China’s Factory Girls: A Conversation with Author Leslie T. Chang

Readers interested in this subject will also enjoy China Underground by Zachary Mexico

Even at a time when coverage of China dominates the front pages of newspapers and online magazines – thanks to high-profile topics like the country’s environmental woes, the Beijing Olympics, or the recent riots in Xinjiang – it’s becoming clear that western readers aren’t getting the full story. So much of the media focus on China has been obsessed with the country’s politics and its economy (particularly the widespread fear that China’s rise will equal America’s fall), that what’s getting lost in translation, so to speak, is any consideration of how the average Chinese person lives and what effect these individuals will have on the country’s much-debated future.

It’s certainly easy to reduce any analysis of China to a look at the plans of its authoritarian leadership. This has been the case in even the best articles on China in recent memory, such as the New Republic’s examination of human rights just prior to the 2008 Olympics (“Medals and Rights” by Andrew J. Nathan, 9 July 2008), or a stinging chronicle of the country’s inferiority complex in the New York Review of Books, but it’s a perspective that tends to portray everyone in China as either a mindless zealot or a protestor crushed by the government (“China: Humiliation & Ethics” by Orville Schell, 14 August 2008). The subject matter of these stories is real, of course, and is certainly worth reporting on. But this specific outlook is akin to the rest of the world assuming, from the reportage it receives, that Americans spend all day protesting for or against the war in Iraq simply because that issue has dominated political debate in the US for the better part of the past decade.

Book: Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

Author: Leslie Chang

Publisher: Random House

Publication date: 2009-08

Length: 448 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $16.00

Image: this context, Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China is nothing short of a revelation. On the surface, the book is about the 130 million Chinese who have traveled from their rural villages to the cities in search of work. While it would be easy for this subject matter to descend into an endless series of facts and statistics, Chang, a former correspondent in China for the Wall Street Journal, is able to find the human story here by focusing on two women trying to improve their fortunes in the city of Dongguan.

These are the stories of Min, whose slow but steady progress in the factories and then later in several office jobs makes her the breadwinner for her family back in the village, and Chunming, an ambitious extrovert who briefly gets rich from a health-foods pyramid scheme and spends most of her time trying to duplicate that success. Chang follows them both through the ups and downs of their working lives for almost three years, as the women rapidly change jobs, friends and lovers and long-term plans. It’s a riveting look at lives lived in fast-forward.

But Factory Girls is so much more, eventually adding up to a panoramic view of the city of Dongguan that feels like nothing so much as a Chinese version of The Wire. Almost every chapter finds Chang researching a different institution or idiosyncratic business venture, like a self-help industry that’s built on plagiarism or a karaoke lounge that’s a front for prostitution or a “white-collar class” that teaches women the correct manners to advance in the office (and in the process making a mockery of Communism’s dream of a classless society).

And there’s still another layer to Factory Girls, as Chang spends several chapters investigating her own family’s history in China, which includes a grandfather who was one of the first casualties in the civil war between the Communists and the national government, and family members who have been obsessed for decades over the betrayals of the Cultural Revolution. Some might argue that these chapters are an awkward fit for the rest of the book, but I think they’re simply Chang’s way of drawing us deeper into the past through personal stories rather than simply presenting a history lesson, in the process examining how these tragedies are still impacting the present.

Both a fascinating read and an insightful look at Chinese society that goes far beyond most news coverage, Factory Girls should be required reading for anyone interested in China. I was recently able to talk to Leslie T. Chang and ask her a few follow-up questions regarding the book and what she thinks the future might hold for the country.

Factory Girls was released in October 2008, right around the time the global financial meltdown was happening. Do you feel any of the information in the book might be outdated?

I know that some readers and reviewers felt that way, but I don’t. I’ve been in touch with the young women that I wrote about and they’re both still gainfully employed and doing pretty well.

