U.S. Investors Drawn to China's Version of Detroit

Traveling through the industrial, fast-growing city of Chongqing in central China, NPR Senior News Analyst Ted Koppel is examining the connections between Chinese workers, business and consumers and their U.S. counterparts.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

The city of Chongqing nearly a thousand miles southwest of Beijing is China's fourth largest and probably its fastest growing. Chongqing is located on the Yangtze River and says it is China's Detroit. The city's not well known to the outside world, but it's a major magnet for American investors.

NPR's senior news analyst Ted Koppel is in Chongqing on a reporting trip, trying to understand the economic relationship between Chinese workers, U.S. business and consumers.

TED KOPPEL: I was interviewing this 17-year-old Chinese production line worker the other day. Mu Huen Ching(ph) is a spunky little girl who wears her company baseball cap at the jaunty angle.

MU HUEN CHING: (Foreign language spoken)

KOPPEL: The work is mind-numbingly boring, as production line work tends to be. The conditions though are fine - a large, spotlessly cleaned factory space, four assembly lines running parallel down the floor, about 350 workers - most of them young women and a few men - assembling DVD players that will end up a few weeks from now at your local Wal-Mart. Each worker drives in a couple of screws or snaps in a piece of plastic or wipes a shiny component free of smudges. Every unit is tested. And a monitor above the conveyor belt shows an endless sequence of an American military jet touching down on a carrier.

My interviewee said she earns about $100 a month, adding, to do this kind of job in the factory is a waste of my talent.

HUEN CHING: (Foreign language spoken)

KOPPEL: And then, she asked: Why are these DVD players so cheap in America while they are very expensive in China? Which, even after only a few days here in Chongqing, seemed a fair question.

The DVD players she and her colleagues turn out every day by the thousand are extremely cheap in the United States, which, I told Ms. Mu(ph), is largely due to the fact that she and her colleagues earn as little as they do. The fact is, China has about 900 million country dwellers, farmers and peasants for whom a salary of $100 a month seems like a lot of money. And they are flooding the cities, eager for just the kind of work being done by my new, young friend.

The other three to four hundred million Chinese who make up the biggest, fastest-growing middle class in the history of the world are making a lot more money, and it's burning a hole in their pockets.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

KOPPEL: I interviewed an elegantly dressed shopper who told me that her husband drives a Mercedes, she owns a fancy sports car, and her family has several other cars which she didn't identify. Just behind her was a rack of men's belts from France, $800 apiece. Belts, you know, those leather things you put around your waist to keep your pants up.

Didn't the lady think that $800 for a belt was ridiculous? Oh, no, she said, they're foreign, named-brand, a guarantee of high quality.

Agreed, many people on both sides of the world are becoming very rich because American and European shoppers want Chinese products, which are so cheap, while a growing legion of Chinese consumers are buying our U.S. and European-made products because they're so expensive.

It's a relationship that inevitably breeds resentment on both sides, among American workers, who feel they're being squeezed out of their livelihood and by the vast majority of Chinese who are still many years away from being able to buy the expensive goods that rich Chinese consumers are flaunting.

Given enough time, it's a relationship that will level out. But the Chinese government already has its hands full, suppressing thousands of angry demonstrations in the countryside, which it acknowledges but keeps hidden from prying Western eyes.

And we, of course, are in the middle of an election year, a time when patience for the slowly maturing relationship is likely to be in short supply.

This is Ted Koppel in Chongqing, China.

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