How ‘Made in China’ became American gospel

The canny marketing of imports from vodka to basketballs transformed the US-China trade relationship

The assembly line in a factory making supersonic defect detectors and diagnostic devices in Shantou (Swatow), China.
Bettman Archive/Getty
The assembly line in a factory making supersonic defect detectors and diagnostic devices in Shantou (Swatow), China.

How ‘Made in China’ became American gospel

On 25 October 1976, US businessman Charles Abrams travelled to New York City’s South Street Seaport to welcome a ship loaded with Chinese vodka. This was, according to Abrams, the first time the liquor had been commercially imported from China since 1949.

Abrams turned this moment into an elaborate marketing event. The port was festooned with a vinyl balloon replica of a bottle of vodka, the height of a three-story building. Swaying on the windy dock, the vodka-shaped balloon towered over a group of around 80 people, including New York’s ports and terminals commissioner, Louis F. Mastriani, who had gathered to celebrate the imports. Once the cases of vodka had been unloaded, the group convened at a Chinese restaurant where, the China Business Review reported with a wink, “the vodka and viands quickly warmed up the guests.”

Abrams was part of a new generation of US businesspeople who began to trade with China after more than 20 years of Cold War isolation. Fascination, hope, excitement, frustration: Emotions guided their decisions as much as hardheaded economics—often more so. Working alongside businesspeople in China, they began to see something new in the China market.

For centuries, foreigners had seen in China a vast landmass teeming with potential customers. To them, trade meant expanding their exports. But new traders in the 1970s looked to China as a potential labour source. Together, they set in motion a fundamental transformation in the very meaning of the China market: from a place to sell US goods to a site of cheap labour.

Abrams and other US importers assisted this shift by fostering a culture of excitement about the unfolding trade relationship. Through advertisements, department store displays, and vodka-shaped balloons, the China traders of the 1970s changed the ways Americans understood Chinese communism: as apolitical and unthreatening. For US consumers, Chinese imports instead quickly became “exotic,” and US businesspeople succeeded in promoting a cultural acceptance of the words “Made in China” on the labels of everyday consumer goods.

Like many of the new generation of China traders in the United States, Abrams had long been interested in the country. In 1974, he told the New York Times that he had been “a student of China for 15 years.” Recalling a trip to Asia when travel to China was closed off to US businesspeople, he mused: “I still remember standing there in Hong Kong and saying to myself, ‘What lies beyond that great wall?’” He began trading with China the first moment he could. In 1972, he founded a company, the China Trade Corp., and began importing a handful of documentary films that he sold to US television distributors.

Abrams continued to import a range of consumer goods from China. When he started bringing in Chinese vodka in 1976, he imported it under a brand name exclusive to the US market: “Great Wall Vodka.” This wasn’t baijiu, the traditional white spirit of China itself, but Russian-style vodka from a manufacturer originally started by émigrés in the 1920s who had fled the Russian Civil War.

Kevin John Berry/Getty
A shipment of Russian vodka arrives in Australia on August 28, 1978.

In China, the liquor was sold as “Sunflower Vodka.” Abrams had negotiated the name change to make it, as he put it, “sound more Chinese and less like vinegar oil.” Of course, it was Abrams, a white American businessman, and not the Chinese with whom he dealt, who chose the “more Chinese” name.

For their part, Chinese traders certainly emphasised Sunflower Vodka’s Chinese origins in their own advertisements. Abrams’s push for a name change revealed that he wanted to emphasise not just the Chinese origins but also a certain idea of China—offering both ancient culture and a traveller’s adventure—that would appeal most to US consumers.

It took three years for Abrams to conclude his vodka import deal from Ceroilfood, a Chinese state-owned enterprise. But in the spring of 1976, both parties finally reached an agreement. Not only would Abrams import Chinese vodka and change the name; Ceroilfood also agreed to assist with a direct mail advertising campaign. Chinese students would address and stamp the flyers and send them from China to US liquor executives, businesspeople, and government officials. This was the first direct mail initiative from China to the United States, and Abrams, with his eye for drama, understood that its novelty was a crucial component of his marketing efforts.

Upon reaching the deal, Abrams told reporters that he felt “ecstatic.” For the first time since rapprochement began, China’s government was to embark on a marketing effort in the United States. Abrams, not one to shy away from his enthusiasm, declared, “This is the greatest afternoon of my life.”

With assistance from Ceroilfood, he would send flyers advertising Great Wall Vodka to 50,000 US homes. The Chinese students who addressed and stamped the flyers were not paid for their efforts. The Times reported that the students worked “free of charge” but concluded jauntily that Abrams “stands to make a profit for both himself and the Chinese.”

In addition to a free mailing campaign, Abrams profited even further by inflating his prices. US consumers could purchase a case of 12 Great Wall Vodka bottles for the hefty sum of $108. Abrams’s marketing campaign took full advantage of the high price tag. Great Wall was “the world’s most expensive vodka,” declared the advertisements, which appeared only in the New Yorker.

The campaign targeted consumers who would be interested in a vodka that was, as one advertisement put it, “strictly not for the peasants.” The class politics here was not subtle. Wealthy New Yorker-reading liberals consuming Chinese vodka, with an eye for the exoticism of the Great Wall, could distinguish themselves from the “peasants” thanks to the uncompensated labour of Chinese students.

