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Poorly Made in China: An Insider's Account of the Tactics Behind China's Production Game [Hardcover]

Paul Midler
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 6 2009
Praise for Poorly Made in China

"This fast-paced travelogue through the world of Chinese manufacturing is scary, fascinating, and very funny. Midler is not only a knowledgeable guide to the invisible underbelly of the global economy, he is a sympathetic and astute observer of China, its challenges, and its people. A great read."
—Pietra Rivoli, author of The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy

"Paul Midler takes us for a ride through the fastest-growing economy in the world, revealing what can—and sometimes does—go wrong when U.S. companies shift production to China. Working in the heart of China's export hub, in the country's southern region, he has the advantage of a front-row seat to the no-holds-barred games played between manufacturers and importers. He introduces us to a cast of real-life characters and tells his story with a mix of affection and skepticism for what is taking place in China today. Midler delivers a revealing and often funny tale of life and commerce in a country whose exports touch nearly everyone on the planet."
—Sara Bongiorni, author of A Year Without 'Made in China'

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Product Description



Best Book 2009 (The Economist)

Best Book for Business Owners (Inc.

Great Finance Book of 2009 (Forbes

Best of 2009 Business Book (Library Journal

"Midler has upended a lot of the assumptions about this factory for the world." (Forbes

“A must-read for people engaged in mainland business.” (South China Morning Post

“Important, timely and entertaining.” (Taipei Times

“Most of the people in Mr. Midler’s position would not dream of disclosing what they see.” (The Economist

“Manages to be both instructive and entertaining.” (National Review

“A fascinating, funny and important book.” (Asia Times

“An invaluable book for anyone considering doing business in China.” (Epoch Times

“A lively dissection of the cultural clash.” (Malaysia’s The Star

“You won’t look at the label ‘Made in China’ the same way.” (Toronto Now

“His warning is worth heeding – is China listening?” (Business Times

"Plenty of laugh-out-loud moments." (Financial Times

“Strongly recommended.” (Bangkok Post)

From the Inside Flap

It was a world gone wrong, one in which manufacturers thought little of manipulating product quality levels in order to save the smallest amounts, where savvy foreign business leaders were made to feel in control while they were taken for a ride by their partners, where entire manufacturing facilities sometimes vanished right into thin air… Welcome to Poorly Made in China!

At the height of the boom export manufacturing, Paul Midler returned to East Asia, a recently graduated Wharton MBA. In the right place at the right time, he was sought out by a number of foreign companies who wanted help in navigating the new economy. The adventures came fast, as did the business and cultural lessons.

Poorly Made in China is a dramatic romp through China's export manufacturing sector, one that reveals what really goes on behind the scenes. The story follows the author from one project to the next, taking the reader through a diverse set of industries and revealing a number of challenges.

An engaging business narrative told with doses of humor and insight, this true story pulls back the curtain on the rising Chinese economy, providing a closer look at the rough-and-tumble environment in which so many of our consumer products are being made. For those trying to make sense of why so many quality failures could come out of China at once, this book is an especially interesting read.

Poorly Made in China is the tale of a modern-day gold rush and its consequences, the chronicling of a rising economic power and its path along a steep growth curve. Entertaining and eye-opening, the book highlights the extent to which culture affects business dealings, and the ultimate suggestion is that we may have more to be concerned about than product failures alone."

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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating book Jan. 24 2013
By AdrianS
This is a rare insight into the shady world of Chinese export manufacturing, where unscrupulous importers and even more unscrupulous manufacturers try constantly to outmaneuver each other in a ruthless pursuit of maximum profit - often with comical results. The production standards (or total lack thereof) described by Midler are hair-raising, but they provide a partial explanation as to how Chinese sweatshops are able to outcompete and slowly displace our industry.

As Midler concludes in the final pages of his book, we are not ready yet to open our trade to China, unless we are willing to go back to Dickensian living conditions in an endless race to the bottom. Something has to change, before it's too late.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Doing Business in China Aug. 29 2011
This book is a must read if you are considering dong business in China. It is well written and an easy read. Not pedantic but simply a story that is well told. The main lesson is trust no one and don't believe that a contract is binding.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good but where are the solutions? July 23 2010
The book is interesting. However, like so many books and videos on doing business in China, it describes the worst and omits to propose solutions. Mr. Midler talks about situations that I know to be real. However, as a consultant specialized in supporting companies in their Chinese ventures, the book proposes few strategies and processes that could be of some use to Western importers. If they read the book, the companies I work with will immediately look for suppliers in other countries than China, which is not THE solution (although I think its part of a global sourcing strategy). Again, an entertaining book for the list of horrors it describes and a not so good reading for those who believe their are ways of avoiding most of the problems described or dealing with the Chinese tactics used against our importers.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  132 reviews
75 of 79 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ON TARGET Sept. 23 2009
By Max Salvo - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Doing business in China and visiting factories there, I have witnessed many of the tactics that the author describes. While reading this book, I thought to myself over and over - "How True!".

