China’s factory girls: nobody’s victims

At last, a book on China’s growth that doesn’t paint migrant workers as pathetic victims but rather as aspirational individuals who now have far more choices than marrying the village idiot.

Neil Davenport

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Nothing seems to arouse so much hostility and confusion amongst veteran liberals and left-wingers as China’s burgeoning economic growth and power.

Many seem capable of seeing only the downsides of Chinese growth. They express concern about the exploitation of migrant workers in China’s city factories. They worry about the effect China’s growth will have on climate change and they protest bitterly against China’s modernisation of Tibet. Defending China’s development today is considered to be misanthropic and adolescent.

In truth, applauding China’s economic development – while still criticising the Chinese regime’s authoritarianism – rests on a very straightforward but important point: China’s development benefits the people of China. That’s right, it benefits them. Although many aspects of China’s industrial growth involve hardship and pain, it still leads to a far better life than that experienced by generations of Chinese people who lived off the land. Indeed, millions of young Chinese people have already voted with their feet and have moved to the big industrial cities.

This is the main argument put forward by American-Chinese writer, Leslie T Chang, in Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China. It’s a firsthand account of what it is like to be a young Chinese woman migrating from village to city, from field to factory. And it tells a heart-soaring, inspirational story along the way. Rather than narrowly focusing on 12-hour factory shifts and mind-numbing toil, the book also captures the process of social and individual change in China with compassion and insight. Unlike the one-eyed anti-globalisation campaigners who deem modernity as reprehensible, Chang illuminates the humanising qualities that a dynamic division of labour brings. Above all else, Chang links the emancipation of these young girls – from patriarchal village life, from domestic boredom – with their arrival in the factory and the office.

Chang often cites a phrase that young Chinese migrants use to describe their decision to leave home and enter the city: ‘chuqu’ – ‘to go out’, as in ‘there was nothing to do at home, so I went out’. Describing Min, who left home at 16 to work in a factory, Chang says ‘she should have been scared. All that she knew was that she was free.’ Elsewhere, Chang says ‘to come out from home and work in a factory is the hardest thing they have ever done. It is also an adventure. What keeps them in the city is not fear but pride: to return home early is to admit defeat. To go out and stay out – chuqu – is to change your fate.’

In the West, rural romantics are commonplace these days, and none of them will say just how stultifying and tedious rustic life can be – especially for the young. The Chinese girls Chang writes about might be working long shifts for a pittance, and they might be sharing a room with a dozen other girls, but they are also ‘having the time of their lives’. Chang writes: ‘Once you had friends, life in the factory could be fun. On rare evenings off, the three girls would skip dinner and go roller-skating then return to watch a late movie at the factory. As autumn turned into winter, the cold in the unheated dorms kept the girls awake at nights. Min dragged her friends into the yard to play badminton until they were warm enough to fall asleep.’

One of the progressive aspects of the factory system is that it brings thousands of people together in the same place. The work is frequently dull and the pay rotten, but the excitement of working alongside others offers some form of compensation. Indeed, it was precisely when women in America and Britain entered factories during the Second World War that traditional ideas of ‘a woman’s place’ were challenged. In Ben Hamper’s Rivethead, an autobiographical account of his time as a car assembly worker at Ford in Michigan, he points out that rural folk would happily travel two hours to work on the line. For them, the social aspect of work had a magnetic pull, and even the shabbiest of local bars seemed cosmopolitan and exciting compared to Hicksville. It is the same for these young Chinese girls – they see city life as an adventure and an opportunity. They have more choice than simply marrying the village idiot.

Throughout Factory Girls, Chang reports on how ambitious these young workers are. They attempt to learn English in their spare time. They join courses to improve their employment opportunities. They read and write fervently, even after a 12-hour shift. For them, this is all part of an important step away from rural China with all of its limitations and ignorance. Chang delights at the rapid pace of change that invigorates Chinese society and individuals. Recounting the story of a young girl who loses her ID and picks up another one, Chang says it’s appropriate because, through the process of urbanisation, the young woman has become ‘transformed, literally a different person’. She also notes that these 17-year-old girls usually become truly transformed and toughened up when they’ve confronted a factory boss about wages and working conditions.

Yet for many Western liberal leftists, such experiences only confirm how problematic and worrying development in China is. They lament the degrading and dangerous aspects of manual work in China (as if dangerous work had never existed before). As is so often the case, these arguments reveal more about Western preoccupations than they do about the experience of life in China today. Indeed, rather than seeing productive work as both necessary and transformative, non-Chinese observers seem capable of perceiving it only as psychologically damaging and harmful. It is no doubt alarming to delicate Western sensibilities that 16- and 17-year-old girls leave home in China ‘unsupervised’ to live and work in big cities. But in contrast, Chang admires these young girl’s guts and salutes their aversion to risk.

