The voices of China’s workers

This video is a presentation by Leslie T. Chang via TEDTalks, so granted it’s full of TEDitude,* but it’s definitely worth a listen, especially in the context of “supply chain justice,” the issue raised by OUR Walmart.

Here is the section at the beginning that I took notice of. After reading some brief aspirational quotes:

[CHANG:] … All of these speakers, by the way, are young women 18 or 19 years old. So I spent two years getting to know assembly line workers like these in the South China factory city called Dong Wan [phonetic]. Certain subjects came up over and over: How much money they made; what kind of husband they hoped to marry; whether they should jump to another factory, or stay where they were. Other subjects came up almost never, including living conditions that to me looked close to prison life. Ten or fifteen workers in one room, 50 people sharing a single bathroom, days and nights ruled by the factory clock. Everyone they knew lived in similar circumstances, and it was still better than the dormitories and homes of rural China.

Workers who migrate from the country to the city, from the farm to the factory, re-live, perhaps, a story that is centuries old by now. But it is new to them! What I like about Chang’s presentation is that she treats the workers as protagonists, as agents. That is to say, she respects them.

But listen to the whole thing! What do you think?

NOTE * Basically, the assumption that “creative class” types both in the audience and on the stage are drivers, instead of, at best, back seat drivers (and they’re not always at their best). That said, the creative class really can be genuinely creative, and often TED lives up to its own ideals for “ideas worth spreading.”

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About Lambert Strether

Lambert Strether has been blogging, managing online communities, and doing system administration 24/7 since 2003, in Drupal and WordPress. Besides political economy and the political scene, he blogs about rhetoric, software engineering, permaculture, history, literature, local politics, international travel, food, and fixing stuff around the house. The nom de plume “Lambert Strether” comes from Henry James’s The Ambassadors: “Live all you can. It’s a mistake not to.” You can follow him on Twitter at @lambertstrether. http://www.correntewire.com

44 comments

  1. Susan the other

    I question her perspective. I noted a lack of personal introspection. She says nothing about the religious worship of western consumerism that allows these factories to organize. She says nothing about Chinese exports having fallen into oblivion. Nothing of ghost research parks. Just that rural farm girls would like to see the world and gain an education, find an opportunity – anywhere, marry and have children. And she uses her pointless story to claim Marx never got out of the library. If he had seen today’s global nightmare, he would have actually made a point. I found her talk singularly empty. As empty as her voice.

    1. Klassy!

      I agree. I couldn’t stomach the whole thing– it seemed more designed as balm for the conscience of the creative class than anything else.

    2. lambert strether

      Hmm. There are plenty of other posts in the world about the evils of consumerism; so I’m not sure what your difficulty is with simply sharing the views of young Chinese working women, and how they see their lives.

      I don’t see a lot of people doing that.

      My view is that it’s a good thing in itself. Is the lesson that working people are agents too subtle?

      1. Susan the other

        Workers as “agents” are disconnected in this way: We live in a high-speed, turbo-productive world. China is saturated with a lot of stuff it can’t even unload. The process of manufacturing is not run by labor any more, it has become financialized and is run entirely by banks and computers. And workers are destined to be replaced by robots. The only way to receive social gain is to engineer it into the mix politically. And workers as agents will be disregarded until society demands a level of politics supporting work. Lots of low productivity jobs of hight social value.

      1. Bert_S

        Paying ’em $3 to make a stupid little handbag while living in a barn, then selling it for $350 to some dumb American broad with too much money, then putting on this little touchy feely show sounds a little too sacharrin sweet to me.

        1. Geojos

          I wonder if she interviewed some of the workers who jumped out of the building. A very conservative friend of mine who has been visiting and working off and on in China for the past ten years, talks to me about the large nets now outside that building, and also the number of young women from the rural areas who go into prostitution to support themselves and their families.

          Ms. Chang is probably very sincere, but a couple of things.

          These personal antidotal tales of a few subjects make for nice speeches and cute stories, but they are far from telling a complete story of the processes occurring there. It would take a large, complicated multi-disciplined project to tell that story. She is providing a very small but needed aspect to the story. In fact, if I were a cynic, I would label her speech a clever piece of propaganda, rather than enlightening. . It is interesting a heart tugging but it is clearly not a creditable analysis of the subject, far from it.

