By the year 2020, America is outsourcing virtually all its manufacturing, most of it to China. We depend on them for almost everything we buy and sell; without them, our economy would collapse. That dependence threatens to become fatal when economic war is declared on America by a hostile Chinese government and all products “Made in China” suddenly disappear, cut off at their source.
Seattle-based systems engineer Jack Conway fi nds himself the point man for America’s response to China’s embargo. His new position puts him and the woman he loves in extreme danger, as they become the targets of hired hit men in a deadly game of industrial espionage and international intrigue. These ruthless killers will stop at nothing to protect the Chinese agenda. Meanwhile, America faces its greatest challenge since World War II: the revival of the nation’s moribund factories and industries.
MADE IN CHINA is an informed look at America’s reaction to economic embattlement; it is also a love story, as two people discover how far they will go not only to protect their country, but to preserve their relationship and the life they hope to share. As America outsources more and more work to foreign soil, Reutlinger gives us a frightening glimpse into the future toward which we may be headed.
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Made in China
By Mark Reutlinger
abbott pressCopyright © 2012 Mark Reutlinger
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe slender Asian man paused at the top of the stairs, fumbling in his coat pocket for a cigarette. His suit jacket hung on him loosely, his slight build seldom filling out the clothes he bought. Finally he found the packet he was looking for and almost angrily pulled it free. Back home in Beijing, no one was forced to leave the building just to smoke a cigarette, but here in America—
He looked up when he heard the door open behind him. Was he to be joined by another smoker, another victim of America's obsession with health and "wellness," a term that was not even found in his dog-eared English–Chinese dictionary? He turned to see who was behind him.
"Oh. Are you—?"
And that was as much as he managed to say before he saw what the man with the briefcase had come to do. And once he had seen, it was too late to react. Instinctively he turned his face away just as the heavy metal sap—wielded expertly, as a golfer would swing a five iron—collided with his skull. He made no sound as he collapsed like so much loose linen onto the hard surface of the stairway.
His body rolled downward in a bumpy, uneven rotation, making two or three revolutions as it struck stair after stair. He came to rest, in a most unnatural-looking position, on the landing below, his legs splayed out like broken spokes of a wheel. Close behind followed a trail of white cigarettes, some still rolling toward him, as if to offer themselves as comfort at this time of need.
And just behind them came the man with the briefcase, which once again concealed his weapon. He stopped and looked down to examine his handiwork, considered himself satisfied, and turned to leave. Then, having a second thought, he bent over, picked up one of the scattered cigarettes, examined it for a moment, and rose. Drawing a lighter from his pocket, he lit the cigarette, an excellent Chinese blend. He gave the little man's body an extra kick for good measure, and then he continued on his way.
* * *
Jack Conway was not smoking a cigarette, but for the first time since he kicked the habit, he felt like he needed one. It was midafternoon. Sitting on a hard bar stool in the Blue Moon Tavern, Jack lamented the loss of a job he dearly loved and contemplated his future.
It was May in Seattle. Outside, the bright sunshine illuminated a cloudless sky. The glorious weather of spring 2020 more than made up for the wet winter just past.
But for Jack, it might as well have still been December.
"Unemployment's something you never think much about—it's what happens to other people," Jack said as the bartender brought his scotch and soda. "Then suddenly it's your problem too."
Jack almost never stopped for a drink on his way home from work. Today was different; he was making the trip for the last time.
The bartender, a balding veteran of the trade named Marty, could only sympathize. It was not just that sympathy is part of a bartender's job. No, he knew the feeling well, from personal experience.
He tried to commiserate. "Yeah, it stinks. But you got a lotta company these days. I see guys like you in here all the time."
Jack doubted it. He was not your average unemployment-line denizen. Although he had never been socially adept, having a fragile ego that had been dented by rejection more than once, as an engineer Jack was the epitome of confidence and success. At age thirty-eight, he had never before been out of work, at least not since graduating from college fifteen years earlier. He had majored in industrial engineering at U.C. Berkeley, had done very well, and had been hired immediately upon graduation by Monsanto, one of the country's industrial giants. Although he had moved around a bit, always looking for a better opportunity and a higher salary, each move had been voluntary and seamless.
"I'm sure you'll get another job real quick," Marty said, closely examining the hygienic condition of the rag with which he was drying a glass. He hadn't any reason to think so, but he believed encouragement as well as sympathy was expected of him.
"It's not so easy these days," Jack said. He pushed away the rest of his drink and rose to leave. "Jobs are scarce, especially in my line of work. Besides, I was really happy at my company. I'm not likely to find another one like Prestige."
"What kinda company's that?"
Jack didn't feel much like talking, but he also didn't feel much like moving on, so he sat back down and answered. "Prestige Industries is a century-old manufacturer of specialized machinery for the garment industry."
"Yeah? Never heard of it. What'd you do there?"