New traders in the 1970s set in motion a fundamental transformation of the China market: from a place to sell US goods to a site of cheap labour

Abrams had a particular kind of vision for Chinese imports: He wanted them to retain their status as high-quality goods. "My emphasis in all this," he told reporters, "is on quality products." He added, "We don't want to turn China into another Japan." He did not explain what he meant by "another Japan," but he spoke at a time when the United States imported high numbers of low-cost Japanese goods. Abrams hoped to position the China market differently: as a site for cheaper goods—even underpinned by free labour—that were nonetheless exclusive.

Abrams carefully cultivated the exclusivity of Great Wall Vodka. Even though his advertisements declared Great Wall Vodka to be the most expensive in the world, he soon noticed his main competitor making a similar claim. PepsiCo, which imported the Russian vodka Stolichnaya, publicised its own liquor as "the most expensive Vodka sold in America."

In fact, the retail costs of Great Wall Vodka were $1 more, and to Abrams this was enough. He hired lawyers and in April 1977 took PepsiCo to court, demanding a whopping $5mn in damages. His lawyers presented his case before the New York County Supreme Court, asserting they had the "exclusive right in the use of the words 'the world's most expensive vodka.'"

The companies settled their dispute in November 1977, when the court ordered PepsiCo to "immediately cease and desist" from using any language suggesting that its vodka was the most expensive. PepsiCo was not, however, required to pay damages. For journalists, this was a story of Cold War competition like no other. "China and the Soviet Union are engaged in a spirited contest in bars and liquor stores across the US," the Wall Street Journal punned. With a tongue-in-cheek sensationalism, the Review wrote that "China and Russia are currently embroiled in a new, highly volatile area of contention." Great Wall Vodka had sought to challenge "Soviet hegemony in the international vodka market."

The irony was indeed remarkable. Two corporations were using the communist superpowers to compete for the title of most successful capitalists in the world's richest economy. Yet the vodka war was perhaps more successful in advancing Abrams's marketing strategies than anything else. As far as PepsiCo was concerned, the matter was a trifling irritant. Abrams, however, continued to use the geopolitical context to his advantage. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Abrams declared a new "vodka war" whereby he encouraged consumers to smash bottles of Stolichnaya in protest.

Abrams was a showman as much as a businessman, and his posturing with Chinese vodka was part of a larger cultural and economic shift taking place. The steady flow of Chinese imports and Abrams's promotional efforts worked together to reshape how US businesspeople and consumers saw the China market.

A booth at the China International Import Expo (CIIE), in Shanghai, China, on November 5, 2020.

Don King, one of the United States' most renowned boxing promoters, also fostered the culture of spectacle surrounding trade with China. Having worked for years with Muhammad Ali, King described himself as a "promoter extraordinaire." He is perhaps most known for arranging the 1974 boxing match in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) between Ali and the undefeated George Foreman. The so-called Rumble in the Jungle became one of the decade's most-watched television broadcasts and is remembered for Ali's shocking win against the younger front-runner.

In the summer of 1976, King turned his promotional efforts toward China trade. At his Manhattan home on the 67th floor of Rockefeller Centre, he held an event for journalists and corporate elites that was half press conference, half party. Donning a frilled shirt under a green suit and sitting behind a long table adorned with basketballs, sports shoes, and baseball mitts, King was flanked on either side by Abrams and television producer Larry Gershman. King announced that he had started a new company to import sporting goods from China. The awkwardly named Don King Friendship Sports Clothes and Goods Corp. would be a subsidiary of Abrams's China Trade Corp.

The guests at King's house party were offered Abrams's Great Wall Vodka. As the party wore on, guests began to play with the Chinese-made basketballs and volleyballs, throwing them to one another across the massive Manhattan suite. King explained that Chinese equipment had "mystic powers." With Chinese basketballs and hockey mitts, players would gain "more baskets, more scores." The hint of masculine virility operated close to the surface.

King, who was Black, explained to journalists that Abrams had asked him to join the team "because I speak the language of the Third World." This was not a spoken language, he continued, but rather "the language of the heart." By invoking the "Third World," he used ideas of Afro-Asian solidarity for his own promotional purposes. His efforts came at a time when many Black civil rights leaders had turned to Mao Zedong Thought as part of a search for alternatives to the violence and inequality that had emerged under US liberalism. King thus positioned himself as distinct from the wealthy white businessmen beside him. As he noted, "I came from the masses."

King and Abrams, both consummate promoters, worked together to sell Chinese products using different kinds of capitalist appeal. King asserted his affinity with the "Third World" and the "masses," a kind of rags-to-riches form of capitalism. Abrams pursued an elitist exclusivity: a capitalist consumption reliant on being the most expensive. These differences were also apparent in the kinds of Chinese goods they imported. King's corporation might have been a subsidiary of Abrams's, but its relationship to Chinese imports operated differently. Unlike Great Wall Vodka, there was very little that was distinctively Chinese about the sports equipment King imported. As much as King touted the "mystic" nature of a basketball made in China, it was the lower labour costs that were the real appeal of these imports.

While Abrams hoped China would not become "another Japan," it was cheap consumer goods like King's, rather than expensive vodka like his, that would come to dominate the imports Americans bought from China. For the time being, however, the marketing spectacles of both men fueled a cultural shift within the United States that recast China from Cold War foe to trade partner—from "Red China" to "Made in China."

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