          We all like to think that the low paying, “meaningless” jobs are but a step in the latter to a better life, just as it was for some the immigrants in this country that worked in the sweat shops. But for every “success” story, there are usually countless tragedies.

          By the way, Marx’s concept of alienation was far more complex and multilayered than just the worker’s separation from the product and turning into a commodity. Likewise, her bit about Marx is taking his work out of it social, economic, and historical context. Saying that he did not explain some of their “inner” or subjective life is a misguided criticism, of his work. Marx’s theory of alienation is very complicated, with several levels and layers of meaning, from the sociological and social psychological to the economic, political, and historical.

          1. Bert_S

            heh, prostitution is not bad work if you can get it.

            To me, this is clearly a propaganda piece. The Chinese guv could pass a min wage law in an eyeblink, if they wanted to. Then the Horatio Alger crap about how the 18 year old girls want to better themselves…more education please, sir…I want to work my way up the Apple organization…

            No mention if maybe we should be making $350 handbags in the US (and keep the price the same) and maybe china could make $5 handbags for china and have a min wage that works out for a domestic economy and selling prices.

            I think my $120 Nike tennis shoes should be made in the US (and the price stays the same) and you get two of those.

            This is all about globalists and import/export types pocketing the difference in selling price and production cost where ever they find the biggest disparity in the world.

  2. curfuzzled

    So workers are building better lives and don’t really care about what they are assembling. They aren’t even interested in having an iPhone. Then somehow we end up talking about how they are giving luxury goods as presents and marveling at what they sell for in the US. Which is it? Is that to say that they actually can afford what they produce along with a modest Buick? This diversion about Coach products seems to contradict the first part of the talk unless you look at the talk in the context of apologetics.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Well, it is a different take on the Marxist concept of alienation. Perhaps Marx’s/our/my quest for “meaningful work” comes from a position of privilege — Maslow’s “self actualization,” after food and shelter are taken care of.

  3. JCC

    To be fair to the speaker, the point she was trying to make, on a micro level, was that relative to these children, life was better than back on the farm, and I suspect (based on my time & experience in S. Korea – Seoul – during the late 70’s and early eighties) that the majority of those kids would probably agree with her.

    Where she fails is trying to equate the micro level with the macro level. In that regard, most, not all, of these kids will probably remain clueless for most, if not all, of their lives, and the speaker comes across like that’s OK.

    Maybe she’s right, as regards the typical Chinese teenage factory worker. After all, she’s looking at a very small psychological segment of time/history in a country still somewhat backwards as far as the general population is concerned (as she clearly points out, too), and ignoring very large political/economic world-wide history. She comes across, to me anyway, like she has no intention of seeing it any other way.

    She’s probably an MBA Student, based on her outlook, not to mention her knowledge of K. Marx’s personal history.

    1. Klassy!

      So, they move from the farm to the cities? Do they gain the same rights as native urban dwellers or they still second class citizens from the rural orovinces. How does this work?

    2. lambert strether

      On macro vs. micro, that’s hard. I don’t know anybody who’s done it. Not Marx, not Kropotkin, not the neo-liberals (duh), and not any -ism I know, including feminism. It is hard.*

      Adding: On the MBA, a mere moment’s due diligence says no.

      NOTE * And adding. That’s what I find attractive about “supply chain” [justice]. Very macro, because key to globalization. But very, very micro as well. As these stories, and our own stories, show.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          If you think a degree in American History and Literature, even from Harvard, is equivalent to an MBA, any MBA, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you. And the WSJ in 2004-2005 was not Murdoch’s WSJ.

          UPDATE Adding… Of course, Art History is another matter ;-)

          1. ScottS

            No, they aren’t the same in topic but they are neighbors in the ivory tower when it comes to pro-status quo brainwashing.

          2. Yves Smith

            No, you need an official Harvard decoder ring.

            History at Harvard is a gut major. Most people who major in History are often making extracurricular activities their priority (which can be often competitive in their own way….).

