Opinion: Why “Made in China” Doesn’t Mean What it Used To

Many American scooter fans have a contentious relationship with the words “made in China” thanks to a tidal wave of lousy, no-name scooters that literally arrived by the shipload in 2008 and 2009. These impossibly cheap, notoriously unreliable, completely unsupported bikes did damage to the American perception of scooters that can be felt to this day. Perhaps the most damaging impact to that perception lies in creating a sense that scooters as a category should A) be cheap no matter what, and B) aren’t reliable transportation to be taken seriously.

Thankfully, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) actively worked to rid our shores of the overwhelming majority of these machines that were, frankly, unfit to carry the term scooter. Many of these machines didn’t meet EPA or DOT standards and their state registrations were eventually revoked — halting their sales and essentially quarantining them to off-street usage as pit bikes or “drunkcycles” used by people who never cared about quality in the first place. Some more established companies, such as CF Moto, even had to pay fines for machines that didn’t meet EPA regs.

To this day, most American scooter fans hear “made in China” and immediately dismiss a vehicle, no matter how many wheels it has. The scourge of Chinese-made scooters in 2008 and 2009, plus other scandals from toxic paint on toys to poisonous dog treats have given American consumers a well-earned distrust of many Chinese goods. Yet like most things, this is an incomplete picture of the industry at large, and of China as a manufacturing center. The reality has more nuance to it, and it’s in our interests to explore that nuance a little bit.

Firstly, we cannot paint all Chinese manufacturing with the same wide brush. If we put the nationalism aside, all things being equal, there’s no real correlation between geography and quality. Great products can be made pretty much anywhere at this point, and so can cheap stuff nobody should actually buy. Sure, not all contract manufacturers are created equal, but just as much responsibility goes to the company deciding what the product is, and to what level of precision they (and their customers) are willing to pay for.

Here’s the thing. Most Chinese manufacturers make what they’re asked to make. When they’re asked to make rubber dog crap, they make rubber dog crap. When they’re asked to produce premium products like iPhones, Macbook Pros, Hondas, and BMWs; that’s what they do.

Put another way, there’s a shared burden of responsibility here. This is not always a capability question. Many manufacturers in China are fully capable of making products at a level of precision and quality that rivals anywhere else in the world. Just look at Apple. It doesn’t get more demanding than Steve Jobs and his legacy. Yet where are their flagship products produced? Germany? The UK? No. China.

Likewise, plenty of manufacturers here in the States and around the world churn out worthless garbage every day. If we take prejudice out of the picture, the geography begins to matter very little. What matters is what we’re asking these facilities to produce, not where they’re located.

Let’s look to an example in a completely different industry: home goods. I had a conversation with one of the principal people behind the Misen chef’s knife, which recently exploded on Kickstarter. Part of Misen’s mission is to bring manufacturing of all their products to the USA as they mature. Yet as they went looking for an American contract manufacturer who could create their now famous chef’s knife to the level of precision and material specification they needed, they soon realized that no such manufacturer existed in the USA. They had to look overseas.

So fundamentally, the conversation here needs to change. Enough great stuff is being made in China at this point that we do ourselves a disservice by assuming that Chinese manufacturing automatically means a particular product isn’t any good. The proof is in the end product, not the country of manufacture. I’d argue that while we can draw some geographical correlation for engineering and innovation, it’s no longer accurate to say that China doesn’t make anything worth buying.

Genuine Motorcycles G400C

The reason I bring this up in the first place is because of the Genuine G400C motorcycle that just debuted here on ScooterFile. I’ve had my ear to the ground, so to speak, and some of the chatter I’ve been hearing online is basically:

This motorcycle looks great, unless it’s Chinese. If it’s Chinese then I’m out.

Thing is, I completely understand this reaction. There are a myriad of low-quality machines out there that are at best clones, and at worst knock-off of reputable brands. Yet it’s important to understand and acknowledge that there are also plenty of high-quality machines being built in China under contract for brands with rock solid reputations for quality. In the case of this bike, that was Honda. Does that make this a “Chinese” bike, though?

