In Tanzania, the locals have a habit of referring to any poor-quality product as “kichina," which roughly translates to “a thing of China." Whenever a product breaks or is damaged when it ought not to be, people just shrug and casually blurt out, “Well, it’s kichina."

The comment is not particularly limited to Chinese-made products. In fact, the saying is used for all products, whether or not the product is from China.

The connotation is pretty clear: it goes without saying that Chinese products, among Africans, as they have among other people around the world, have acquired a negative reputation.

The reputation of “made in China" being synonymous with “low quality" is not particularly surprising. After all, China, being the “world’s factory floor," still remains the supplier of the world’s cheapest products, manufactured with dubious quality standards to ensure prices stay rock bottom.

These low prices ensure that they are exported to every rural, unidentified market around the world, to be lapped up by price-conscious consumers everywhere. This pattern is bound to continue as long as the world does not create a manufacturing power to rival China in scale.

The near monopoly of Chinese products in the lowest of low-end products is best reflected in the local markets here in rural Tanzania. Here, every knockoff from fake luxury brands to pirated DVDs can be found. Locals, with their extremely limited incomes, prefer these cheap knick-knacks to maximize the amount of “stuff” they can obtain.

But despite the obvious “liking” of the locals take to cheap Chinese products, it is still surprising to see the sheer quantities and proportions by with which Chinese products inundate the local markets. From the secondhand clothing on the poorest farmers, to humble everyday goods like bars of soaps and rolls of toilet papers, to more “high-end" necessities like motorcycles and electric generators, Chinese products make up the overwhelming majority. In fact, taking a walk through the local market to do a not-so-scientific quick survey of non-perishable items being sold, I find eight out of every ten products originate from China.

Such a high degree of dependency, even when taken into account the quantitative (if not qualitative) dominance of “made in China" anywhere in the world today, is extremely rare. This is true even in China, where increased wealth has seen shifting consumption patterns, one would not see such a high percentage of Chinese products being sold, bought and used by locals.

It is no wonder that, while walking around busy markets, one would hear so much “kichina" being said, whether it is referring to those easy-to-break goods, or more benignly, just products that come from China.

Indeed, if anything, those two meanings of “kichina” have fused into a single inseparable concept. Fully knowing that the cheap things they buy at the markets will break easily, locals still continue to make these purchases, constrained by their limited incomes and choices. Yet, because their limited incomes distort demands to favor cheap products that are easy to break, it only cements the market-leading positions of unreliable “made in China” at the expense of local consumers’ satisfaction. It is a situation that is a paradox and vicious cycle.

With such growing abundance of Chinese products, outbursts against “kichina" when something breaks are no longer just tirades against poorly made goods. Rather than “these Chinese products are so bad, I will never buy them again," the underlying meaning of these outbursts has become more akin to “these Chinese products are so bad, but what can we do?"

It is a dismayed rhetorical question for which the answer is something like, “Well, not much, since within few hundred kilometers radius, these products are the only ones of the kind that are sold."

In other words, I can interpret the anger toward cheap “made in Chinas” alternatively as anger toward the collective consumer behavior that made the local market full of these cheap “made in China” products in the first place.

In this scenario, the concept of “kichina” as a substitute word for “low quality” allows “made in China” to become a scapegoat for overall market conditions.

To reiterate, the fundamental problem of why “made in China” is so abundant, yet so hated, is the weakness of the markets.

Neither the suppliers nor producers see any reason to cultivate the local markets here in rural Africa. This is because:

1. The market value is so small and the number of markets so dispersed that losing the confidence of consumers in one market does not dent the overall operational reputation of the supplier/producer.
2. The spread of commercial information and brand awareness is so low that “kichina" is purchased in large quantities even if they are, well, “kichina."

The reality is if it were not for the above-noted market conditions, “kichina” do not need to be defined in such a negative way. To be completely fair, among the vast range of “made in China” products out there, there are genuinely cutting-edge, high-quality products that can out-compete the best of what Japan, US, or Europe can create. The problem is that these high-quality products from China do not end up in the rural markets of Africa. Instead, the suppliers supply these rural markets with the cheapest of the cheap, and lowest of the low quality, firmly believing (with strong confirmation from the local consumers) that those are the things that will sell and are the most profitable to sell.

As long as the suppliers stay up-to-date of the consumers’ needs of cheap things, “kichina" is here to stay and dominate the markets. Maybe one day a China that moves up in the manufacturing value chain will no longer be the chief supplier of “kichina," but there will surely be another country that steps in to ensure cheap, low-quality products continue to flow into rural markets.

This is capitalism at its cutthroat best; a market that does not become “picky" in its consumption habits will not end up getting any power to raise the quality of available products. Until African consumers have the luxury to abandon their collective fixation on price competitiveness, cheap and easy-to-break products, whether made in China or elsewhere, will be their only choices in life. Their love-hate relationship with “kichina” is bound to continue.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original piece was published on the author’s blog here: The Enigma of “Kichina."