            History and Literature, by contrast, is an elite major. You have to apply to be accepted, and in my day, only 1/3 of the applicants got in. Very low student:tutor ratios, demanding sophomore and junior tutorials. In History and Lit, you have to pick a specialty (you can’t major or “concentrate” as they say at Harvard, in everything) and American History and Lit is one of the specialties.

            The average undergraduate at Harvard, and therefore I would assume at any one of the “better” colleges (such as the Ivies, the smaller liberal colleges like Wellesley, MIT, Berkeley), was markedly smarter than the average person in my Harvard MBA class and a lot more interesting too.

            An MBA is a BS degree, more employment agency than actual education. However, spending two years with alpha male wannabes spouting jargon and occasionally competing by doing real analysis does give some insight into how business is supposed to operate. The problem is you still have to learn in the real world how it actually operates.

          3. ScottS

            “An MBA is a BS degree”

            Hah, indeed.

            I didn’t mean to imply that any field of study was particularly easy or meaningless. Just a stray thought that occurred to me — that, for all the talk of universities as bastions of radical lefties, quite little in the way of radical lefty action has come from the American ivory towers, and what little rhetoric seems to be neatly contained. Contrast this with Montreal’s recent activities.

          4. Yves Smith

            Look, I’m much too much of an old fart to know for sure, but I could see the dress code change on campuses to much more conservative in the 1980s. It clearly has continued to move further right since then.

  4. Lyle

    Actually a lot of this could have been said about the textile factories in MA in the first 1/2 of the 19th century. A lot of single unmarried women worked there, many in search of their MRS. As back then life was better at the mill than back on the farm as it is today. If one had a time machine and went back to Waltham what would surveys say?

    1. Bert_S

      One glaring difference isn’t the same. They didn’t have global wage arb back then. And you couldn’t make a product for $3 in one place and sell it for $350 in another.

      I’m excluding things like the spice trade, gold & silver mining, etc…of course.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      Or the fields of Alabama vs. the factories of Detroit.

      Or the fields of Isaan vs. the factories of Ayyuthaya and Bangkok.

      A huge story, part of the supply chain but not the same story as the story of the workers on the other end of the supply chain at Walmart. Or is it?

  5. Winslow R.

    Her point seems that these workers will be able to look back on life and have memories of doing something worth remembering.

    Getting married, having children etc. rank pretty high on my list of memorable experiences. Most people have access to those experiences whether they work in a factory or on a farm.

    Perhaps her finer point is that shifting jobs, living in the city, and spending an increased income can provide a susbstitute or an addendum to those more traditional memories in old age.

    The rhythm of life, especially on a remote farm, can be very repetitive and unremarkable.

  6. ScottS

    Having been quite close to many immigrants from China and Vietnam, I can say that they are further along than the West is on its trajectory towards Feudalism, possibly on the the back-swing away from it.

    Further towards Feudalism in that the wealthy can literally run them over in their six-figure cars as long as the victim isn’t “somebody.”

    Possibly on the back-swing because social media allows dissemination of these incidents. The abject corruption is more frequently news, even if it is suppressed. And constant censorship leads to more skepticism of official sources.

    The re-revoltuion is kept at bay by dribbling out some of the Western goodies to give the impression that things are improving. Heaven help those in power if they can’t keep doling out candy. The singletons expect to get everything for little effort.

    Getting back to the topic, yes working in a factory is better than working on a farm like cancer is better than being hit by a bus. Those jobs aren’t leading anywhere, there’s no social safety net, and the education they aren’t able to get won’t lead to jobs that aren’t there. The market is flooded with people with paper engineering degrees. They make barely more than assembly-line workers.

    If you aren’t politically-connected, you aren’t going anywhere in China. And soon, the US as well.

