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From China, an end run around U.S. tariffs

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DONGGUAN, China — China’s export juggernaut is not unstoppable: Just ask Lawrence Yen, president of Woodworth Wooden Industries. His factory here in southern China used to ship 400 containers of bedroom furniture to the United States each month. It now sends 60.

That is just what Yen’s struggling American competitors were hoping would happen when, back in January 2005, the Commerce Department slapped import tariffs on Chinese-made beds, nightstands and related wares.

What happened next, though, was not part of the plan: Yen opened a factory in Vietnam and began exporting to the United States from there. Others did the same. He is now building a big plant in Indonesia and hopes to sell even more to the United States.

America’s own furniture industry, said Yen, “can never compete with Asia.”

The result: Imports now account for about 70 percent of the U.S. market for beds and similar items, up from 58 percent before Washington intervened to try and protect domestic manufacturers from Chinese “dumping,” or the export of goods at unfairly low prices.

The United States and China have exchanged accusations of dumping for years and imposed tit-for-tat duties. All along, though, China has generally come out on top: Its trade surplus with the United States rose to $273 billion in 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures, more than three times the level of a decade earlier.

The trade concerns have led to growing calls for tougher action from Washington to stem the tide and protect U.S. jobs. But do tariffs work? In the case of bedroom furniture, they’ve clearly helped slow China’s export machine. In 2004, before tariffs went into force, China exported $1.2 billion worth of beds and such to the United States. The figure last year was just $691 million.

Over the same period, however, imports of the same goods from Vietnam — where wages and other costs are even lower than in China — have surged, rising from $151 million to $931 million. The loss of jobs in America, meanwhile, only accelerated. The number of Americans now employed making bedroom furniture is less than half what it was when the tariffs began.

Furniture workers in Dongguan, a throbbing industrial city near Hong Kong, earn about $170 a month, compared with less than $80 in Vietnam. Their American counterparts make about $12 an hour.
“This whole saga is a perfect example of good intentions gone completely haywire,” said Keith Koenig, president of City Furniture, a big Florida-based retailer and critic of the tariffs. Like many retailers, he relies on imported goods, which are cheaper than those made in America.

The only Americans getting more work as a result of the tariffs are Washington lawyers, who have been hired by both U.S. and Chinese companies. Their work includes haggling each year over private “settlement” payments that Chinese manufacturers denounce as a “protection racket.”

Fearful of having their tariff rates jacked up, many Chinese furniture makers pay cash to their American competitors, who have the right to ask the Commerce Department to review the duties of individual companies. Those who cough up get dropped from the review list.

“You pay for peace,” said Yen.

David Cai, manager of the Dongguan Huada Furniture Co., likens the process to a shakedown: “It is like the mafia: You buy protection.” He, too, has slashed bedroom furniture exports to the United States.

How much gets paid in “settlements” each year depends on negotiations with Washington lawyer Joseph Dorn, who represents American furniture makers who first petitioned for the anti-dumping tariffs. Dorn said, “It is wrong for Chinese companies to criticize” the practice, as they “came up with the idea” and “voluntarily agreed” to pay.

The ruin caused to U.S. furniture manufacturing by a tsunami of Chinese goods is beyond dispute. Since the 1990s, hundreds of factories in North Carolina, Virginia and other furniture centers have closed as production moved offshore, often to Dongguan. In 1992, U.S. furniture imports from China totaled $129 million, according to Census Bureau data. By 2003, they had ballooned to $5.28 billion — an increase of nearly 4,000 percent. That was when a small group of American manufacturers banded together to try and stop at least some of the rot.

They formed the American Furniture Manufacturers Committee for Legal Trade and, warning of dire consequences to “our way of life, our culture and the competitiveness of American in the world,” begged Washington to throw them a lifeline. Along with labor unions, they filed a petition that accused their Chinese rivals of “dumping” bedroom furniture on the U.S. market.

After lengthy debate, the Commerce Department ruled that China had sold beds and related items “at less than fair value” and “materially injured” American producers. To level the playing field, it imposed duties on Chinese exporters, a modest 7 percent for most but much higher for a few companies.

In Dongguan, furniture makers held a meeting in a hotel to decide how to respond. Most were from Taiwan and, unlike local Chinese businessmen, didn’t have close ties to the Chinese state. Furious at being accused of benefiting unfairly from China’s Communist Party-dominated system, they set up a fund to support lobbying efforts in Washington and started hiring lawyers.

Yen had another idea. “I told them I would set up a factory in Vietnam,” he said.

That, he explained, would shield his business not only from U.S. tariffs but also from the rising costs of manufacturing in China, where wages, electricity and other costs have all gone up steadily.

Today, Yen still makes furniture not covered by tariffs in Dongguan but has moved nearly all his bedroom production out of China. His Dongguan factory has cut its workforce from 3,000 to about 1,200. His factory outside Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, which didn’t exist when the Commerce Department imposed duties, now employs 2,800 Vietnamese.

Supporters of the tariffs — extended in December for a further five years — acknowledged at hearings by the U.S. International Trade Commission last fall that jobs haven’t returned to America but argued that the domestic furniture industry would be worse off without the anti-dumping campaign.

“There would be nobody here today if we had not done this,” said John Bassett, chairman of Vaughan-Bassett, a Virginia company that has been in the vanguard of the drive to slow imports from China. “We turned a stampede. No, we didn’t bring it to a screeching halt, but we turned it, and we slowed it down.”

The stampede from Vietnam, meanwhile, has only gathered pace. Thanks largely to transplants from Dongguan and elsewhere, Vietnam has now replaced China as the biggest source of wooden bedroom furniture sold in America.

Travis Belle, an American buyer who moved from Virginia to Dongguan at the height of China’s now fading furniture export boom, scoffed at claims that the anti-dumping cause has helped America’s own industry. “The only thing that has changed is where you have your dinner at night,” he said. “Before it was Dongguan, but now it is Ho Chi Minh City.”

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