Sure, its engine and transmission are produced by a Chinese contract manufacturer. Yet this is not a “knock off” of some other bike. This facility produced a version of this bike for Honda, and it was sold in South Africa and other markets as the Honda CB400SS. The Genuine G400C engine, transmission and frame come from the same tooling, the same facility, and the same workforce that was good enough for Honda. So to dismiss this bike because it’s “Chinese” just isn’t accurate, and it misses the point entirely. (By the way, this same Chinese contract manufacturer currently builds whole vehicles for International and BMW.)

Yet even that isn’t the full story. Again, using the Genuine G400C as an example, one has to take the whole package into account, not just the engine and frame. When this bike was sold as a Honda, it was carbureted rather than fuel-injected. According to Genuine, they have spec’d 23 upgraded and revamped components for the G400C that arguably go above and beyond what was on the bike when it was sold as a Honda. Items such as the regulator/rectifier, the stator, the ECU, the ignition coils, and other key items were sourced from Genuine’s key suppliers in Taiwan — companies that provide similar parts for PGO, SYM, Honda and other manufactures that nobody would dismiss.

So it’s time for all of us to have a more sophisticated view of products made in China. Granted, it’s tricky. There’s still plenty of “buyer beware” that’s warranted. There are still plenty of political and economic complexities that that make globalization a challenging reality. For any manufacturing center, be it China, Taiwan, Japan, the UK, Germany or America; a myriad of factors go into that country’s reputation for quality. What we can say with confidence is that the days of Chinese manufacturers only producing products not worth having are over. I need look no further than the Apple Macbook Pro I’m typing this from to see that. In the end, quality is driven by what we as consumers demand from the brands we buy, not geography. We have to be careful not to throw a good bike out with the bath water.

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  • jamez1965

    I agree with this article 100%, but there’s something important I feel has been left out. The less a company pays the Chinese factory to manufacture their product, the worse the quality will be, simply because the manufacturer is going to try to maximize profits just like anyone else. Regardless of whoever else is using the same factory for the same product or facilities, if Company X pays them less, the factory will use cheaper, lower grade materials, and that generally would lead to a lesser quality product.

    • That’s precisely the point I’m trying to make. It’s really all on the company who is contracting the work. They decide how much quality they’re willing to pay for.
      Say I want to sell a run of t-shirts. If I source high-quality shirts made with fair labor and premium cotton and all that, those shirts will cost X. If I source really cheap, crappy shirts, those will cost Y. It’s still up to me as to which shirts I choose to sell. I can’t blame the vendor for the crappy shirts, because I chose to use them. I knew they were crappy, but used them anyway. I am not a victim of my vendor’s poor quality. They’ve given me exactly what I asked for. If I wanted higher quality shirts, I should have used the other vendor.
      The whole point I’m trying to make is that when you ask for (and pay for) good manufacturing, you can find it in China and many other places. When a company cheaps out and produces something low-quality, that’s on them, not the country where they had their crappy thing manufactured.
      That’s all part of the challenge of business. How do you balance cost with quality, and how do you promote and price something high enough to make a profit, but low enough that people will still buy it? Some manufacturers choose to chase the cheap end of the market. Others ask a premium price for their products, and get it.

    • None of that is to say that there aren’t crappy manufacturers out there. There certainly are. They exist in every country though, not just China.

  • David

    Apple is always the example held up when people are trying to make the case for China. Apple is not a powersports company though and so this is a case of comparing, ahem, apples and oranges. (Or maybe lemons.)

    I don’t know how good or bad the G400C is. That remains to be seen when actual production models make it to showrooms. What I do know is this: Upgrades, quality control, Honda engineering? I’ve heard it all before and then some. And every single time it has ended in disaster. TN’G, Argo, Baron, Qlink, CFMoto, Lance, Fly, etc. ad nauseam.

    Maybe Genuine has figured out how to succeed where all others have failed. I hope so. But if they have, there’s another problem: motorcycle buyers are much more brand-aware than scooter buyers. Marketing is going to be a massive uphill battle on a bike that isn’t drastically cheaper than the leading brands. (Regardless of how good they are, they can’t compete with Yamaha and Honda and Suzuki on quality so it will have to be price.)

    In summary, Genuine is no Apple, and a motorcycle isn’t a MacBook. To be a success it needs to be very, very good, price needs to be competitive (not just msrp but dealer cost too), and they better know how to sell ice to Eskimos.