Back from my trip to Asia

Apologies for the three-week silence, but I’ve been on a trip to China and Japan. Since it’s hard to get foreign newspapers in either country, I’ve also been on a media diet, starved of local stories. So, I missed the CBC Marketplace coverage of Bell’s customer service problems, which several blog contributors have referred to. I’m glad to see someone else take up the cause.

While I was away, my blog went down for a couple of days. Not sure what happened, but the pseudonymous Bylo Selhi sent me an email suggesting that Bell might have had something to do with it. I don’t believe it, but you never know. Anyway, I’m back and so is this blog.

China is an amazing place to visit, because it has made so much economic progress while living with a Communist government. The free enterprise spirit makes you uncomfortable as a tourist, since you’re accosted at every famous spot by sellers pushing fake Rolex watches, Gucci bags and Montblanc pens. They bargain non-stop, cutting prices to almost nothing. But the fake goods are flimsy, which I found after buying a knockoff bag (Le SportSac). The lining had sprung leaks in several places by the time I hit Japan last weekend.

Journalist Ted C. Fishman has a chapter on counterfeit goods in his book, China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World. Here’s what he says about how China’s disregard for copyrights, patents and intellectual property has boosted its growth:

China’s failure to police intellectual property, in effect, creates a massivle global subsidy worth hundreds of billions of dollars in its businesses and people. Seen another way, China’s vast counterfeiting schemes act on the rest of the world the way colonial armies once did, invading deep into the economies of their victims, expropriating their most valued assets, and in so doing, undermining their victims’ ability to counter. As China grows into a great power, the wealth transferred into the country by stealing intellectual property will propel it forward.

But should China be blamed for behavior that robs the rest of the world of wealth it has spent generations accumulating? Perhaps. Yet perhaps the rest of the world also needs to examine itself. China is merely acting as other nations do when presented with the chance to increase their wealth and power. So far, pilfering intellectual property has cost China little and benefited it tremendously.

His conclusion? Foreign investment into the country has made the world’s best technology easily available to China’s infringers. So, if there’s blame to distribute, blame the U.S., Canada and Europe for helping assemble the biggest, most sophisticated and most successful illegal manufacturing complex in the world.

Reverse colonialism, how sweet it is.

Are you buying goods from China? Or are you boycotting them, as author Sara Bongiorni tried to do? She wrote about her efforts to bypass these cheaply-made foreign products in her book, A Year without “Made in China”: One Family’s True Life Adventure in the Global Economy. Not only did she have trouble finding alternatives, but she couldn’t always tell where things were made since the components didn’t always carry labels on their country of origin. It’s a fun read.

Product of Canada, eh?

That’s the name of a CBC Marketplace show, which emphasized the fact that you’re not really eating local even when you think you are. Anything can be labelled as Product of Canada as long as 51 per cent of its input cost was spent in Canada.

Don’t believe me? Here’s the information at the Competition Bureau’s website. Look under General Requirements.

With heightened awareness of health and concerns about imported food, it would be nice to know where the ingredients come from. Right now, all we know is that foods from across the globe can be processed here and labelled as domestic.

Some people thought this was outrageous. Others recognized that accurate labelling could be very long and complicated (but that’s no reason not to do it).

What’s the exchange rate?

This is the question to ask when converting Canadian dollars to U.S. dollars. Don’t assume you’re getting a good exchange rate because you’re a good customer of a bank or brokerage firm. There are always fees built in, so shop around.

When I wrote about this topic in a recent column, I got many suggestions from readers about finding the best exchange rate. Check the comments below.

Several people said they had opened a U.S. dollar bank account and gotten a U.S. dollar credit card. To shop around for U.S. dollar credit cards (which aren’t offered by every bank), look at the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada’s tables.

TD Canada Trust’s U.S. dollar Visa card has the lowest annual fee at $25 (U.S.), but the interest rate is a steep 19.75 per cent. If you want a better interest rate, check out BMO Mosaik MasterCard U.S. Dollar card with Low Rate and No Fee Reward Option at 11.4 per cent. The annual fee is $35 (U.S.).