    1. ScottS

      To Lambert’s point, I think it’s good to humanize the factory workers in China. But the TED talk above is deceptive because:
      1. It paints Chinese with a Western brush. There’s no tradition of individualism or self-reliance in China, but Leslie is pulling those individualistic American strings (or boot straps). I don’t mean to stereotype — there is a continuum of Chinese from the super-selfish to those with strict filial piety. What I mean is that you can’t understand Chinese culture using Western tropes. You have to understand Chinese culture in context.
      2. It makes the claim that the Chinese socio-economic system is merit-based (Cf education and advancement towards the end). On the contrary, guanxi is everything.
      3. It ignores the environmental degradation. How is environmental arbitrage separate from wage arbitrage? Also, resource depletion.
      4. The Chinese socio-economic system is still dead-set against internal consumption. Leslie brought up the Coach purses and Buick to make the point about a turn towards consumption culture, but that hasn’t materialized and there is a substantial backlash against the idea it.
      5. Malinvestment bubbles take money away that could be invested in something useful instead of ghost towns.
      6. Lack of internal R&D. Reverse-engineering is fine for coming up to speed, but what happens when all the companies that have had their technology stripped go out of business by virtue of being under-cut?

      The “it’s their choice and they like it fine” line does nothing to assuage what, reading between the lines, Leslie wanted to call “white guilt”.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        There you go. What I didn’t like about the talk came at the end, where she recommended practical education for the young women. I understand the argument, and indeed pragmatism and very concrete next steps are important, but I think these workers need to be challenged as well. She is in essence advocating training; I understand the necessity and see the logic but I also advocate education for them (and for itself, not for credentialling).

        UPDATE “[I]t’s their choice and they like it fine.” Yes, that’s one reading — though I think a little bit more tendentious than I’d accept. And they might not “like it fine” but at least they’re weighing matters and making a judgment.

        I go back again to the question of agency. They are making choices as fully human moral beings. In the American context we have tropes like “sheeple” and various permathreads on “Why don’t the masses rise up?” and one reason they don’t is very much along the lines of the young woman who was able to buy her mother a car. Not the consumerist aspect but the filial piety/”family values” and hostages to fortune aspects.

        1. papicek

          I think Chang’s point at the end was that a “practical education” was something these young women hungered for, not what she recommended. That’s how I read it, anyways, and I have no trouble believing that Chang was accurate on this point. When you’ve got practically nothing, then materialism can be both physically and spiritually rewarding, as odd as that sounds.

          The family has a Buick. That alone can be a liberating experience which anyone without, especially in a rural area, can relate to.

          * * * *

          For all that, the working conditions are still abysmal and this talk does nothing to help. Does China still discriminate against migrant workers, for instance? Yes. The cultural roots of this discrimination, pointed out by Scott S above, do not attenuate the fact that this remains discrimination. Well, they’ll have to deal with that, because they definitely will-be-seeing-this-material-again.

          * * * *

          Of course, Chang was addressing American guilt here, and pushing back on shallow press coverage. Nothing could be less important, because nothing we say or do is going to have the slightest affect on the dynamics evolving between workers, management, capital and the government in China. Scott S and others here are correct in implying that this will take place within its own cultural context no matter how hard we try to insert ourselves into the mix. That guilt, however, is somewhat of a red-herring argument as well. It’s not guilt driving the push against globalization, but sometimes self-interest dressed up as nationalism as well as an unseemly celebration of those who profit the most out of what is quite rightly called exloitation of people born into very bad circumstances. The dormitory life someone here says is normal for the Chinese? I really don’t care if it’s culturally normal or not. For one thing, it’s a pretty serious health issue to have that many people stuffed into one room. The point being, there are real arguments against it in which guilt has absolutely no part. However, we all need to recognize, that just having the option to leave home, take a factory job and rub elbows with strangers is an authentic, life-changing experience. This remarkable migrant phenomenon isn’t happening in a vacuum, after all.

  7. Trestle Rider

    It really puzzles me this sudden interest in global economy, or other countries various economic phases. As if there wasn’t a Japan in the 1960′ through the 80’s making all things electronics, or Taiwan, or South Korea. What about fabrics and clothing from Sri Lanka, or Madagascar, or India? What about cheap fruit from South America, or bauxite? Really? As if the whole global economy only occurred with China in 1995 to 2010.

    Anyway, the Chinese family book is called a Hukou. The migrant young Chinese can move to Shenzhen or anywhere they like. The problem is many employers make it harder for out of province workers to become employed, because they mistrust them, and because the government will come down on them, and the second reason is it is harder for the migrant’s children to attend a decent school if your family book is not officially registered in the area.