I think when you take a longer view you see that there have been migrants going to the city for over two decades and they’re used to having a lot of ups and downs. They’re used to coming from a very poor background and making do with very little. So I think that they take this latest economic downturn in stride, as well.

When I talk to the people I know there, they say that a lot of factories are slowing down. Min – the younger woman I wrote about – had to take a 15 percent pay cut at her factory because their orders are down. But no one sounds panicked about it; everyone’s just taking things in stride. There are good times and bad times.

Is there any aspect of the book that might have changed since the economic downturn?

Not really. I feel like in general you see a lot of stories about how Chinese companies are trying to upgrade and I think that’s been gradually going on over time. Already, costs in China are higher than productions costs in a lot of the developing world – for example in Vietnam or Bangladesh. And the reasons that people choose to manufacture in China are not just sheer cost issues, but also this very efficient network of manufacturers that allows people to make products really quickly and to the market specifications.

And I think China still has that appeal for people. Even though things have slowed and a lot of orders have been cancelled or gone down, I think that as the economy picks up, people are still going to be buying things from China.

How are Min and Chunming doing today?

Min actually got married and had a baby. She basically took a leave from work to go home and get married and have a baby early this year. After the baby was about six weeks old, she and her husband came back out to Dongguan and she’s working at the same job she was all along and he has a technical job in a factory. And they rent an apartment near the factory. So she’s pretty stable. As you saw by the end of the book, she had moved out of her frantic mobility stage and was kind of settling. and you can see that a little more now that the book is finished.

Chunming is doing fine. She’s still very up and down. Since the book finished she’s probably switched jobs about four different times. She’s always searching for some kind of direct-sales miracle or a money-making scheme. I think now, with the economic downturn, she’s looking for something a little more stable, so she’s working at a sales position at a factory that makes synthetic leather products that’s run by a friend of hers.

I realize this question might be a little off-topic since the women you interviewed seemed pretty apolitical, but does the Chinese government have any reason to be worried about the economic downturn?

I don’t think so. As you say, these workers are generally very apolitical, very focused on their own life issues: jobs and dating and marriage and family and getting ahead and improving themselves.

I guess one of the reasons I wrote this book was to show that not every worker is on the edge of protest. I felt like those workers were getting profiled in disproportionate numbers, just because that’s where the news is. That’s what we gravitate towards as newspaper reporters. But I wanted to show that the vast majority of people are quite apolitical and just focused on their own thing.

I think another thing to point out about the protests is that they’re generally focused on very specific bread-and-butter issues. Most often, it’s workers who haven’t been paid because their boss is behind on his orders and he doesn’t have the money to pay them, or the boss has just taken off without paying anyone for a couple months.

You also see older workers saying that they haven’t been paid their pension and the factory just closed down without giving them what they were owed. So while these protests do happen all the time, it’s very rare that people are protesting for broader systemic injustices, saying that it’s wrong that they have to work these hours at all or that the government is corrupt or that these bosses make 90 percent of the money and they get only a tiny bit.

They’re not focused on these larger, abstract issues that – if broad enough – would be a threat to the government and would be something they would take very seriously. Instead they’re saying, I like my job, I just want to get paid on time. I think that’s a very different thing than a groundswell of democratic opposition.

Confucian Stoicism

Photo (partial) found on Looking Glass

Confucian Stoicism

“I feel that the most important story is this massive social and economic change that’s affecting companies and individuals and institutions and cities and villages all across the country.”

What’s your opinion of coverage of China in western media? Do you feel it’s distorted or fairly accurate?

Oh wow, you’ve touched on one of my favorite questions. (laughs) I think when you’re a newspaper reporter, which I was for a long time, what you choose to cover is very specific. And I think partly it’s based on what’s new and what’s sensational. But I think also there’s partly this feeling that we’re the watchdogs of society and we expose the injustices.

And I think in a place like America that really works well. If you write a story about a homeless man who’s living in his car or a family that’s working three jobs and their kids are still hungry, people will understand that not everyone in America is in these dire conditions, but these are important issues that we need to focus on and that people can actually change things because of this information.