In this respect, the exciting developments in China only reveal how fearful and diminished Western attitudes have become. The decline of a work ethic in Britain and America, and a fear of urbanisation and proletarianisation, has become the myopic calling card of the political class and posh radicals. Having projected a falsely one-sided narrative back on to the history of Western industrialisation – environmental degradation, exploitation, etc – such commentators and activists now want to do the same with Chinese industrialisation, too. But the last thing China needs is to import such cultural attitudes, which could seriously undermine its commitment to growth and material prosperity.

Of course, as soon as anyone praises the increased productivity of China, they are accused of being right-wing or champions of a global neo-liberal agenda. But bandying around unpopular political labels is a poor substitute for properly explaining what’s happening in China or why aspects of it should be welcomed. Contemporary anti-capitalism has become a kind of dogma that is used to shout down anyone who thinks development can have a positive impact. For all their supposed ‘people not profits’ outlook, it is people who would lose out if the shallow anti-capitalists of today got their way. Their starting point is always a shrill and narcissistic objection to the profit system (and a dubiously argued one at that) rather than any appreciation of what is in the best material interests of people living in developing nations. For genuine progressives, seeking improvements in people’s living standards should take priority over some eternal ‘principle’ based on environmentalism, human rights or even what passes for anti-capitalism these days.

This was a yardstick that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels employed when analysing the movement of society. Marx and Engels may have famously critiqued capitalism and slammed its social and economic limitations, but they also recognised its ability to improve people’s lives. They identified how the market system created a social division of labour, thus enabling more goods to be produced in a shorter time. This is what’s meant by progress. In The Communist Manifesto, they point out how ‘the bourgeoisie, in its reign of barely a hundred years, has created more massive and colossal productive powers than have all previous generations put together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to agriculture and industry, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even an intimation that such productive powers slept in the womb of social labour?’

For Marx and Engels, the growth of productivity and the forces of production were central to creating a more advanced society that would ultimately benefit people. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky also applied the same yardstick when measuring social progress in any society. That is why he said that the Bolsheviks were, in the fields of mechanisation, ‘disciples of the United States’ which also wanted to build a society that outstripped Ford’s achievements. When examining China, a progressive place to start is to analyse how their social system could improve people’s material living standards even further.

It is undoubtedly the case that the Chinese working classes are exploited and suffer from poor working and living conditions. And any measures they take to improve wages and working conditions should be welcomed and supported. And yet, how the Chinese working class begins to emerge with a collective identity also raises broader questions about the lack of social solidarity in China. Without any sense of social solidarity at a day-to-day level, it is difficult to imagine how a new collective response to economic hardship could emerge.

This is a point that Chang explores in a variety of ways when assessing current barriers to Chinese growth. First of all, it is not the case that Chinese workers, managers and bureaucrats have an ideological commitment to atomised individualism. Rather, that individualism is a consequence of the autarkic character of the Stalinist command economy that China modelled itself on in the 1950s. The inability to create a proper social division of labour meant that people responded to shortages through atomistic self-sufficiency. The problem facing Chinese society today is that, leaving aside the spontaneous workings of the market, there is an absence of ideas or beliefs that can bind people together. In place of such social glue, there is a lot of quack ‘scientism’ babble and quantifiable ‘goals’, which tend to permeate all areas of Chinese life. And as Chang has discovered, this can actually work against the smooth running of the economy rather than assist it.

Chang describes a teaching method called ‘assembly line English’, which attempts to teach English as if the students are on an assembly line. Parts of the brain are apparently activated so that they can memorise more words. Chang rightly says that the pioneer of this particular snake-oil educational venture ‘reduced the whole universe to a string of chemical formulas’. Instead Chang identifies the lack of organic bonds between students, the absence of social glue, which acted as the real barrier to learning a language fluently. After reading Factory Girls, one gets the impression that every aspect of Chinese society, even intimate relationships, has been reduced to a string of facts or goals by so-called scientific experts. Whereas many writers on China identify only the problems that they are preoccupied with – the environment, human rights, etc – Chang expertly examines a problem that is specific to Chinese society and its future development.

Factory Girls is also a personal journey for the author. Growing up in America, she kept her distance from ‘the old country’ and ‘resisted its pull’ for as long as possible. But the opening up of China in the 1990s, and its impressive dynamism and development since, aroused her interest in her family’s country and roots. What is clear in the historical chapters is just how crucially important Chinese independence and national self-determination was, and is, for the people of China. The country might lack solidarity-based beliefs, but a sense of pride at being able to determine their own fate, free from external interference, pushes China onward and upward. Left-wingers who advocate NGO interference to deal with human rights or environmental issues effectively want to relegate China to a pre-1940s stage of development. Have these activists no sense of history, or no sense of shame?

This is why a book like Factory Girls really matters. By portraying how Chinese people are actually living their lives, as opposed to talking about how they should be living their lives, Chang provides a clear and dynamic portrait of Chinese society and the individuals undergoing transformation. The conclusion to be drawn from Factory Girls is not that development is dangerous but that its humanising reach cannot come quickly enough for millions of Chinese people. There is nothing misanthropic or childish or apologetic in advocating that.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China by Leslie T Chang is published by Picador. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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