My business experience in China is limited to one type of industry that has nothing to do with any of the industries listed in this book. Finding out that the Chinese employ the same tactics in completely different manufacturing settings was a wake up call for me. I believe the manufacturing arena in China is a type of "business culture" that is not fully understood in the West.

My experience has been dealing with small factories. We were not ordering hundreds or thousands of containers. These larger operations may be different (but I doubt it).

After reading this book I started thinking about how I once bought an item that was made fairly well. I bought the same item a year or so later and noticed a few things seemed to be made of less quality. Then another purchase a year or so later showed the item was barely worth owning. The quality had degraded in such a way that I decided to never buy again. This book explains how this happens when dealing with manufactures in China.

I recommend this book to anyone involved with doing business in China or someone who just wants to be educated on the subject.
45 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Like he was with me on every buy July 16 2010
By Man from New York - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have done business in China since 1986. I know from experience how tricky and dangerous it is, especially for the newcomer. Curiously Mr. Midler refers to suppliers in Shantou (Canton Province) and I too have many suppliers there. Apparently this behavior amongst the Chinese is across the board no matter what product you work with. And they don't care no matter what threats or promises you make. I actually had one supplier who told me he would no longer sell to me because "you complain too much"! No loss to me, easily replaced you can be sure. Communists or not, the almighty greenback is king in China but as Mr. Midler makes very clear, it is not going to get you what you think you contracted for. Something close, maybe, but not right on target. The Chinese screwed up so many of my shipments that I got the distinct impression that the translaters were interpreting my directions, not translating them. So I spent years learning to speak Mandarin. I am totally fluent now, have often been mistaken for being Chinese on the telephone by those who had not yet met me. No matter, I told them straight out what I wanted in their own language and STILL they basically did it wrong to shave off a few bucks to their advantage. I could never understand that way of thinking, in America we keep the customers happy to perpetuate our business with them, we do not consistently antagonize them. This book will open your eyes if you want to do business in China and if you are already there you cannot help but agree with everything he says. Pay close attention, he knows what he is talking about. They will go behind your back and try to deal directly with your customer, they will yes you to death and then do whatever they please without any regard for you or your customer. I can offer dozens of examples but the one that most illustrates this is the supplier who sent the advance samples for approval, they were perfect. He then went and made the million piece order to his own liking. It was a Halloween item to be made in Orange and Black, the 1000 piece advance samples were right on the money. When the order came in, it was made in Red and Blue. They told us the factory boss thought Orange and Black was a terrible color combination so he made what he thought was pretty. Hence we had a million red and blue product with ghosts and goblins and all printed on them, in red and blue and the words "Happy Halloween". THAT is when we transferred half our entire production of all products to India. We still do some business in China but had I read this book twenty years ago I never would have gotten involved in China at all!
I highly recommend this book, it is all true and frightening so use it well and be aware. Be very aware.
45 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very insightful book May 26 2009
By Renaud ANJORAN - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I really enjoyed this book. I control the quality of shipments in China myself, so I recognized many situations that I previously encountered. The book is peppered with excellent insights about Chinese culture. It is also often funny, and it is very easy to read.
I would specifically recommend this book to people who are curious about the manufacturing environment in China. They will discover a whole new world.
The only downside is that the book only describes situations where importers are unprepared and fall in the traps of unscrupulous Chinese suppliers. It is not perfectly representative, but it does a great job explaining why so many quality issues originate from China.
47 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unfettered Chinese capitalism April 27 2009
By Ronald D. Mccallister - Published on Amazon.com
Midler weaves his thoughtful and timely commentary in a provocative and thoroughly enjoyable format, using personal anecdotes and experiences to support significant conclusions regarding American business with China. As China rushes to expand trade, it is repeating many of the same mistakes made by U.S. manufacturers in our economic development. Midler's tales of aggressive cost reduction methods recalled the 'Muntz TV,' fabled in engineering circles for its approach to cost margin improvement: parts would simply be deleted until the TV barely functioned. The quality problem is less cultural than a reflection of intense cost competition. It demonstrates the need for China to develop consumer protection laws, OSHA-like rules, and stringent quality control if it intends to expand export trade with developed nations. Equally important, it demonstrates that American consumers need to insist that adequate standards and regulations be imposed on imported goods, from China and other `low-cost' sources.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars When outsourcing to China, it's buyer beware Dec 26 2009
By J. Michael Cole - Published on Amazon.com
There's something rotten in Southern China's manufacturing belt, but foreign importers are so lazy and bedazzled by the red-carpet treatment that nothing's being done to fix the problem.

A handful of noteworthy books have been published in recent years that attempt to weigh the impact of the world's intoxication with "made in China" products. Financial Times reporter Alexandra Harney's The China Price, an expose of the human cost associated with China's competitive advantage, readily comes to mind. More recently, Paul Midler, who for years worked as a consultant and go-between for American importers who descended upon China like sailors to a siren, explores another aspect of the ambiguous relationship -- the corporate machinations.

