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China Trade

About a dozen manufacturing workers greeted the ambassador from China during a recent visit. But instead of rolling out the red carpet, the welcome wagon waved picket signs and chanted. The ambassador was in Cleveland to talk with business managers about foreign trade opportunities in his country.

The protesters blame China and other countries for a gradual loss of factory jobs. According to the National Labor Committee, hundreds of thousands of manufacturing positions are sent to foreign countries each year. And factories that make bicycles, shoes and clothing have all but disappeared in the U.S. Jim Leadford is a union representative who led the protest.

Jim Leadford: Everyone in manufacturing, they're under that pressure, jobs being exported. It's China now, it was Mexico, Malaysia - now, China is the hot spot.

Household names like Mr. Coffee and Rubbermaid have moved some or all of their production to China and Mexico, and major northeast Ohio employers like Ford and General Motors are building facilities overseas. Union leaders are trying to stop the exodus on humanitarian reasons. They say U.S. companies exploit foreign workers by paying slave wages and making them toil in terrible conditions. Leadford says the government should not allow products made under those circumstances to be sold in the United States.

Jim Leadford: The final issue comes down to the laws of the United States because these corporations, they're going to do anything they can, if they ain't breakin' the law they're gonna do it. We need some content laws on products here, the other countries have em' and we need tariffs to make it a fair playing field. You can't run off somewhere and pay 50 cents an hour or 180 bucks a month and expect an American worker to compete just with the wage issue.

While the protesters marched outside, Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi was getting a warmer welcome from the business crowd. He admits Chinese factories are not perfect, but says generally conditions are good and improving. Mr. Jiechi even invited critics to visit his country to see for themselves. He also argues that the Chinese are not taking U.S. jobs, and reminds Americans that low-priced products are welcomed by U.S. shoppers.

Yang Jiechi: The Chinese and the U.S. economy actually complement each other. The Chinese products sent to this country are mostly not being manufactured in the United States. So China and the United States are not competitive in that sense. And the inexpensive good quality chinese products to this country actually help the U.S. economy and they also serve the needs of a large number of customers, consumers in this country.

Mr. Jiechi says trade is a two-way street, and nobody complains when northeast Ohio manufacturers sell their goods in his country.

Yang Jiechi: I don't think that they are cutting into the U.S. labor market, because one has to look at the whole, the U.S. also exports a lot to China and your exports to China also help to create jobs in the United States.

The Ohio Department of Development reports that China is the state's eighth largest market for exports and it's the fastest growing. In three years Ohio's exports to China have increased by 54%. It's mostly heavy industrial products and equipment used to build things like factories, roads, and other infrastructure in the developing country.

Supporters of using foreign labor say it allows companies to concentrate on other aspects of their business. David Yen is the executive director of the Cleveland office of the World Trade Center. He says managers are freed up to spend more time on sales, customer service and research and development.

David Yen: Sourcing components and products and some raw materials from abroad is one of the tools they can use to become globally competitive. Frankly, companies that aren't looking at international sourcing may find themselves at a disadvantage because there are French or European or Japanese or Singaporean competitors are in fact going to some of those other sources of supply to drive down their manufacturing costs.

Right now there's no reason for U.S. companies to stop moving their plants to find cheap labor. Yen says it's a reality northeast Ohio needs to face if it is to flourish.

David Yen: We can take one of two positions. We can either hunker down and pretend that the rest of the world doesn't exist and that global competition isn't there. In which case I think we can certainly expect that our manufacturing is going to go down the toilet, or we can fully exploit the opportunities that exist out there, make the best products that we can, outsource the things that we don't do as well in order to reduce our manufacturing costs and embrace partnership and foreign markets and foreign sourcing and alliances, anything international that can help to produce a better product and a better standard of life for people in Cleveland.

Organized labor has other ideas. Harriet Applegate is a national field representative for the AFL/CIO.

Harriet Applegate: If Chinese workers were to organize for better wages and working conditions companies wouldn't be so quick to move and also those that did it wouldn't be such a bad thing because at least people in China would be able to make a living wage, that sort of thing.

Applegate says consumers are also responsible for the growing loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. She says people shouldn't make buying decisions based on price alone, if they don't want to support Chinese imports.

Harriet Applegate: It's important for us as a country not ought be isolated from the rest of the world. Not to be inward looking and not outward looking. We have benefited for many years from the wealth that has been produced from cheap labor and under oppressed conditions. Americans need to have a better understanding of just how things get to their consuming door step.

Labor leaders also say American companies owe U.S. workers loyalty for the financial help they have received in the past. Applegate says the same companies that are moving their factories have enjoyed things like tax breaks and publicly funded roads and utility systems. In Cleveland, Mike West, 90.3.