    For you young Americans who comment on other world environments as if it is your own personal intellectual playground, consider traveling as opposed to armchair lecturing. Instead, go visit a place for perhaps 6-18 months minimum, then comment all you like. In general, you have no idea what you have in America, and you have no idea what it is like to grow up in a different culture. The freedom we have, which we are rapidly losing, is an abherration in human history, probably never to be equalled again.

    I have been to China many many times since 1991, 12 provinces in total. I have also worked in factories in Shenzhen and Shanghai and even Kunming. I have travelled there for both work and personal, my wife is mainland Chinese as well.

    If you knew them, you would realize we are squandering a great, great chance at uplifting each other up, people to people, instead of letting militaristic hotheads comment against them, or government blame talk. Try watching their new year festival TV broadcasts on CD, you do not need to know Mandarin to enjoy them.

    It is a win win for the young Chinese workers generally, at least it has been from 1990-2010. Dorm life is normal for most young Chinese, regardless, including sleeping 8 to a small room. They generally marry late, so what’s the rush to waste money on a separate apartment, better to save it. They buy houses and cars with cash, not credit, and need cash for medical emergencies.

    You want to really help them? Then help them tangibly.

    Global economy, global wage, global living standard, it all takes time to even out.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      “Then help them tangibly.”

      That’s Chang’s recommendation. I would like to think it’s possible to think bigger. This is, after all, a tremendous human migration on a far bigger scale than Lancashire or Lowell.

    2. Norcal_Steve

      your remarks are interesting, but your paragraph starting with “For you young Americans who comment…” was out of line for this blog. True of young Americans in general, but a lot of the people posting here have probably lived in other cultures and are not all that young on average. I myself spent a year in Iran, 1.5 years other places around west Asia, 8.5 years in East Asia. My message to you is ‘be a little more careful just who you preach to’, please.

      I think rural people are still getting really screwed in China in general, as are many lower level city dwellers. It’s well documented even in the NY Times that both rural and city dwellers are in many cases forceably evicted from land/house/apartments with inadequate compensation by party bosses in cahoots with developers and the police when involved are there to beat the living crap out of those who try to resist. Rule of law does not seem to be strong.

      The rural dwellers who went to work construction and in city factories were able to bring good money home, but they remain for the most part uneducated and many will go back to rural areas with no longer term source of jobs. So it’s not necessarily ‘win-win’ for the majority and I think you are being a bit over-optimistic about that. Is access to more education improving or not is super important. A lot of the factory girls were attracted to relatively large wages but many left school early and if not getting more education they seem likely to be in a dead end. Can they stay in the city, and will they get more education for their kids? That is the interesting question for how these demographic changes work out imo. Chang’s book does provide an interesting look at this fascinating large scale migration in China, and Trestle, your comments are also interesting.

      1. diane

        So glad you brought up the evictions, I’ve suspected for a long time that globalization has brought about a massive, fraudulent ‘transfer’ of rural land ownership to the powerful, as rural persons migrate to cities in China, India etcetera, and basically end up stuck there in despair, no longer able to even grow their own food; just as the effects of robber baron globalization have resulted in a massive and fraudulent transfer of home ownership to the investor class in this US.

        I think most would rather be destitute in a rural area where they owned some land and shelter, and could at least grow food, fish or hunt, than in a city where they can’t afford the rent; especially females, as one of the ways they will end up with ‘room and board,’ if they’re broke, will most certainly be prostitution, many times forced. And wouldn’t those rural areas in China be the same areas where those now slobbered over ‘rare earths,’ used for all of the unnecessary – horrid, increasingly and stunningly classist, continually obsolescing and unaffordable for so very many in these times – gadgetry ($400 dollar fucking phones???????) are being mined?

        And what will happen to those Foxconn (such a despicable sounding name I always wonder if it what was chosen with the historic english meanings attributed to those words fox and con, when combined), when they further robotize as is planned.