This isn't to say that Midler's book, Poorly Made in China, doesn't have a human element to it. Quite the contrary. Its pages are filled with individuals who truly come to life as they make their first excited steps in China, are courted, get deceived, become disillusioned and, quite often, resignedly do whatever it takes to keep their businesses running. The entire book is human theater, a well-paced and entertaining tale of egos hurt and ridiculous retribution, such as when the author, who perhaps had dug a little too deep, suddenly found it impossible to get a ride back home from the factory.

Despite the many cunning factory chiefs and wide-eyed foreign importers who form the dramatis personae in this book, Poorly Made in China has surprisingly little to say about the fate of the Chinese workers who have made it possible for China's giant wheel to start turning. We witness a brief, and ultimately pointless, public demonstration, and a handful of workers make the odd appearance, but the focus clearly isn't on them. Rather, what Midler exposes is the mechanism by which Chinese manufacturers have succeeded in drawing in foreign importers and, equally important, how they made it almost impossible to leave.

In this game, China has many elements playing in its favor. It has a mythical power of attraction, it knows how to unfurl the red carpet to make foreign investors feel like a million dollars, and, a major advantage over its would-be competitors, such as India and Vietnam, it has the infrastructure and adaptability to make manufacturing on a massive scale possible.

Midler's case studies show us the anatomy of the rise and fall of importers' relationships with Chinese manufacturers. In the early courting phase, Chinese manufacturers are the epitome of deference and show an incomprehensible (to foreigners) willingness to produce at almost zero-profit, which for obvious reasons proves irresistible to prospective importers. As the relationship matures and the importer becomes over-reliant on the manufacturer, however, small things start happening. Corners are cut. Ingredients are changed without notice. Bottles aren't properly filled, or the plastic becomes of lesser quality. Shampoo turns into Jell-O.

Guerrilla-like, the manufacturer sallies forth and retreats, making a profit by finding ways to cut on manufacturing costs, oftentimes at the risk of compromising the health of customers (at one point, Midler writes that he'd seen so much to worry about in the skin care products he was monitoring that he stopped using body wash and shampoo altogether). Worryingly, we learn the testing that would ensure product safety is often too costly and is passed on like a hot potato from the manufacturer to the importer, the retailer and, ultimately, to the consumer. On many occasions, the testing is simply not done. Equally disturbing is the fact that manufacturers often keep the list of ingredients secret, even from their clients.

Though Chinese manufacturers that succeed in bringing in foreign investment are celebrated and will sometimes score political points with Beijing, their involvement with importers also presents other lucrative, if not entirely kosher, opportunities. A recurrent one is counterfeiting: stealing an idea, replicating it -- the Chinese are past masters at this art -- and repackaging it while selling it for a fraction of the price charged for the real product. Another strategy, we learn, is to produce more than what is ordered by an importer and then to approach the retailer directly and offer the same item for less than the importer would ordinarily charge -- in other words, bypassing the middleman.

Midler's worries about the possibility of collusion among Chinese manufacturers and its impact on prices and quality are well founded. Over the years, Chinese manufacturers have formed tightly knit networks of sub-suppliers involving producers of raw materials all the way to makers of end products. Most company chiefs know each other, are part of the same family or went to the same business schools. Consequently, disillusioned importers who, after being burned once too often, threaten to shift manufacturing to the competition have a major handicap, while leaving the country altogether is out of the question, given the months that it takes to consolidate a business relationship. The possibility of collusion, and the weak government regulations and corruption that facilitate the process, also put foreign manufacturers operating in China -- such as Taiwanese -- at a clear disadvantage, as they are not part of that network and will therefore be charged more for raw materials and components.

Relationships are at their best when operations are small and at their inception. Once a manufacturer has gained what it sought and mired its client in Chinese quicksand, the quality of its product and its willingness to clean up its act drops, often dramatically. Despite this, as Midler shows us, importers will often show unnatural patience and a willingness to look the other way. For many, they've gotten in so deep that pulling out would mean corporate suicide. In fact, the book has its share of promising partnerships that, in the end, brought American companies asunder. So the silly dance continues, and consumers are the real losers. Toys, pet food, baby cribs, toothpaste -- the potential health hazards are the cost of our frenzied venture into China when neither we, nor the awakening giant, were ready for, or understood, the implications of what we were doing when we opened the gate and jumped in.

Poorly Made in China is an important, timely and thoroughly entertaining read that, inter alia, provides a warning about our future engagements with China in other fields, where we can expect it to act with equal selfishness and to treat its interlocutors as mere means to an end. The cost of that will likely make bad cheap shampoo but a trifle.

(Originally published in the Taipei Times on December 27, 2009, page 14.)
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