But when you’re writing about China and you write these quite sensational or unrepresentative stories about migrants losing their arms in terrible factory accidents, or someone’s child dying because of pollution in the river – those cases obviously happen, but I think here in America people read them and think, oh my gosh, this is horrible! They can’t help but think that this is what is happening all the time in China, because they don’t realize that most people are very poor by our (American) standards, but their lives are improving and they’re often quite optimistic about their future, because their context is where they’re coming from and not where America is now.

That was the background for why I wanted to write these articles and eventually this book about the migrants: just to tell the stories of ordinary people and to show that these stories are really fascinating and dramatic and you don’t need this element of some terrible thing happening or someone challenging the government in order to make it interesting.

In answer to your question, I do think the foreign reporting of China is quite politicized and often distorted, partly because of the demands of the news cycle. You need to follow these big stories and turn out things that are quite – not sensational – but at least out of the ordinary. And it’s very hard as a newspaper reporter to spend the amount of time needed to really get to know someone and to find the drama in their daily stories. I think there’s so much pressure on reporters to just turn out stuff really quickly. I felt that very much when I was a reporter.

I do think it’s improving. If you look at the coverage of China say, ten years ago, it was heavily focused on politics and dissidents and protests against the government. I’m not saying that those things are not important, but I don’t feel that’s the most important story in China right now. I feel that the most important story is this massive social and economic change that’s affecting companies and individuals and institutions and cities and villages all across the country. And I think you do see that more and more of the reporting has turned away from the straight political story and has focused more on the socioeconomic story, so I do think that things are improving.

There was an article at Slate recently that mentioned that the most popular movies in China tended to be crowd pleasers (“The Blockbusters of China” by Grady Hendrix, 6 July 2009). The country’s costume epics and miserablist dramas aren’t very popular over there, but they do have an arthouse following here in America. It seems like there’s almost a parallel with our news coverage of China.

Yeah, it’s sort of this reminder: people are human. They like fun stuff. They have a good sense of humor. It’s not like everyone wants to be preached to all the time.

I think another good example is the use of the Internet. People always think that everyone in China is using the Internet to organize for protests and criticize the government, but it’s kind of like the same thing as in America: people are using it to meet people and play games online and to chat and to download music illegally. They’re kind of doing the same things on the Internet that a lot of young Americans are doing.

But our automatic instinct is to think that the Chinese people must be secretly plotting against the regime because they hate the government. And in fact they just want to hang out with their friends and have fun like anyone else.

Were there any aspects of Chinese society that you wished you had touched on in the book but didn’t?

When I started, I was thinking that there were different markets that operated in Dongguan and that that was a good way to look at the culture of the migrants. And one was the job market and one was the marriage market and one was this market for education and self-help – all sorts of scams.

One area I thought about focusing on but then ended up not doing just because I had so much material already, was this market in superstition or fate. I think there’s a very strong feeling among the migrants that, on the one hand, they’re working so hard to improve their lives and change their fate, but at the same time there’s a very traditional feeling that a lot of things are out of your control. There’s a strong feeling of superstition or people believing in curses or ghosts.

So I thought I would get into that as sort of a fourth market, like a market in fate or superstition. But I just never got around to it because the other stuff was enough and was shaped pretty well within the narrative.

I do think that stories didn’t always turn out the way I expected. I think when Chunming was flirting with the idea of studying English, I was definitely very excited about it from a personal point of view, but also from a writer’s point of view. Like, wouldn’t it be great if the book ended with her learning to speak English? It would be this perfect symbol of her connecting to the rest of the world. And instead she goes off into this other scheme with health-food supplements.

So it wasn’t the elegant ending that I wanted, but I think that’s how things work when you’re doing non-fiction. Things don’t always go where you want them to go and the lesson is that you just have to follow. It’s going to be interesting, but maybe it’s just not what you could make up.

