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 {} 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!

Chinese Manufacturing Part 1: The System

19 March, 2012 § 1 Comment

This is a guest post by Alexis S.

Alexis has a formal academic education in Chinese government, politics, and economics, is fluent in Chinese, and has lived in China*. As it happens, I have these credentials as well, and I’ll be fielding questions in the comments (although, if she likes, Alexis is welcome to as well.)

(* I say this to establish her credentials to talk about this topic, not to shut down discussion. Feel free to disagree with us.)

I (Ben) have edited this essay. I take responsibility for all errors.

If you follow news about China or NPR, you have already heard the recent story about Mike Daisey. If you haven’t, you can go here or here to get details, but the quick summary is that monologuist and Apple fan Mike Daisey wrote and performed a one-man show called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” where he told stories of traveling to Shenzhen and interviewing workers at Foxconn, the Taiwanese-owned company that Apple and other tech companies rely on for much of their manufacturing. The show got some attention, but the real surge seems to have come after This American Life devoted an episode to it, airing an excerpt from the show and then interviewing Daisey. They included some corrections, but overall presented the show as true. And then yesterday NPR Marketplace and Ira Glass admitted that they had discovered some problems: some of Daisey’s stories were exaggerated, some were second or third-hand stories he had recast as personal experience, and some were just not true. Daisey says his stories are entertainment, not journalism. A predictable fuss has occurred.

I had only gotten around to hearing the TAL episode two weeks ago, and the problems I had with the show are largely unaffected by the veracity of any given story of Mike Daisey’s. When I heard the episode, I assumed his anecdotes were his actual experiences, and the things that felt wrong or inaccurate to me were because his experiences were filtered through the mix of confusion, prejudice, patronizing sense of superiority, racism, and deep ignorance that characterizes so much of the American debate on China. Now we know many of these stories are false, so the personal experiences are removed from the equation, but all the issues remain, and those are what I want to discuss.

This is the story Daisey tells: Since Deng Xiaoping came to power, the Chinese Communist Party has sold the bodies and souls of Chinese workers in exchange for the trappings of wealth and modernity. The workers are cruelly and needlessly exploited by factory owners out of a combination of laziness and greed, until the workers are crippled or killed. The American companies turn a blind eye because it keeps costs down, and American consumers remain ignorant because we want cheap phones and iPads, and because somehow it never occurred to us to think about where our products were made.

This is a compelling story, because it tells us what we want to hear and it reinforces beliefs many of us already hold. But it’s not true.

First, the CCP. It’s easy to hate the CCP. They block wikipedia and the New York Times, imprison artists, threaten Taiwan, and commit all manner of atrocities against Tibetans (and against the Xinjiang Uighurs, not that anyone pays attention to a bunch of Muslims). It’s natural to implicate them in the labor abuses. So what’s wrong? A couple things: the CCP is not a monolithic entity, and the CCP actually takes steps to help and protect workers at times.

We like to think of China as a dictatorship (Daisey calls it “a fascist country run by thugs”), where the evil Communists (or evil ex-Communist traitors, depending on the politics of the speaker) control everything with an iron fist. Hu Jintao probably daydreams about that being true, but it isn’t. Beijing isn’t aware of everything that goes on at the local level, and Beijing’s priorities don’t necessarily match up with the priorities of local cadres.

Nor is the central government completely uniform. The CCP is comprised of anti-corruption reformers, of hardline authoritarians, of economic growth proponents, Mao nostalgists, hawks (especially on Taiwan), urban and rural partisans, and others. What they share is a desire for the CCP to stay in power. This means no rebellions, no military coups, no invasions. Setting aside coups and invasions, which aren’t the focus of this piece, the central government knows they need to keep people happy enough that the country won’t break out into revolts. That’s one reason China tries to keep a tight grip on economic growth, keeping the economy growing, but not too quickly. It also means that when workers do get angry at local cadres (small-level government officials) or factory owners, the central government will often step in and throw money at the workers to placate them. And then sometimes they arrest the leaders of the protests, because they’re also a threat to stability. The central government’s role is complex, and there are plenty of times when siding with laborers against factories is in its best interest, so that’s what it does. Corruption, size, and structural inefficiencies all make it hard for the central government to have the local control they would like, so they’ve adopted a strategy of waiting until things get bad, then coming in with a combination of harsh scapegoating for obviously corrupt officials and potentially powerful organizers, and compensation and apologies for everyone else.

