In the lead-up to Saturday's South Carolina primary, Democratic presidential candidates warned in dire terms of the dangers posed by China’s growing economic power.
But some of the state's residents don’t seem to share this fear of Chinese business interests.
If you live in Camden, S.C., drive down Broad Street, the town’s major thoroughfare, past the site of a major Revolutionary War battle in 1781 and turn left on Black River Road, and you'll come to a factory owned by Chinese giant Haier, which makes refrigerators, air conditioners, washing machines, dish washers and other goods.
Opened in March 2000, the factory employs 240 people and produces household refrigerators and freezers. It was the first example of direct investment by a Chinese manufacturing firm in the United States, according to South Carolina's commerce department.
Spending money on fish lunches
“Mostly on Fridays, one or two people from the plant come in; they usually pick up five or ten orders; they usually spend anywhere from $20 to $35,” said Dianne Sheheen, who owns Camden Seafood, a busy shop on Broad Street in Camden that sells fresh-cooked fish dishes for takeout customers.
According to Nelson Lindsay, director of the Kershaw County Economic Development Office, Haier “pays several hundred thousand dollars in property taxes to the county and the school district each year.”
Company officials declined to be interviewed for this story.
Haier will soon get some Chinese compatriots in South Carolina: on Friday, a Chinese firm called American Yuncheng Plate Making announced that will open its first North American manufacturing facility in Spartanburg, S.C.
The company, which makes cylinders used for packaging, decoration, and textile transfers, is expected to invest $10 million and create 120 new jobs to Spartanburg in the first five years of its operations.
All this goes on apparently unnoticed by the Democratic presidential contenders who’ve spent the last three weeks campaigning in South Carolina. They have focused instead on the U.S. jobs lost due to cheaper labor in China and the growing trade imbalance between America and China.
Second-biggest U.S. trade partner
China is the second biggest trade partner of the United States, second only to Canada.
It is the biggest source of U.S. imported goods and the third-biggest market for U.S. exported goods.
In Monday’s Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Barack Obama chided his rival John Edwards, telling him “John, you voted for permanent trade relations with China,” the accord in 2000 which President Bill Clinton pushed Congress hard to ratify.
China, Obama said, “has been the biggest beneficiary” of the 2000 trade accord and is “the biggest problem that we have with respect to trade, particularly because they're still manipulating the currency.”
Edwards fired back “no one has to explain to me what these trade deals have done to South Carolina, to North Carolina. My father, who's sitting right out there in the audience, worked in the mills for 36 years and we have seen what these trade deals have done to people who have worked hard all their lives.”
U.S. firms not protected?
Edwards has complained that the terms of the accord which were intended to protect U.S. firms have not been enforced by the Bush administration.
The following day in a speech in Greenville, only about 30 miles from what will be the site of the new American Yuncheng factory, Obama accused Clinton of supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement and the trade accord with China, which he described as “agreements that sent millions of jobs overseas, thousands from this state of South Carolina.”
Obama added sarcastically, “Now she says we need a time-out on trade. No one knows when this time-out will end; maybe after the election.”
Clinton on the campaign trail has warned about the Chinese buying U.S. Treasury securities.
“Right now we are in hock to countries from China, yes, to Mexico, where we owe them money. We borrow money from the Chinese to pay for oil from the Saudis. I don't think that's a smart strategy for America,” Sen. Hillary Clinton said as she campaigned in Iowa last year.
More recently, Clinton voiced worries about sovereign wealth funds, foreign government entities that invest in overseas companies. Example: China Investment Corp. has a $3 billion stake in the U.S. firm the Blackstone Group.
In Camden, local people say the Chinese plant has not provoked much controversy.
Lindsay said the presence of Haier in Camden gives the county an advantage in trying to lure other Chinese firms to locate in Kershaw County “because there are so few Chinese companies, only a few looking each year, and each one of is aware of Haier and they want to come talk to the folks at Haier about their experience. So we have the opportunity to meet a lot of these companies that are considering the United States.”
While it’s not on the large scale of the BMW plant in Spartanburg County, S.C. or the Toyota engine plant in Huntsville, Ala., Haier in Camden is a Chinese beachhead in the United States, one overlooked by Clinton, Edwards and Obama.