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

Photo (partial) from Asia

Traditional and often sensational coverage of China is only a partial interpretation: the people themselves are being lost in the translation.

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.

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