[15 July 2009]
Readers interested in this subject will also enjoy China Underground by Zachary Mexico
There’s been no shortage of books and documentaries lately examining China’s explosive economic growth (at least, prior to the financial meltdown of 2008), and they all call attention to the paradox at the heart of its socioeconomic situation: China has been eager to embrace such western ideals as free-market capitalism, individualism and rampant consumerism, yet the country still remains controlled by the totalitarian government of the communists. Instead of pointing towards a future that includes democracy and a free press, the success of the past few years has vindicated the communist leadership and convinced the Chinese that their odd cocktail of laissez-fair economics and authoritarian control has been the correct choice.
Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China and The People’s Republic of Capitalism provide two vastly different looks at modern China, but they both keep returning to this contradiction. Author Leslie T. Chang and documentary host Ted Koppel see China as a country suffering from an identity crisis, torn between tradition and modernization, capitalism and communism, group-think and personal freedom.
The people they interview mirror these idiosyncrasies. A gay drag dancer insists he’ll give up his “lifestyle” and produce an heir soon in order to please his family. A fashion photographer laments the lack of creative thinking in China but isn’t concerned that the government prevents protests from being shown on the news. A teenage girl lands a high-paying office job and suddenly becomes the breadwinner for her family back in the village, earning her the right to make decisions for her siblings.
The People’s Republic of Capitalism, hosted by Ted Koppel, is a three-hour documentary series that originally aired in the summer of 2008 on the Discovery Channel. In essence, it’s a broad primer on the Chinese pre-meltdown economy and culture, designed to appeal to viewers who don’t know much about the country. The series opens with a segment on US-Chinese relations that quickly taps into the resentment of many blue-collar Americans who have watched their jobs migrate to China over the past two decades.
Take for example the company Briggs and Stratton, a maker of small motors for lawnmowers, which recently moved a manufacturing plant to the Chinese city of Chongqing and laid off almost 500 US workers in the process. At first it seems like Koppel is ready to depict this situation as an example of China stealing jobs that should rightfully belong to Americans, but the truth reveals a more complex relationship between the two countries.
Goods manufactured in China are substantially cheaper thanks to lower wages, and superstores like Wal-Mart owe their success to the rock-bottom prices that Chinese factories are able to provide. Koppel interviews Pam Leaser, a 50-year-old former employee of Briggs and Stratton, who is angry about the loss of her job but admits she does most of her shopping at Wal-Mart. When Koppel points out that her own shopping habits are the reason why China is siphoning jobs away from the America, Leaser has no response.
The rest of The People’s Republic of Capitalism rarely attains this level of insight. To be fair, Koppel is working with a huge disadvantage here: the Chinese people he interviews are likely afraid of being too candid on camera, since the government is known to send its citizens to prison for any public criticism. While interviewing fashion photographer Alan Chun, Koppel tells the young man with a hint of paternal reassurance, “I don’t want to get you in trouble,” even as he’s asking him questions about political protests being violently suppressed and censorship of the news.
From The People’s Republic of Capitalism
Alan’s response – that he has absolute trust in the government and that he doesn’t need a free media to inform him of what’s going on inside the country – would probably seem dangerously naïve to most westerners. And indeed, it certainly is. But it’s possible to understand why these views are held by so many Chinese, even those who don’t seem like they’re squirming to avoid saying something incendiary on air.
After enduring the Japanese invasion of Manchuria during World War II, the civil war between the national government and the communists and the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese people are astonished to be living in a time of global power, wealth and (relative) internal peace. Their trust is based on the suspicion that their current prosperity is a rare and possibly fragile thing and they can’t risk destroying it by getting rid of the government that made it possible.
If The People’s Republic of China disappoints because Koppel doesn’t spend enough time with his interviewees to reveal anything more than a superficial analysis of China, Factory Girls succeeds precisely because author Leslie T. Chang takes the time to immerse herself in the world of her subjects.
Chang is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who spent about three years researching the phenomenon of Chinese women who leave their rural villages to find work in the country’s boomtowns. Despite the fact that so little has been written about them, these 130 million workers are one of the main engines driving the Chinese economy and they comprise, in Chang’s words, “the largest migration in human history.”
Oddly enough, these migrant women have in some ways benefited from their culture’s ingrained sexism. In rural villages, the first-born son is expected to inherit and work the family plot of land, and the girls are meant to marry as early as possible (while China officially has a one-child-per-family policy, enforcement is lax in the countryside). The country’s rapid industrialization has made these family plots almost worthless, forcing the young women to find work to support their families while the men stay behind.
