Politicians and CEOs around the world are gyrating over how to treat Chinese manufacturing after the pandemic. But the American consumer isn’t waiting for them to lead. U.S. shoppers already have begun making their statement with their pocketbooks. Heads of consumer-goods manufacturers and brands should pay attention.
In the past three months, there has been a grassroots uprising of anti-China, pro-American purchasing behavior. Sales of our American-made Liberty Tabletop flatware, for example, are up by about 130%, year-on-year, after peaking at a 220% increase; before the pandemic they were trending up about 20%. Add the “Buy American” attaboys we are getting in e-mails and social-media comments from dozens of customers, and the message is clear.
This phenomenon isn’t defined or confined by party and lives outside of the extremities of identity politics that we’re experiencing today. It is broad-based and nonpartisan. It includes those who are frightened by the job losses created during the pandemic and the lockdown of our economy and who want to support American manufacturing; those who newly see the Chinese government as a clear economic, political and military threat; Americans who’ve always been skeptical of the Communist regime in Beijing; extremely aware citizens who have become alarmed by our nation’s dependence on Chinese-made pharmaceuticals and defense equipment; and millions of consumers who now simply blame the Chinese leadership for allowing, then heedlessly spreading, and then cynically covering up the domestic impact of the coronavirus.
Two-thirds of Americans now say they have an unfavorable view of China, according to a national poll by the Pew Research Center. Interest in “Made in America” as a search term skyrocketed off the chart for a few weeks to a 16-year high, according to Google Trends. The change is sharp and extreme.
Clearly, anti-China rhetoric has heated up in Washington, but it’s the public leading the charge. In the 30-odd years I have been following the steady march toward a globalized economic and political structure, I have never witnessed anything close to the level of reversal we are seeing today from ordinary citizens. Politicians considering the electoral effects, and American manufacturing CEOs weighing the implications of realigning their supply chains away from China, may tread carefully. But meanwhile, the American consumer has sprung into action, and there is every indication that the trend will endure.
The last thing even resembling this was the mainly union-led consumer revolt against Japanese-made cars and electronics in the 1970s. This is different. The level and scope of anger that is brewing toward China right now is without precedent. Way beyond a few thousand job losses at an automobile plant in Detroit, this time many Americans are viewing our dependence on foreign-made goods as both a national-security vulnerability and a threat to our very sovereignty as a nation. They also recognize the benefits we would gain from the transfer of manufacturing jobs to the United States from China, especially as America tries to recover from the pandemic.
Up until the Covid-19 crisis, our trade war with China primarily had been fought in the government arena, via tariffs, World Trade Organization battles and bilateral jockeying. Many in Washington and in the private sector were sounding the alarm for more than a decade before President Trump’s recent sharp escalation of the struggle. But big-money globalist interests put up stiff resistance to Trump, Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and anyone else who wanted to reverse decades of globalism. The American consumer was marginally engaged in the issue, but real activism was limited in scope.
Now, the Chinese government’s actions have poked the powerful bear of the American consumer, whose contributions drive about two thirds of the U.S. economy – which not only remains the world’s largest and most powerful but also provides the biggest market for Chinese-made goods.
Exactly how the Chinese leadership will react to the staggering loss of trust—and commerce—on the part of its biggest customer remains uncertain. But regardless of what they might be able to negotiate politically with Washington, the Chinese government may have lost the American consumer for good.