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For its part, AMTAC accuses the Chinese of using currency manipulation and state subsidies to create unfair trade conditions. Its worth noting that Chinas command economy, which assigns individual factories their own, internal quotas (apart from the WTOs), has created a Byzantine system in which factories can "sell" surplus quotas to other factories. For example, if a Los Angeles apparel maker called Teen Seen contracts for 10,000 tank tops from Peoples Tank Top Factory No. 1, and the Chinese plant is only permitted to make 9,000 units, it will have to buy 1,000 quota units from Peoples Tank Top Factory No. 2. But the cost for the subsequent 1,000 units, which can easily account for 10 percent of the overall tank top cost, is passed on to Teen Seen in Los Angeles. In some cases, the selling of quotas has become bigger business than manufacturing itself and, in the Wild, Wild East of today, creative entrepreneurs have set up dummy factories to make money by selling the quota units theyve been granted to real factories.
Until the first signs of economic change appear after New Years, observers will content themselves with predicting the most likely winners of a world without quotas China, India and Vietnam, the last of which is poised to join the WTO. And there are the losers, a long list that includes Honduras, Bangladesh, Mauritius and the Philippines all the former equatorial colonies whose teeming millions live beneath tin roofs, forever at the mercy of foreigners.
Its unclear what direction CITA is leaning toward regarding the pleas now before it, although a Chinese textile industry spokesman has noted that CITAs decision to review AMTACs petitions was made before the presidential elections and seemed to be more of a political gesture by the Bush administration than a genuine signal of concern. (A spokeswoman for the Commerce Department declined to answer questions directly for this article, preferring instead to give only background information via e-mail.)
He may be right, given the White Houses reluctance even to go through the motions of jawboning with foreign trade partners. Still, maybe there will be a period of adjustment long enough for the worlds apparel and textile industries and American garment workers to prepare for the worse. Who knows? Perhaps there is an apparel glut if not in the stores, then in Los Angeles harbors and China will not be receiving a tremendous number of orders immediately after January 1. Or perhaps China, which is currently racked by severe power outages because of its rapidly growing industrial sector, simply wont be able to keep up with increased orders in the near future.
For now, local apparel manufacturers appear mildly optimistic or fatalistic, depending on ones interpretation.
"Nothings the end of the world," says Lonnie Kane. "We saw this with the shoe business 98 percent of which is now imported. Apparel and textiles have slowly moved offshore. Its all about price. We dont have a place for low-wage industries. But I dont want local manufacturers to go away because I enjoy the flexibility and dont want to depend solely on imports."
And what happens to the people who formerly worked in those industries will they all be forced to sell fruit on the street and clean houses?
"When your economy is undergoing massive change," says the L.A. Fashion Districts Kent Smith, "people are unfortunately going to lose jobs. Were just not masters of our economy anymore."