Most village girls quickly realize that the advice of their parents is either impractical (“don’t date boys”) or flat-out wrong (they recommend staying at a single factory in order to advance, when it’s more effective to search around for better opportunities). In addition to jobs, the cities also provide workers with constant opportunities to reinvent themselves. It’s possible to purchase counterfeit high-school and college diplomas on the street, or to land a better-paying office job at the talent market simply by lying about one’s qualifications.
The result is a generation completely unmoored from the millennia-old traditions of their villages and forced to fend for themselves. The cities have become Darwinian environments where everyone is making up the rules as they go.
Chang is the daughter of first-generation American immigrants who fled China just before the communists seized power in 1949, and as such, she understands the culture while being able to view it from a certain distance. Sometimes her comments are as hilarious as they are stinging: she claims to understand how the Cultural Revolution happened when a mixer for dating singles turns on a dime from awkward silence to finger-pointing and loud criticism.
But the book benefits primarily from Chang’s willingness to go off the beaten path and explore so many different institutions in Chinese society, from night classes that teach young women the correct manners to advance in the office workplace (one lessons insists that “purple eye shadow suits all Asian women”) to karaoke lounges that serve as fronts for prostitution.
Interestingly, both Factory Girls and The People’s Republic of Capitalism examine these karaoke lounges and turn up very different results: Chang digs deeper and comes away with mixed feelings, while Koppel seems all too willing to jump to the obvious conclusion.
Chang clearly feels a bit queasy justifying teenage prostitution, but she realizes that the girls who work at the karaoke lounges are there by their own choice, are treated well and make vastly more money in a few hours of work (most of which is spent flirting with clients while they sing) than the girls on the assembly line do in their 12-hour shifts. Maybe this is the best-case scenario for how prostitution can exist in society; it’s certainly far better than the nightmarish reports from Mischa Glenny’s McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld of kidnapped women being drugged and forced into prostitution in cities in the west.
Koppel, on the other hand, seems to spend only a brief amount of time at the karaoke lounge. The three girls he talks to claim only to be hostesses, not prostitutes, but they tell him about their deep sense of shame as one tears up on camera. In a later interview, Koppel describes them as being “in a really scary situation”, which feels like pandering to the audience’s preconceptions more than anything else.
It isn’t the only time Koppel appears guilty of lazy reporting. Another segment profiles affluent consumers in China and whether their spending has gotten out of control. Koppel finds a high-end fashion store that sells men’s belts that cost the equivalent of $800 and he tries to shame the clerk into admitting that’s an obscene amount of money. Isn’t this just a case of China picking up bad habits from the west?
Koppel regains his focus once he stops baiting his interviewees with loaded questions and returns to the big-picture dilemma of where the Chinese economy is headed. Simply put, the country is suffering from corruption on an epic scale – kickbacks for companies that want to do big business, bribes for bureaucrats willing to grease the wheels – and without a free press to uncover even the biggest scandals, nobody is optimistic that it can be brought under control.
But while the communist leadership is determined to stamp out corruption within its own ranks, its members also know that many of the companies making a mint in China are doing so through less-than-savory means, and punishing them might mean driving them out of the country. Consider an astonishing story Koppel investigates about a city official who was caught accepting over a million dollars in bribes from several real-estate developers: the developers faced no penalty whatsoever, while the official was sentenced to death (his sentence was later reduced to merely life imprisonment).
All this raises the question of whether the Chinese economy would have gone off the rails even without the recent global recession, but either way, the damage is done. The People’s Republic of Capitalism and Factory Girls inevitably suffer from this shortcoming: Chang and Koppel were both wrapped up their research just before the bubble burst, and their look at Chinese society might already be a snapshot of a vanished era.
The sole bonus feature on The People’s Republic of Capitalism is an interview with Koppel several months after the special first aired, and while he admits that the Chinese government is no doubt terrified of civil unrest now that economic growth has been brought to a halt and the job market is shrinking, he isn’t able to offer more than guesses as to what will happen next. Perhaps no one can. The history of China over the course of the 20th century, rapidly shifting from one political ideology to the next, offers no clear roadmap of where the country will go from here.
Chang, however, sees signs of hope. While she acknowledges that China’s hypercapitalism can be dehumanizing and overly materialistic, it is also teaching the workers who participate in it to think and act for themselves. Chang is alarmed by how much of traditional Chinese culture is based on the ideal of submitting oneself to the will of a larger group, the way that even something as innocent as a wedding ritual can become an excuse for the group bullying of the individual who sticks out. The factory girls she profiles aren’t exactly politically engaged – one isn’t even sure who the current Chinese president is – but they all come to the conclusion that the only way to move up the economic ladder is to break free of the pack and go searching for new opportunities on their own.
Chang’s Factory Girls offers a riveting human story about how these women live their lives and how much their fortunes change in the span of three years, but what it ultimately reveals is how their individual accomplishments might hold the key to the country’s next steps towards progressive reform and democracy.