Chinese Manufacturing Part 2: The Workers

20 March, 2012 § 3 Comments

This is another guest post by Alexis S.

The most wince-inducing and problematic part of Daisey’s monologue was his characterization of the factory workers. It plays to some old, old racist tropes. We have an image in our culture of the Chinese worker. He used to wear a queue, and maybe one of those hats, then a Mao jacket, and now just some sad tattered clothes (or a Mao jacket or queue, because political cartoonists are lazy). He (or she, nowadays) is sexless, faceless, not an individual. He is a they, part of the Chinese Borg. (The computer game Alpha Centauri made this metaphor explicit.) If you’re worried about American jobs, you worry about the Chinese because they have an unfair advantage against us: American workers need food, sleep, health insurance. Chinese workers will work for five cents an hour until their hands drop off and their eyes fall out, and as soon as they break, they will be swapped out for a new one from the teeming masses. If you care about human rights, you feel sorry for the Chinese, who lack the power and knowledge to stop themselves from being exploited. They need your help. If you, like Mike Daisey go to China and just talk to the workers (with a translator), hear their individual stories and give them yours (in translation), make that human-to-human (to-translator) connection, you could see them as real individuals, give them the voice they lack (translated), and rescue them. Even if you don’t hate or fear or distrust the Chinese, the idea that they are ignorant voiceless masses waiting to be uplifted by a white American making an impulse trip to Shenzhen is as condescending as it is inaccurate. Look at this story from the TAL episode.

I talk to an older man with leathery skin. His right hand is twisted up into a claw. It was crushed in a metal press at Foxconn. He says he didn’t receive any medical attention, and it healed this way. And then when he was too slow, they fired him. Today he works at a woodworking plant. He says he likes it better. He says the people are nicer and the hours are more reasonable. He works about 70 hours a week. And I ask him what he did when he was at Foxconn, and says he worked on the metal enclosures for the laptops, and he worked on the iPad. And when he says this, I reach into my satchel, and I take out my iPad. And when he sees it, his eyes widen, because one of the ultimate ironies of globalism, at this point there are no iPads in China. Even though every last one of them was made at factories in China, they’ve all been packaged up in perfectly minimalist Apple packaging and then shipped across the seas, that we can all enjoy them. He’s never actually seen one on, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to Kathy, and Kathy says, “he says it’s a kind of magic.”

Here we have the ignorant worker, abused and exploited by the companies and government alike. He is a broken man, his hands twisted beyond recognition, all in the service of your iPad. And what does Mike Daisey do? He shows the man a complete iPad, not yet on the market in China, the object that this man destroyed himself to make. The man doesn’t hold a grudge against the iPad; instead, his face lights up with childlike wonder, and he runs his broken hands over the touchscreen and says, “magic.”

I told this story to a friend from Hong Kong and he just laughed. The idea that anyone in Shenzhen, even the poorest most ignorant laborer, had never seen or used a touchscreen tablet is funny. Even if this man had never been into the section of the factory where they turn the iPads on to test them, even if he never saw any iPads owned by Hong Kong visitors or mainlanders who bought one in Hong Kong or abroad, he still lives in Shenzhen, a city designed to bring in international business and advanced technology, one next to both the cosmopolitan city of Guangzhou (Canton) and the even more international Hong Kong. By the time Daisey made his trip, Shenzhen was full of tablets: legitimate iPads, “oops, it fell off the conveyer belt” or “it didn’t pass quality control” iPads, stolen iPads, and “no really, this is totally a real iPad!” iPad knock-offs. Plus non-Apple branded tablets from all the other American, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Hong Kong, Chinese, and European companies that have their goods manufactured in Shenzhen. I’m sure there are people in Shenzhen who have never used a tablet. I could probably go around New Jersey and find someone who has never used an iPad or similar tablet. But neither person is going to think it’s magic. Chinese laborers just aren’t that ignorant.

Nor are they that ignorant about their rights. Laborers in southern China (what Ching Kwan Lee calls China’s “sunbelt”) are actually pretty knowledgeable about their legal rights. Workers talk to each other, share legal information and strategies. When they protest publicly, or go to the capital to petition, many workers can and do cite specific laws that are being violated. Remember when I said I would explain why the laws are important? That’s why. Even when they aren’t enforced, they give workers a clearer idea of what to demand, and give them specific language to use. Protestors in China draw on the language and concepts of modern Chinese law, on old Communist promises, and on imperial Chinese petitions. And, because they are savvy political actors, they say what Beijing wants to hear: that they only blame the local officials and factories, and they trust Beijing to make it right. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes there is backlash, sometimes there recompense is inadequate, sometimes workers get nothing and they also lose their jobs, or get beaten by police, or thrown in jail. Even when that happens, workers share the knowledge and experience they gained by going through the process, in order to better facilitate their rights in the future.

As a group, Chinese factory laborers are intelligent, strategic, and adaptable. They know their rights and share their knowledge and experience. Chinese laborers also tend to be strategic as employees. When they can, they seek out factories with better pay and working conditions. Many of them are working not just to feed themselves, but to save up and start businesses in their hometowns. Treating Chinese workers as ignorant victims is wrong, both factually and morally. It’s also bad entertainment. The story becomes one about the magical white American attaining enlightenment and spreading the new cause. This is not exactly an original story. It could be Chinese factory workers, handicapped people, the mentally ill, African-American schoolchildren, Tibetan monks. The lies replace a compelling story with stereotypes and self-absorption. So why not tell the truth instead?

Suggested resources:
China Blue, a 2005 documentary about a factory that makes jeans. You get to see the workers’ lives, and also what happens when they take action. Kind of the same concept as Daisey’s performance, but focused on the workers, and more nuanced. The PBS page for the film {http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/chinablue/film.html} also contains an extensive list of sources.

Against the Law (2007) and Gender and the South China Miracle (1998), both by Ching Kwan Lee Against the Law is a study of the ways laborers in different parts of China advocate for themselves. It’s a good combination of hard data and human stories, the result of extensive interviews conducted by Lee. Gender and the South China Miracle is about factory culture in Hong Kong vs. mainland South China. Lee not only conducted interviews there, she actually worked undercover in the factories.

“Hope for Protection and Hopeless Choices”: Labor Legal Aid in the PRC by Mary Gallagher from the book Grassroots Political Reform in Contemporary China, ed. Elizabeth Perry and Merle Goldman and “The Moral Universe of Aggrieved Chinese Workers: Workers’ Appeals to Arbitration Committees and Letters and Visits Offices” by Isabelle Thireau and Hua Linshan in The China Journal The titles are probably self-explanatory.

With the exception of China Blue, these are all academic works, not light reading. I would suggest some more popular books, but I don’t know of any. If you’re read or written one, please recommend it!

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§ 3 Responses to Chinese Manufacturing Part 2: The Workers

  • Lukas says:

    A couple of years ago I read and liked Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. It focuses on young workers who travel to Dongguan from their villages to work in factories there, and generally paints them as ambitious and smart, moving from job to job and opportunity to opportunity trying to both provide for their families and get ahead for themselves.

    • benlehman says:

      I’ve heard good things about the book, although I haven’t read it.

      I think that, at the root, there’s a profound lack of empathy of Chinese workers. Even people, like Daisey, who want to help them don’t really see them as humans with their own goals, ideas, and strategies. Victims in need of saving, rather than protagonists in need of support.

      This ties into victim relationships in other areas, as well.

  • [...] as well, which further reveals the duplicity in Daisey’s account. (There may also be some not-so-subtle racism going [...]

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