Department.

The share from Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan fell from 51 percent to 2 percent.

Cheap Chinese labor means tempting deals. The US Army found itself in hot water this spring after word got out that it had requisitioned hundreds of thousands of berets made by the Communist giant.

In such stories, China is quite often cast as little more than an economic and political monolith.

We sent Beijing-based writer Shai Oster to southern China to report on the human dimension.

There are tough issues, to be sure. Women in Sichuan, from which many workers come, are sometimes lured by promises of work into forced marriages.

But Shai also found a strong community: people making more than just items for export, people piecing together better lives.

Reach us at work@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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