Isham Cook's Reviews > Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang
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's review
Nov 23, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: china-bookshelf

Late in the book there is a disturbing account of a small-scale business operation in an apartment in Dongguan, Guangdong Province. The male running it keeps his female underlings working all day and forbids to them to leave the apartment except for a few hours once a week; they sleep in a cramped dormitory-style bedroom. Quiz: this operation is A) a brothel, B) a sweatshop, C) a religious cult, D) none of the above. D is correct: it's a private English language school for adults, mainly female factory workers between jobs who want to gain English credentials. Their teacher's notion of language learning is, like so much in China, quantitative-based and modeled on the factory assembly line: a machine he invented rapidly rotate words which the students must memorize as they flash by. This episode in Leslie Chang's book is representative in presenting two aspects of life in China for the hundreds of millions of migrant workers trying to achieve career stability or success in the city. On the one hand, there is the optimistic assessment, emphasized by Chang throughout the book, namely the freedom migrants now have to leave the village and go where opportunity beckons, with increasing numbers of success stories, primarily for female migrants, who often paradoxically enjoy greater freedom than males due to the obligations of male migrants to return to the village and care for their family. As Chang recounts with the stories of two migrants she befriended and followed for two years, Min and Chunming, the choices young Chinese women from the countryside now have at their disposal for upward mobility can be compared to the freedom and allure of worldwide travel young people from the developed world enjoy.

On the other hand, there is a powerful counterforce holding many Chinese back from freedom and autonomy: the imposing psychological control of group conformity. As a longtime American resident in China, I see this all the time in numerous guises among all social strata, not just migrants (and I write about this in my website attached to my Amazon profile). Although it is true that working conditions in factories have been improving over the past few years as workers learn about their rights and bargaining power through better communication (the internet) as well as negative publicity about labor exploitation at Foxconn, this still largely applies to skilled factory workers. For countless other workers in the service industry (restaurants, shop workers, the sex industry), working conditions remain awful - 12-14 hour days, 1-2 days off per month, minimum wage. Educated white-collar workers, for their part, experience a different kind of exploitation, hardly less grim: typically just as long working hours (though varying considerably from company to company) or 24-hour cellphone monitoring when off work, with elaborate penalty systems for failure to respond immediately to cellphone summons or other minor infractions (one highly educated female I know who worked as a journalist for a national newspaper quit because they were docking too much of her pay each month for largely unspecified penalties).

So returning to the aforementioned English training school, where Chang would describe the conditions experienced by these women as a matter of personal freedom and choice, we also recoil at the psychological coercion involved, which prevents them from rebelling, protesting and leaving. To be sure, this school is a bizarre exception, and most English schools in China, even unaccredited ones, are run like normal schools, with students present only during class hours. But another book needs to be written that deals with the dark side of China's economic success, even in these upwardly mobile times. It's good to have Chang's upbeat account, but for every migrant who achieves success like Min, how many millions of Chinese (including the educated class) remain locked and paralyzed in their internal cages of fear and anger, quietly spending their entire waking hours making superiors rich while they receive a pittance (not to mention the horrifying ongoing problem of companies that don't pay their workers at all, even an entire year's promised wages, folding up operations just before the Spring Festival and disappearing). After years of teaching in Chinese universities, I could see the mental slavery all around me on university campuses, which unlike universities almost anywhere in the world, are completely void of any signs of student protests. Largely enabling and ensuring China's economic expansion, in short, is group coercion and internalized fear on a scale few other societies know.

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