"I'm a systems engineer. My job was to evaluate and improve the production process at Prestige to make it more efficient and cost-effective. We had seven plants scattered around the country, and we had some of the best machines in the industry. In fact, sometimes we had the only machines. Our motto was 'Profit with Prestige.' It was a pretty good sales slogan, maybe because it was true."
"So if it was such a good product, why'd you lose your job? Did ya screw up somehow? Or did the boss give the job to his nephew? I heard of that happenin'." Marty accompanied this last remark with a knowing wink, which Jack ignored.
"Neither one, actually, although in a way I'd rather it was the nephew story. No, I lost my job because the company was sold. To a Chinese conglomerate called NKB. All the American plants are being closed down." His tone was bitter.
Suddenly the bartender, who had been only half-listening to his customer's tale, became both interested and animated.
"Shit, the Chinese are takin' over everything! Same thing happened to my brother-in-law. Used to work for a company down in Tacoma, makin' builders' hardware—you know, hinges, doorknobs, fancy handles, that kinda stuff. Real nice, too—we got some on our house—got 'em wholesale, y'know?"
"So Hank—he's my brother-in-law—he worked there over ten years. Local company, but turns out it was owned by some big outfit in St. Louis. One day last year, the boss tells him he's through. Just like that. Shuttin' the place down. Seems they couldn't compete with the stuff comin' in from China. Real crap compared to what they'd been makin', but with the cheap labor ... Shit, who cares whether it works or not these days, long as it's cheap."
Jack nodded again. "So did some Chinese conglomerate buy your brother-in-law's company too?"
"Hell no, the bastards in St. Louis just closed 'em down. Now they buy their hardware from China. Put their name on it, sell it as if it were the same stuff Hank's outfit made. Chinese crap dressed up in a fancy package."
Jack didn't know whether he felt better or worse for having heard the bartender's tale. Misery may love company, but it was depressing to realize that his story was being played out in so many other places, so many other industries, across America every day. And its victims covered the labor spectrum: blue-collar workers like Hank, white-collar workers like Jack, even executives and CEOs.
The stampede to outsource overran them all.
Chapter TwoIn Jack's case, the end had come swiftly and unexpectedly.
That morning, Jack's boss, Jason Reed, had called him into his office, suggested he sit down, and told him the bad news: Prestige was being sold, and all of its operations were going overseas. It was not easy for Jason to tell anyone they had lost their job—and he had been doing little else that day—but Jack was also a personal friend. Tall and heavy-set, Jason resembled a very sad and very large teddy bear as he spoke: "Prestige isn't exactly going out of business. It's being sold to NKB Industries. I take it you know who they are."
"Sure. They're that huge company set up a year or two ago by the Chinese government, aren't they? And they already make machines that compete with ours. Some of their people have been snooping around here the last couple of months."
"That's right. And part of the package, unfortunately, is the closure of all of our US manufacturing plants.
"Jesus, all seven of them?"
"Yep. A clean sweep."
It took Jack a minute to recover from what Jason had said. He got to his feet and began to pace. He turned to Jason and said, "I really don't see why the company is being sold at all. I know we've lost business in the last few years, but we've been holding our own in the market, haven't we?"
"Well, yes and no. Since most of the garment industry moved overseas, we've found ourselves trying to sell our machines either to foreign companies or to American companies with plants overseas, mostly in China. That's gotten harder and harder, especially now that giants like NKB are selling knockoffs of our machines for half the price."
"Why not? With the wages and working conditions over there—"
Jason cut him off. "Yes, yes, but the point is that more and more we're trying to sell to people who have no particular interest in buying American or buying quality. And we're competing with companies that have far lower costs. It really isn't any different than what's happened in other industries in the last twenty years; there's hardly a manufacturing job left in this country. And to make matters worse, lately we've found ourselves competing not only with the machinery from China but with our own products, stripped from abandoned plants and thrown onto the market for a fraction of their original cost!"
There was a long silence.
"So now NKB just buys up the competition and closes it down."
"That's right. They get the Prestige name—"
"And we get the shaft!" Jack was now becoming angry, as his rising voice testified. NKB wasn't buying the finely tuned production line he had worked so many years to perfect. All they wanted was the Prestige name. How ironic, he thought. In effect, they're buying Prestige for its prestige! He turned away to compose himself. When he turned back to Jason, he had calmed down a bit, and his tone was more subdued.
"I knew NKB was interested because I've seen and talked with some of the people they sent out here to look over the company. But I'd also heard there was an American buyer who had an inside track and who I assume would have kept the company here."
"Actually, there was. And I wish the deal had worked out. But in the end, NKB stepped up and offered more money, and—well, you know how it goes. Can't tell the shareholders you took less for the company for sentimental reasons, can you?"
Jack didn't think continuing to employ American workers and use American suppliers was just sentimental, but he let it pass. There was nothing to be gained by arguing with Jason over it.