        1. diane

          Honestly, it was no mistake that the TED group came to being in one of the most Globalist Robber Baron/Dizney/Military Industrial Complex infused and subsidized states. The new Gawd, yet another group of $$$$$$frat$$$$$$ predominately white male boyos $aving the world. (Speaking of white males and Cali, while the wimmens earnings per white male dollar, average 75 cents to the dollar, nationally, they average 70 cent to the white male dollar in PWOGWESSIVE CALI. Truly those who allow any validity to the ‘TED Group’ need to spend some time (anonymously, sans prior connections) in the neighborhood where it was conceived.

          And it certainly isn’t an oversight that there has, most likely, been no major discussion, whatsoever, by that TED group about the massive burden put on the collapsing electrical grid by their favorite Gawdz ‘products.’ No discussion about where, in the last few decades, the dump yards filled with those so quickly bored with, MUST BE PLUGGED IN NEAR CONSTANTLY, techy gadgets (with their highly toxic “rare earth,” mined by may as well be slave ‘kiddles’ in Arica, etcetera) are. For one, try the dumping ground about five minutes’ drive away from FaceFiend, stenching up (for decades) – most likely poisoning – the predominately black and darker skinned community still riddled in POVERTY, in East Menlo Park, California, who won’t be employed by FaceFiend, et al, any time in the near, or far, future.

    3. H. Alexander Ivey

      If you really want to help them, help to to reduce their income disparity. The workers need to organize and get a fair share of the profits being made from their work. Chang’s cheap shots at Marx shows her ignorance of how capitalism works. And both her worker’s and your’s focusing on where they came from and not where their bosses and leaders are, show that you do not want to address the real problem – the workers do not get a fair wage from their labor.

    4. H. Alexander Ivey

      One final comment, just to get it off my chest. What is her point, her analysis, the place we are to agree with her? My take on her presentation is that she is either not clear herself or she is an apologist for the existing system. Her give aways are the standard ones: first, she tacitly agrees that the present system can not be changed significantly, only twicking is possible; second, her solution, education, hard work, and luck, are either long term or available to the few and are not encoded into laws that are available to all; and third, only the weak ones pay for this solution, as if they are the only players in this game. In short, she is an elistist supporting solutions that only a fortunate few can get.

    5. H. Alexander Ivey

      One final, final comment: “Global economy, global wage, global living standard, it all takes time to even out.”. In the long run, we are all dead, Keynes. Your “solution” is no good.

  8. Norcal_Steve

    I was glad to pick up her book “Factory Girls” in the markdown bin at the decent bookstore in SFO. It is not fantastic but an interesting read, so I was interested to she what she would say. Disappointing and I’m not that sure what the point was. Her book did not talk about Marx and I think what she said here was pseudo-intellectual imo.

    As far as what she would say to Apple, bringing rising wages to China in obviously good for Chinese workers, but surely not at the expense of driving some to suicide due to overwork and slave-like conditions. And no, Apple does not have better jobs for more than a tiny minority of the workers and will never offer them all a way out of the assembly lines to go somewhere else out of the goodness of Apples heart. So please how about just telling Apple to stop ‘murdering’ their workers (actually letting FoxConn murder them for your convenience and profit).

    Min, the ‘star’ of the book (it’s been a while, i think she mainly detailed following 6 different girls) was the one smart, gutsy, risk-taking, successful hustler who moved up the ladder quickly in the wild-west world of Guangdong. There is incredibly opportunity and mobility for a few to sure, but the average factory girl does not have the nerve ambition and street smarts to get ahead. Obviously only a few can really exceed the mean, though with a lot of external money flowing into China there are many more and better opportunities. Chang only to establish and maintain contact with a few girls, a rather self-selecting sample,
    and as I recall, maybe two of those made big strides in self improvement. A high % of her sample, but the sample itself was tiny.

    In general, globalization is about many but not most boats in India, China etc rising as US, European, Japanese lifestyles sink , isn’t it? It’s hardly a refutation of Marx to say that when money flows rapidly into an economy that great opportunities are available for some, or even that in times of prosperity middle classes can be created. Well, maybe in some ways it does, but it’s still class war where the factory owners will for the most part relentless squeeze the life out of the workers for the smallest wage they can get away with. Wages rose rapidly for workers when there was a shortage of labor, but not due to the workers organizing, and the workers are always expendable when contraction comes along.

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