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Economics

"The China Price"

They are the three scariest words in U.S. industry. Cut your price at least 30% or lose your customers. Nearly every manufacturer is vulnerable -- from furniture to networking gear. The result: A massive shift in economic power is under way

From the rich walnut paneling and carved arches to the molded Italian Renaissance patterns on the ceiling, the circa 1925 council chamber room of Akron's municipal hall evokes a time when the America's manufacturing heartland was at the peak of its power. But when the U.S.-China Economic & Security Review Commission, a congressionally appointed panel, convened there on Sept. 23, it was not to discuss power but decline. One after another, economists, union officials, and small manufacturers took the microphone to describe the devastation Chinese competitors are inflicting on U.S. industries, from kitchenware and car tires to electronic circuit boards.

These aren't stories of mundane sunset industries equipped with antiquated technology. David W. Johnson, CEO of 92-year-old Summitville Tiles Inc. in Summitville, Ohio, described how imports forced him to shut a state-of-the-art, $120 million tilemaking plant four football fields long, sending Summitville into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Now, a tenfold surge in high-quality Chinese imports at "below our manufacturing costs" threatens to polish Summitville off. Makers of precision machine tools and plastic molds -- essential supports of America's industrial architecture -- told how their business has shrunk as home-appliance makers have shifted manufacturing from Ohio to China. Despite buying the best computer-controlled gear, Douglas S. Bartlett reported that at his Cary (Ill.)-based Bartlett Manufacturing Co., a maker of high-end circuit boards for aerospace and automotive customers, sales are half the late-1990s level and the workforce is one-third smaller. He waved a board Bartlett makes for a U.S. Navy submarine-detection device. His buyer says he can get the same board overseas for 40% less. "From experience I can only assume this is the Chinese price," Bartlett said. "We have faced competition in the past. What is dramatically different about China is that they are about half the price."