So the government sometimes sides with workers. They even passed a labor law in 2007 to give more protections to workers. Do you know who fought long and hard against that bill? If your knowledge about the issue only comes from that TAL podcast, you probably don’t, because it never mentions one of the major anti-labor forces in China: the foreign business lobbies. The US Chamber of Commerce and the US-China Business Council argued against worker protections such as restricting non-compete clauses and limiting periods of unpaid on-the-job “training.” The European Union Chamber of Commerce made regretful noises about being forced to leave China if their workers were granted these basic rights. I’m all for blaming the CCP for their part in human rights abuses, but it strikes me as unfair and inaccurate to call the body that passed labor reforms “thugs” and never mention the Western interest groups that fought to weaken those reforms. If we, as Americans, are going to condemn the abuse of workers in China, why don’t we blame our own civil society groups?

(Some of you may be wondering whether a labor law is actually important, or if it would just be ignored. The laws are important, for reasons I explain more in the next part.) (ed: the next part will be posted tomorrow.)

Another cause of labor abuses in China that often goes uncriticized is the structure of manufacturing in China. I have some sympathy for Daisey here– it’s hard to critique a system and still be entertaining, and entertainment is his priority. Nonetheless, this system is important. Much of Chinese manufacturing, both high-tech stuff like computers and low-tech stuff like shirts, is subcontracted. Apple does not own the factory that makes iPads. Foxconn does, and also makes electronics for other companies, including laptops, cell phones, and video game systems from American, European, and Asian companies.. This strongly limits the amount of pressure Apple can bring to bear on Foxconn. Foxconn isn’t going to want to lose a major client, but they have to balance the demands of multiple clients. If Apple is the only company pressuring them for reforms, and all the other companies are still pressuring for speed and cheapness above all, they may decide that labor reform is a bad decision.

Meanwhile, Foxconn and similar companies are themselves insulated from the labor abuses. These are not companies run by Mainland Chinese passport-holders. Most of them are companies in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, or Japan. They are less subject to the pressures that a Chinese company would feel. In some cases these companies are basically just middlemen: an American shoe company hires a Taiwanese company to find a factory in China to produce their shoes. Not only can the shoe company maintain plausible deniability for any abuses, but the company they hire can, too. This is more common in the garment industry, where the manufacture requires less skill and fewer proprietary technologies. This extra distance is one reason why the garment and toy industries tend to have some of the worst abuses. For Chinese factory laborers, places like Foxconn are actually considered some of the better places to work: There is less distance between the western company, the manufacturer, and the factory itself, and thus less likelihood for abuse.

A lot of hostility is aimed at the Chinese government, at Apple, and at Foxconn. The main effect of this is to make the critic and his audience feel better. The Chinese government is the wrong target, and probably doesn’t care what you think anyway. Foxconn doesn’t really care what you think either, unless you’re one of the companies investing it it. Criticizing Apple might get them to make changes, but unless you’re going to go after every electronics company that sells in America, you’re not going to make any substantial change. If you do feel the need to go after individual companies: garment and toy companies are a more deserving target. But, if you really want to make a substantial change, go after the big business lobbying groups such as the American Chamber of Commerce, the US-China Business Council, or your local equivalents. Form counter-lobbying groups for Chinese workers’ rights, or organize a boycott of every member of these organizations, or publicly shame them for their aggressive anti human rights practices. At the very least spend as much time and energy calling them out as you did Apple.

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