Lessons of a Chinese Rolex

Afew years ago our house was burglarized. Among the items taken—one of the few things I cared about—was a Rolex watch of 1960s vintage that had belonged to my father.

The watch had a great deal of sentimental value to me, and I wore it nearly every day for 20 years or so. But when the economy started stuttering in late 2007 and friends and colleagues started to pay for the poor decisions of people who only thought they were smarter than everybody else, I put it away in a drawer. It seemed insensitive to wear an expensive watch during what were pretty bad times for a lot of folks. So I wasn’t wearing it when our door got kicked in and our things got rifled through. That’s how things go.

As Rolexes go, it was a modest one—a midsize stainless steel Air-King, without a date-window. But as a vintage watch, it was pretty distinctive. And since I’d worn it as my everyday watch, we had plenty of photographs of it. So I thought there was a slim chance we might recover it. I stopped by a couple of pawnshops and posted a photo of it on my blog, but after a few months I let go. You can’t hold on to anything forever.

Anyway, fast forward a couple of years. An old friend of mine is traveling in China. He knows the story of my watch. He sees a bunch of “replica” Rolexes in a stand in Shanghai, and he impulsively buys one that looks a little like my watch and mails it to me. (The shipping costs were more than the purchase price.)

I get the package and unwrap the watch. It looks pretty good, and surprisingly has about the same heft as my watch. It’s not the same modelit’s a knockoff of an Oyster Perpetual, not an AirKing—but from four feet away it looks like a real Rolex. And while the bracelet is a little flimsy and probably not really stainless steel, the watch works. It’s got an automatic movement and keeps time fairly well. While I’m not inclined to wear it much—I didn’t necessarily care about losing my Rolex, I cared about losing my dad’s watch—I’m impressed by how well it keeps time.

I know there are a few good reasons not to buy counterfeit luxury goods, and the best one is that you don’t want to support criminals. My watch was likely assembled in a sweatshop, and unsavory groups such as the Russian and U.S. Mafias, drug cartels, al-Qaida, Hezbollah, the Irish Republican Army, the violent Basque separatist movement Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, Chinese Triad gangs and the Japanese Yakuza crime syndicate have all been implicated in the trafficking of counterfeit products. Al-Qaida training manuals recommend the sale of counterfeits as a way to raise funds.

And that says nothing about the philosophical quandaries and psychological implications inherent in the purchase and wearing of a fake watch. Pragmatically, I wonder how impressive it is anyway. After all, I put my genuine Rolex away because I thought it sent the wrong signals. And who would you impress with a fake Rolex anyway? Wouldn’t anyone interested enough in watches to notice what brand you’re wearing also be likely to recognize—or at least suspect—that you’re wearing a Chinese Rolex?

Yet my friend was in a playful spirit when he bought the watch and mailed it to me. He knew it couldn’t replace my father’s watch and he wasn’t trying to. It was a gesture, a bit of a tease. He told me he paid less than $5 for the watch which, were it what it pretends to be, would retail for about $6,000.

Leaving aside all moral and ethical questions, I’ve seen $100 watches that aren’t as good as this fake. Though I haven’t (yet) cracked the thing open, the research I’ve conducted makes me believe the automatic movement is a Chinese copy of Rolex’s Swiss movement. One online commentator, who opened up a watch similar to mine for a YouTube video, said he believed the movement might even have had “21 jewels.”

And they can sell it for $5.

This is what frightens people about China. Because they don’t respect intellectual property and are willing to exploit their workers, they can make the best $5 watch in the world. (And while my friend bought the watch in a street market in Shanghai, a lot of those $5 watches sell for around $200 on the Internet.)

Many of us worry about China. They’ve got a lot of people. They make a lot of things cheaper than we can make them. People like Donald Trump insist that we’re “losing” to them. China is “killing us,” they say, and stealing our jobs and money.

I’m reading Unmade in China: The Hidden Truth about China’s Economic Miracle, a book by Jeremy Haft, a Georgetown professor and businessman who is going to give a talk at the Clinton School of Public Service Thursday. (Seats can be reserved by emailing publicprograms@clintonschool.uasys.edu or calling 501-683-5239.) In the book Haft points out that despite what a majority of Americans believe, the Chinese haven’t surpassed us as the world’s leading economic power. They’re not even the second biggest.

He contends we give China too much credit while ignoring problems in its manufacturing process. A lot of what is manufactured in China is only assembled there from components made elsewhere. A lot of what is “Made in China” actually profits companies based in other countries, including the U.S.

And a lot of Chinese products are of abysmal quality. Why, he asks, should we expect a country that can’t get it together to manufacture safe baby formula or dog food to produce nuclear plants or jet airplanes?

I haven’t gotten very far in the book, but Haft does an excellent job of debunking the myth of Chinese economic superiority. He points out that the U.S. has at least $40 trillion more in household, corporate and government assets than China. We are a far richer country than China.

And yes, there are reasons to be concerned. When U.S. companies outsource manufacturing jobs to China, we’re essentially exporting jobs that 30 years ago would have supported an American family. Our domestic economy is increasingly service or “gig” based, and it’s worrisome that we don’t really make things here any more. But Trump is wrong, we’re not losing to China. Not yet anyway. We’re still way ahead of the people who can make a $5 Rolex. Which isn’t really a Rolex anyway.

Mine keeps time, all these months later. But one of the minute markers has come unglued from the face and is rattling around under the crystal.