Brazil's flag: Made in China

For many Brazilian flag makers, the fact that the making of their national symbol has been sold out to the Chinese is the ultimate symbolism of globalism gone wrong.

    In the industrial outskirts of Sao Paulo, workers at Bandeiras Sukets, a small flag-making factory, are hunched over sewing machines. With great precision, the workers are stitching together high quality, hand-made Brazilian flags.

    But the work of making the Brazilian flag is quickly an evaporating profession inside Brazil. Local flag makers are being put out of business thanks to cheap, low-quality imports of Brazilian flags from China.

    In the age of globalisation, Brazilians are finding out that even their national symbol is not immune to China’s exports.

    "We have been in the Brazilian flag making business for over 15 years," Sueli da Silva Teixeira, the owner of Bandeiras Sukets, told Al Jazeera.

    "There used to be flag making places all over this area, it was a good business, there was a lot of work for everyone.

    "Today, no, it’s changed. Because of the entering into the market of the Chinese. They have disrupted a lot of our local business. It’s difficult now. Very difficult."

    By some estimates as many of 50 per cent of all local flag makers have been put out of business in recent years, undercut by Chinese imports.

    Other flag makers say they have had to resort to making other products that are not yet under competition from the Chinese.

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    At 'Bandeiras Sukets' in Sao Paulo???, workers meticulously make Brazilian flags by hand. Photo: Alezandre Rampazzo/Al Jazeera 

    On a recent day in central Sao Paulo, high quality, locally made Brazilian flags were selling for roughly $30-40.

    A low quality Chinese knockoff was going for as little as $3. For Brazilian flag makers, that type of pricing disparity means one thing: Game over.

    In the same central Sao Paulo stores, Brazilian flags from China are sold by the roll, purely mass produced.  

    What upsets the local flag makers the most is not the fact Brazil is importing products from China that is to be expected, and even welcomed, they say.

    It’s one thing to import, cheap low-quality watches, or T-shirts from China. But this it the Brazilian flag, they say, and in their view it’s the ultimate symbolism of globalism gone wrong when the making of their national symbol has been sold out to the Chinese.

    Henrique Shinvato’s flag-making business, called Confecç?es Gloria, has been around since 1952.

    He is still in business, but barely, and says he refuses to cut corners to make cheaper flags to compete with Chinese imports.

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    In central Sao Paulo, Brazilian flags imported from China are sold by the roll. Photo: Alexandre Rampazzo/Al Jazeera

    "The Chinese imports are of poor quality," Shinvato told Al Jazeera.

    "On a proper Brazilian flag there are 27 stars that represent Brazilian states, but most of the flags from China have 23, 24, or 25 stars.

    "On a correctly made flag, every star has a specific placement and they are not all the same size. On Chinese imports of our flag, most of the stars are the same size.

    "The Chinese just throw symbols on the flag in whatever form they want. This is wrong. As a Brazilian citizen and flag maker, I want everyone to have a flag properly made, because it’s the national symbol."

    Bigger Picture

    Dilma Rousseff , the new Brazilian president, is in China for her first visit as head of state.

    She will conclude her trip with a meeting of heads of state of the BRIC countries - Brazil, Russia, India and China. The story about the Chinese-made Brazilian flags are just a small, yet symbolic, part of a much larger story.

    Brazil’s imports from China have gone from $1.2bn in 2000, to $5.3bn in 2005, to $25.5bn in 2010 - most in the form of cell phones, televisions, air condition units, and laptops. In short, the typical Chinese exports: manufactured goods.

    Brazilian exports to China have gone from $1bn in 2000, to $6.8bn in 2005, to $30.7bn in 2010. Over 80 per cent of Brazilian exports to China are one of three things: Iron, soy, or oil.

    China last year overtook the US as Brazil’s largest trading partner.

    That is a large reason why Barack Obama's first trip to South America was to Brazil, to try to correct the trade relationship with Brazil, the undisputed regional heavyweight.

    Meanwhile, China is aggressively pushing ahead to consolidate its imprint inside Brazil.

    The Brazil-China Chamber of Commerce has set up offices in 15 of Brazil’s 27 states and federal districts, most notably in remote states in the northeast and interior of Brazil where natural resources needed in China are most commonly found.

    Rousseff is spending more than five days in China this week not because she likes the food She is there because the China-Brazil trade relationship has become imperative, but also one of growing concern inside Brasilia.

    On the outside, Brazilian leaders understandably like to brag about their growing ties with China.

    But privately, in recent months, there are some in the halls of power starting to ask themselves if exporting iron and soy (which is major cause of Amazon deforestation) to China while importing billions of dollars in low-cost Chinese manufactured goods (that would be putting Brazilians out of work) is really the kind of healthy relationship Brazil wants with China.

    Rousseff has indicated she understands this, and has apparently let word be known she wants "diplomacy with results".

    Code words: I don't care about glossy photo ops, I want to know exactly what Brazil is getting out of any diplomatic or financial deals abroad. 

    Difficult time for industry in Brazil 

    "Most products from China are lacking quality, and in other cases they are just copying products," Roberto Gianetti, director of international relations at the hugely poweful Sao Paulo Federation of Industry (FIESP), told Al Jazeera.

    "They just look at products in other countries and try to copy them for export at lower cost. They are very good copiers of products."

    But Gianetti also said Brazil’s high transport costs, bad infrastructure, and high valued currency also hurt its relationship with China.

    "Brazil has lost its industrial competitiveness," Gianetti said. "This is a difficult moment for Brazilian industry to compete against cheap foreign imports, compared to products made internally. Brazil needs to be careful with this."

    Gianetti said he is not surprised local flag makers are being put out of business it’s just the "tip of the ice burg" to a much larger issue.

    As Brazil rushed to open its doors wide to China, it might have done so at the expense of some of its own people.

    "It’s a worry that needs to be dealt with at the political level," he said. "We need to add value to our national products, value to our workforce, but do so without losing our competitiveness in the globalised world. This is fundamental."

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    Look closely at the label, and most Brazilian flags being sold in Brazil are 'Made in China.' Photo: Alexandre Rampazzo/Al Jazeera

    Later this week, the BRIC leaders are meeting in Sanyaa, China for the third BRIC Summit.

    The leaders are going to brag about how between 2003 and 2010 BRIC countries growth accounted for 40 per cent of the world’s total.

    They will say how the BRIC countries account for more than 25 per cent of the world’s economy, and diplomats will say how trade flows between Brazil and BRIC countries increased 575 per cent since 2003.

    These are all facts, and on their surface could be interpreted as a positive sign of the great emerging powers counter balancing Europe and the US.

    But back in Brazil, some flag makers will hear the noise and not be buying all the hype. For them, they see a totally different side of it all.

    "We don’t have any strong laws here in Brazil to check the quality of imports to Brazil," Shinvato, the flag maker said.

    "It’s strange to me that our leaders accept poor Chinese imports on our own flag - our maximum national symbol. It’s strange we don’t have a law to stop this and that we accept this."

    Brazilians are now facing the reality that more times than not their flag probably isn't made in Brazil, but rather a place like Hunan province.

    This story is scheduled to air on Al Jazeera English on Thursday, April 14.

    Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel



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