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!


Four kinds of Wrongness

11 January, 2012 § Leave a comment

Given the title of the blog, I feel like I should start with a bit of a taxonomy of wrongness. For no other purpose than to be able to refer to it in the future.

An argument can be wrong in one or more of the following four ways.

First, and most trivially, it can be wrong grammatically. An argument that does not have basic grammar (since I’m a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist I mean “can be parsed by a native speaker.”) In that case, the rest of the argument doesn’t really matter: it’s not parseable to a native speaker, so it’s just wrong in a purely functional sense. This sort of wrongness generally isn’t worth commenting on.

The next three modes of wrongness are actually independent from each other.

Second, an argument can base itself on the wrong assumptions. For instance, if you are making an argument for increased defense spending, and you start with the assumption that the US spends less on its military than any of its neighbors, you would be wrong in your bases and assumptions.

Third, you can be wrong in your argumentation. This means that, even if we take your basic assumptions as fact, you pursue a spurious argumentation about them, where you assume that those facts imply things that they in fact do not imply. Often the argumentation will be quite muddled. If we are being generous with the author, we can say that this is because their thinking was muddled. Another possibility is that the author is intentionally attempting to befuddle the reader. An example of this kind of wrongness is “English has 10 different words for snow and thus it is suited to people in cold and snowy climates.” The “and thus” simply does not follow, regardless of how many words English has for snow or whether or not it’s suited for cold and snowy climates.

Fourth, your conclusions can be wrong. This is relatively trivial: at the end of your argument, the point you are trying to make is, in fact, incorrect.

Something which I find particularly fascinating is that these three kinds of wrongness are often at a disjoint from each other. For instance, it is perfectly possible to have the correct bases, correct form of argumentation, and draw totally incorrect conclusions* (often such writing is really rewarding to read: I call it “wrong but thought provoking.) Also, you might reach a correct conclusion from from incorrect bases and incorrect argumentation: this is often the case when the author knows what the right answer is, but isn’t sure how to get there or from where. All sorts of other crazy mixes are possible as well.

One important thing is that a lot of these, particularly those that are correct in some aspect, can still be important learning experiences for the reader, especially if we notice and note when things are wrong. Wrong writing is not without value, as long as we don’t fall into the relativist trap of “anything could wrong or right so it doesn’t matter.”

* In a formalistic logic sense, this isn’t possible, but there are so many examples in the real world that it’s worth mentioning.

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