"The good news, though," Jason said, trying to sound more cheerful, "is that you're not actually being laid off. Although most of the company's products are now going to be made and sold in China and other parts of Asia, where most of the garment manufacturing is, they still plan to keep an office here and sell some of their machines in North and South America."
"Oh sure. More likely they plan to keep a token presence here in America to make it look like it's still the same company."
"Whatever. The point is that as the person who knows the nuts and bolts—literally—of Prestige machines better than practically anyone else in the company, you're being offered the position of sales representative for the entire region. And with no change in salary."
"So unlike the poor stiffs in the factories who're losing their jobs, they still have a use for me, eh?" Jack's tone was more resentful than grateful.
"Well, yes. I guess that's what it comes down to." Jason looked almost embarrassed.
When Jack did not look suitably relieved or impressed, Jason added, "Look, some people would say that being the sole representative on two continents of a multinational company was, if anything, a promotion."
"Maybe. But I'm an engineer, not a salesman. I spent two years on the sales side just after I left Monsanto, and I didn't like it."
What was harder for Jack to explain was his difficulty with getting his head around the idea that instead of being an important cog in the process of manufacturing a product whose name was associated with the finest American workmanship, he would be a shill for an inferior product that had earned none of that reputation and would merely be masquerading under that name. Only NKB, he thought bitterly, will "Profit with Prestige."
Jack and Jason talked for a while longer, examining Prestige's position—and Jack's future—from different angles. But at last there was simply nothing left to discuss. The deal was a fait accompli, and Jack's choices were limited to two: stay or go.
Jack asked for a few days to think over the offer, and Jason, who appeared to be no happier about the situation than Jack, agreed.
"I perfectly understand your reluctance," he told Jack, "and I share your point of view, but to be honest, there just aren't that many other options out there." Jason explained that he himself had been offered a new position, reporting directly to upper management—one he did not really relish taking. "But I swallowed hard and took it because I really had no better choice. I'd advise you to think very carefully before turning this sales position down. You could find yourself unemployed for a long time."
Jack thanked him for the advice and said he would keep that in mind.
* * *
Jack took the rest of the day off. There was hardly any point in returning to work. It was already after 4:00 p.m. After stopping at the tavern for a drink to calm his nerves and his chat with Marty the bartender, he headed for home. Annie would probably be there; she worked part-time and mostly from home.
But as he drove out of the tavern's parking lot, Jack found himself turning left instead of right—back toward the office instead of toward home. Somehow he couldn't see any possibility of taking the NKB offer, so he thought he might as well tell Jason and get it over with. He also wanted to pick up some papers from his office that might help him begin a search for a new job.
It was therefore quite late in the afternoon when Jack arrived back at Prestige. He had phoned ahead, and Jason had assured him that he would wait for him. He took the familiar elevator ride to the top floor, using his pass card that admitted him to the tightly secured building and its elevator for what he realized might be the last time.
The building seemed deserted. As promised, however, Jason was still in his office. He greeted Jack's decision with equanimity, but he clearly thought Jack was making a mistake. "Do you realize how few major assembly lines are still operating in this country? And how few jobs like yours are out there? It's been years since American companies made much of anything over here. I'd be surprised if there were a dozen assembly plants of any size left in the country."
Jack sighed. "I'm aware of the limited market for my talents. But I'm sure eventually whatever jobs are left will open up, and when they do, I think I'm good enough to get one. Meanwhile, I might have to learn twelve ways to say, 'You want fries with that?'"
Jason didn't laugh. He just shrugged and said, "Well, I admire your nerve, but I'm not sure I admire your common sense."
"Maybe—but I wouldn't be happy as a salesman for a Chinese knockoff version of the products I worked with for so many years."
Jason nodded. Looking very tired and with a note of sadness in his voice, he said, "In your place, I don't think I'd have the nerve to take a chance on finding another job that pays as well, makes as good use of my talents, and offers me at least a modicum of self-respect. I don't particularly like the new position I've been offered—it's distasteful in many ways—but I like the prospect of unemployment even less. I guess the truth is I'm afraid to go back out into the world without a lifeline."
Hearing Jason admit to having the same fears he was feeling sent a chill down Jack's spine. But it was too late to turn back.
"Well," Jason said, trying to sound upbeat, "until we fill your position or you find another one, you can still change your mind. So don't close the door completely."
He came around his desk and stood before Jack, slightly shaking his head, as if he still couldn't quite understand his friend's decision. Jason embraced Jack briefly, opened the door for him, and patted him on the back as he left.
Jack decided to take the stairs down instead of the elevator, both for the exercise and to give himself a chance to think about what he had just done before he actually left the building and, symbolically, his security.
Excerpted from Made in China by Mark Reutlinger Copyright © 2012 by Mark Reutlinger. Excerpted by permission of abbott press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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