At the end of the book, Min gets a high-paying job that allows her to take illegal kickbacks. I felt torn between being horrified at the amount of corruption that goes on in China, and yet feeling proud for Mina that she gets to benefit from it and help her family. Is that a contradiction at all?

I think it’s just how the world that they live in works. I think that’s kind of what I felt all the way through, but it comes out really clearly at the end, when she starts taking these huge kickbacks.

They have to live in this world, and we can sit there and talk until we’re blue in the face about how terrible it is that companies take kickbacks and bosses pocket money on the side and this and that, but the reality is that’s the system they live in. As Chunming says at one point, “even if you don’t do it, you’re not going to change anything.” And that sounds like a rationalization but it’s also true in their world. So I guess you do have mixed feelings at the end because you’ve become very sympathetic to Min and you want her to do well and suddenly she’s become one of these corrupt executives that you totally dislike.

I have mixed feelings about Dongguan, as well. On the one hand, when I compare it to where China’s coming from, I feel like it is a good thing. It is a good thing that young people, especially young women, can leave the village and have an opportunity to change their lives in the city. But you shouldn’t have any illusions about a place like Dongguan. It’s extraordinarily corrupt and there are so many problems there, so it’s not by any means an ideal world. But it’s just the world they live in and the world that they know.

You mentioned in the book that you see China’s transition towards capitalism as a good thing, and that it’s teaching these factory workers to think like individuals for the first time instead of simply going along with the group mentality. Do you still feel hopeful for the future and that there might be bigger changes coming?

I do. I do feel like the group mentality is so strong, and not just from the 50 years of Communism but also from the traditional Confucian ideas of people knowing their place and not sticking out.

I do think that people getting the opportunity to change their lives is a very good thing. I think that will only continue as the economy develops more and the society becomes more free and millions of more people leave their villages and figure out what they want out of life: move to the city, or go to the city and then go back. Just the fact that they have a choice is a very good thing.

You talked to a number of people in the book who suffered during the Cultural Revolution, but almost everyone’s reaction seemed very apathetic, almost accepting of what happened. Why do you think that it is? Something in the Chinese character, or perhaps something that was specific to the Cultural Revolution, like the fact that it was so widespread?

I guess it’s sort of both. I do think it’s a Chinese characteristic, which is to be quite stoic about terrible things. I think that comes from what’s still a quite traditional farm-based culture, where it’s sort of the assumption that life will be hard and that bad things will happen. Children will die of illness and people will have setbacks and the harvest will go bad. I think that’s deeply ingrained in the Chinese people.

But I do feel especially that the trauma that took place in China during the Cultural Revolution and the 30 years of radical Maosim has caused people to have an exaggeratedly apathetic view, as you say. And I think that comes from a lot of things. I think one is the traditional stoicism of the Chinese people. I think one is the government’s unwillingness to open up and really talk about what happened, and people’s unwillingness to confront what happened.

There’s a lot of confusion if you really think about it. I mean, why was it that people turned on their families and killed their neighbors and teachers? It’s just totally impossible to imagine that a civilized culture or even an uncivilized culture could do that to itself. And yet they did.

So I think with the Cultural Revolution there’s this silence and confusion and that adds to people’s very automatic reaction to turn aside from their own suffering and act like they don’t care about it or act like it wasn’t a big deal that family members were lost or lives were destroyed.

Leslie T. Chang

What are you working on next? I read another article that suggested you weren’t too interested in returning to writing for a newspaper. (“Writing Factory Girls” by Leslie T. Chang, The China Beat, 24 May 2008)

(laughs) Yeah, I don’t think I’m going back to newspaper reporting. What I’m doing now is thinking of some China-related stories and hopefully establishing myself writing for magazines. And then gradually move into other areas, like maybe another part of the developing world.

Soon after writing the book, I realized I couldn’t go back to newspaper journalism and that writing long pieces or books was a much better fit for me. So that’s where I am, now.

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