China plays copycat when it should be playing leapfrog


In terms of economic development, China is emulating the United States.  Based on the podcast, instead of learning from our mistakes, they are reinventing the proverbial wheel.  The Chinese are copying the history of US manufacturing when they should be leapfrogging us.  During the Industrial Revolution, the United States created large factories powered by coal that could house its workers.  Workers performed the same task each day and the working environment was dangerous.  Children worked instead of going to school because it was necessary to help the family financially.  As unions grew, they managed to bargain collectively for better pay, better working hours, and a minimum working age.  These milestones helped develop the United States economically, so much so that it was able to export its manufacturing jobs in favor of more “white-collar” jobs.  China is now where America was decades ago: around 70 percent of its power is generated from dirty coal, people work long hours for little pay, and children are working when they should be learning.  Some believe that this method of development, going through a “sweatshop” phase, is necessary for a country to become developed.  However, as Mr. Daisey pointed out, this doesn’t have to be the case.  As a country, we figured out how to be profitable while still making factories safer and increasing the quality of life of its inhabitants.  Once we started exporting jobs, we neglected to export the safe work practices, as if they were a trade secret.

Bad working conditions are not merely detrimental to workers, they also strain the company in question.  Foxconn and similar companies do not have large, loud machines operating that could easily liberate a hand or arm from someone, rather the conditions are much more sinister.  Silence is golden, so much so that people are demerited for speaking in the manufacturing line.  They stand for 14 to 16 hours a day, sometimes reaching 34 hours straight (which can prove to be deadly); sitting or slouching is chastised.  People are cramped into small rooms when they go to sleep.  Hands become unusable from years of repetitive motion.  Neurotoxins are used to speed up production, but cause uncontrollable shaking that makes workers unable to perform their tasks.  When combined, these conditions make worker turnaround alarmingly high, 10 to 20 percent per month.  This rate of turnaround affects the company greatly.  It has to put more resources into hiring and training laborers; resources that could be used to construct a rotation schedule or to buy chairs.  This would prevent the damage caused by repeating a motion over and over.  Making small changes could prove to be beneficial to both the company and the worker.  Manufacturers in the United States have been able to increase productivity while lowering turnaround; there is no reason why this cannot be exported to China along with manufacturing itself.

People make the argument that while working for these manufacturing companies is horrid, it is less bad than life on the rice patties.  People that think this way might as well say that smoking from a pipe is good because it is not as bad as cigarettes, while they neglect to mention that smoking in any form is unhealthy.  It is true that on a grand scale China’s standard of living is increasing, but at a cost.  People in Shenzhen before development led simple lives; making a living was surely difficult, but it is doubtful that suicide was commonplace.  It would be interesting to find out whether people are happier now or before development.  In addition to the problems mentioned above, air pollution causes many adverse health effects, from asthma to cancer.  Economics like Paul Krugman say this is necessary for initial growth, according to the podcast.  However, it seems like this is taking the easy way out.  Had companies that were exporting to China been more ethical, they would have ensured that working conditions at the very least do not convince people to commit suicide.  The path China chose to move toward becoming a developed country is disappointing in general in so far that it involves making many avoidable mistakes; this podcast shed light on one facet of the problem.

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One response to “China plays copycat when it should be playing leapfrog

  1. I’m glad you compared Chinese and American industrial growth in such detail in your post. While listening to the podcast, that was one of my main reactions.

    I grew up near Lowell, Massachusetts and have visited the museums of the textile factories. The working conditions were similar then as they are currently in China; children were sought after for their small hands, people died on the job. While it is difficult to say, I can see the truth in Paul Krugman’s statement, that there needs to be an ugly period of labor before civil rights truly develop. China’s industrial growth began when the government evolved from truly communist to a hybrid of communism and democracy that is extremely foreign to Americans. Perhaps the expansion of rights will continue to evolve with economic growth. This generation of Chinese could be compared to any immigrants to the US; they must take the dangerous jobs in hopes of earning menial amount of money to gain some political power. They will do all this so that their children will one day have a better life – the “Chinese Dream.”

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