On the day we first arrived, the coastal skies were unusually clear and the industrial vista -- unfolding as far as the eye could see -- was rather breathtaking. It seemed to be the world's largest ocean-side parking lot. Multi-colored shipping containers stacking five high blanketed the area. Along the docks, floating steel hulks were buried beneath thousands more containers, as towering cranes reaching 16 stories high moved the cargo from ship to shore. And weaving throughout, like an army of ants, trucks chassis' shuttled and shifted the newly arrived goods.
We made our way first to the administrative offices of the Port of Long Beach and its communications director, Yvonne Smith. A spunky journalism school grad, Smith's many years at the port have provided a waterfront view of the changing global marketplace. In 1990, around the time she first joined the Port, Long Beach handled 2 million tons of cargo from China. Today, Chinese imports have rocketed to nearly 28 million tons, with much of the growth in the last five years. And consider this -- imports from Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea combined are still 7 million tons shy of what arrives from China alone.
"If you're in the trans-Pacific trade, you're moving Chinese cargo," says Smith. "China is doing the manufacturing, the United States is buying it."
We boarded a charter boat to cruise the port and take a closer look at today's supertankers of global trade. Smith explained that most ships average about 5,600 containers, but the new ones can carry 8,200. Some of the big box retail giants like Wal-Mart -- the port's number one customer -- fill entire ships, which take at least three days to unload. You couldn't help but be awed by the sheer scale of the undertaking, but what caught my eye was a gleaming mountain of scrap metal being loaded onto an old beat-up freighter.
Back in the late '90s, the politicians and multi-nationals pushed free trade with China as, among other things, an enormous opportunity to bolster U.S. manufacturing. The picture they painted was of an emerging Chinese market, its 1.2 billion consumers eagerly awaiting American-made products, everything from chemicals to computers. But that's not the picture you'll find now on Terminal Island.
Last year we imported $36 billion of goods from China. We exported only $3 billion and most of what we sent out was raw materials to service China's production boom. "We export cotton; we bring in clothing," Smith explained. "We export hides; we bring in shoes. We export scrap metal; we bring back machinery."
Add it all up and you get a record trade deficit with China that will likely exceed $150 billion this year. "You definitely see the imbalance in trade when you come down to the port," says Smith.
Our boat had turned back and we passed another arrival, recently docked. The towering cranes were busy at work unloading the ship's bounty container by container. The logistical precision -- sort of a mechanized ballet -- is impressive, as are the cranes themselves. The port had just bought several new ones, Smith said. Each crane cost $6.5 million. And, yes, they were imported from China.
Rick Young is the producer and director of "Is Wal-Mart Good for America?"