This Time, It’s Not All China’s Fault

Suddenly, everybody and their brother thinks they know how to do business in China

Stanley Chao

May 28, 2020

‘Can you help me source PPEs from China?” asks a caller on the phone. I have received dozens of these inquiries since March from local governments, medical clinics, and mom-and-pop shops after hospitals and first responders began reporting massive shortages of N95 masks, latex gloves, and surgical gowns.

Suddenly, everybody and their brother thinks they know how to do business in China. They know a friend of a friend in China or a Hong Kong distributor who can buy N95 masks at $3 a pop. “We can make millions,” exclaimed another cold caller as he prodded me for some China factory contacts.

No, you won’t make millions. Just the opposite: You’ll lose your shirt. Doing business in China is not for beginners, nor is it a place to make a quick buck.

Worse yet, people may die as millions of counterfeit PPE products flood the United States. AP News reported on May 13, 2020, that hospitals, humanitarian aid organizations, and first responders received counterfeit N95 masks from China. West Virginia State Firemen’s Association President Jerry Loudin told AP, “While trusting the equipment to protect them, our members may have unknowingly placed themselves in situations that put them at further risk.”

Of course, President Trump, Defense Production Act policy coordinator Peter Navarro, and China hawks all scapegoat China for making shoddy products. Blame China. It’s fashionable. It’s easy. It’s politics.

The reality, though, is that there’s plenty of culpability to spread around. No doubt these Chinese factories and their owners are criminal, and they’ll pay dearly for it once the pandemic subsides. Faulty test kits and counterfeit PPE have become a source of embarrassment for China’s president, Xi Jingping. Heads will roll, literally.

But let’s also place responsibility with the individuals, local governments, and organizations that are naively venturing into China for the first time. Their eagerness to profiteer from a bad situation, or their earnest goodwill to save lives, has made them willing pawns in a game that has been played millions of times over the last 30 years. One must know the rules to play and win at this game. The rules, whether spelled out in black and white or shared through word of mouth, are well known by past players.

Unscrupulous sellers are taking advantage of the scarce commodities by claiming to be factory representatives or exclusive distributors of well-known Chinese PPE manufacturers, when in reality, they are many layers away from the source. Taking the bait only exposes our gullibility.

PPE buyers are shown a plethora of official-looking documents—supposed FDA inspection reports, company registrations, and product specifications—all in Chinese characters. But it doesn’t matter that we can’t decipher the characters as long as the documents are stamped with the red-inked, Chinese chop or seal that we’ve all become accustomed to. It sure looks real.

But the cardinal sin of no-no’s when buying from China? Not knowing thy product.

AP reported that the counterfeit masks had ear loops attached to them instead of the headbands of the authentic product. These shadow factories don’t even bother trying to replicate the look and feel of the original because they know they’re selling to amateurs and first-timers. It’s an easy con job, like trading with a toddler.

I don’t sound so sympathetic. I’m not. But don’t get me wrong: My heart goes out to the thousands of doctors, nurses, and front-line responders who might be donning fake PPE as they mercifully save lives. It gives me chills just thinking how many of them may die—could die—due to a loosened ear loop on a counterfeit N95 mask.

We can’t put all the blame on China, this time. There’s John, the auto parts distributor turned PPE profiteer. There are hospital administrators and government purchasers who think a few phone calls and a few dollars more per mask will get them what they want. And all the cold callers who tell me it’s easy to do business in China.

So while China hawks clamor about how the Chinese can’t be trusted, I’m pondering the rhetorical question: “When will we learn?” Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. But what happens when we get fooled a million times? Don’t worry; I know a friend of a friend in China.

Quality Digest editor in chief, Dirk Dusharme, talks with Stanley Chao about the problem of fake PPE.

About The Author

Stanley Chao’s picture

Stanley Chao

Stanley Chao is the author of Selling to China: A Guide for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses, and is the managing director of All In Consulting ( assisting Western companies in their China business strategies. Stanley is based in Los Angeles.