China Makes, The World Takes

A look inside the world’s manufacturing center shows that America should welcome China’s rise—for now.
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WORKERS at an Inventec factory in Shanghai check computer motherboards

A factory work shift is typically 12 hours, usually with two breaks for meals (subsidized or free), six or seven days per week. Whenever the action lets up—if the assembly line is down for some reason, if a worker has spare time at a meal break—many people place their heads down on the table in front of them and appear to fall asleep instantly. Chinese law says that the standard workweek is 40 hours, so this means a lot of overtime, which is included in the pay rates above. Since their home village may be several days’ travel by train and bus, workers from the hinterland usually go back only once a year. They all go at the same time—during the “Spring Festival,” or Chinese New Year, when ports and factories effectively close for a week or so and the nation’s transport system is choked. “The people here work hard,” an American manager in a U.S.-owned plant told me. “They’re young. They’re quick. There’s none of this ‘I have to go pick up the kids’ nonsense you get in the States.”

At every electronics factory I’ve seen, each person on an assembly line has a bunch of documents posted by her workstation: her photo, name, and employee number, often the instructions she is to follow in both English and Chinese. Often too there’s a visible sign of how well she’s doing. For the production line as a whole there are hourly totals of target and actual production, plus allowable and actual defect levels. At several Taiwanese-owned factories I’ve seen, the indicator of individual performance is a childish outline drawing of a tree with leaves. After each day’s shift one of the tree’s leaves is filled in with a colored marker, either red or green. If the leaf is green, the worker has met her quota and caused no problems. If it’s red, a defect has been traced back to her workstation. One red leaf per month is within tolerance; two is a problem.

As in all previous great waves of industrialization, many people end up staying in town; that’s why Shenzhen has grown so large. But more than was the case during America’s or England’s booms in factory work, many rural people, especially the young women, work for two or three years and then go back to the country with their savings. In their village they open a shop, marry a local man and start a family, buy land, or use their earnings to help the relatives still at home.

Life in the factories is obviously hard, and in the heavy- industry works it is very dangerous. In the same week that 32 people were murdered at Virginia Tech, 32 Chinese workers at a steel plant in the north were scalded to death when a ladleful of molten steel was accidentally dumped on them. Even in Chinese papers, that story got less play than the U.S. shooting—and fatal coal-mine disasters are so common that they are reported as if they were traffic deaths. By comparison, the light industries that typify southern China are tedious but less overtly hazardous. As the foreman of a Taiwanese electronics factory put it to me when I asked him about rough working conditions, “Have you ever seen a Chinese farm?” An American industrial designer who works in China told me about a U.S. academic who toured his factory and was horrified to see young female workers chained to their stations. What she saw was actually the grounding wire that is mandatory in most electronics plants. Each person on the assembly line has a Velcro band around her wrist, which is connected to the worktable to avoid a static- electricity buildup that could destroy computer chips.

That so many people are in motion gives Shenzhen and surrounding areas a rootless, transient quality. The natural language of southern China is Cantonese, but in the factory cities the lingua franca is Mandarin, the language that people from different parts of China are likeliest to share. “I don’t like it here,” a Chinese manager originally from Beijing told me, three years into a work assignment to Shenzhen. “There are no roots or culture.” “For the first few weeks I was here, I thought it was soulless,” Liam Casey says of the town that has been his home for 10 years. “But like any fast-moving place, the activity is the character. It’s like New York. You arrive at the airport and go downtown, and when you get out of that cab, no one knows where you came from. You could have been there one hour, you could have been there 10 years—no one can tell. It’s similar here, which makes it exciting.” Casey told me that, to him, Shanghai felt slow “and made for tourists.” Indeed, I am regularly surprised to find that people stroll rather than stride along the sidewalks of Shanghai: It’s a busy city with slow pedestrians. Or maybe Casey’s outlook is contagious.

Another great flow into Shenzhen and similar cities is of entrepreneurs who have come and set up factories. The point of the Shenzhen liberalizations was less to foster any one industry than to make it easy for businesses in general to get a start.

Many entrepreneurs attracted by the offer came from Taiwan, whose economy is characterized by small, mainly family-owned firms like those that now abound in southern China. Overall, mainland China’s development model is closer to Taiwan’s than to Japan’s or Korea’s. In all these countries and throughout East Asia, governments use many tools to maximize industrial output: tax policy, trading rules, currency values, and so on. But Japanese and Korean policy has tended to emphasize the welfare of large, national-champion firms—Mitsubishi and Toyota, Lucky Gold Star and Samsung—whereas Taiwan’s exporters have been thousands of small firms, a few of which grew large. China is, of course, vaster than the other countries combined, but its export-oriented companies are small. One reason for the atomization is pervasive mistrust and corruption, plus a shaky rule of law. Even Foxconn, China’s largest exporter, was only No. 206 on last year’s Fortune Global 500 list of the biggest companies in the world. When foreigners have trouble entering the Japanese or Korean markets, it is often because they run up against barriers protecting big, well-known local interests. The problem in China is typically the opposite: Foreigners don’t know where to start or whom to deal with in the chaos of small, indistinguishable firms.

For me, the fragmented nature of the Chinese system is symbolized by yet another of the stunning sights in Shenzhen: the SEG Electronics Market, a seven-story downtown structure whose every inch is crammed with the sales booths of hundreds of mom-and-pop electronics dealers. “Chips that I couldn’t dream of buying in the U.S., reels of rare ceramic capacitors that I only dream about at night!” Andrew “Bunnie” Huang, a Chinese-American electronics Ph.D. from MIT, wrote in his blog after a visit. “My senses tingle, my head spins. I can’t suppress a smirk of anticipation as I walk around the next corner, to see shops stacked floor to ceiling with probably a hundred million resistors and capacitors.” As he noted, “within an hour’s drive north” were hundreds of factories that could “take any electronics ideas and pump them out by the literal boatload.” The market is part permanent trade show, part supply stop for people who suddenly need some capacitors or connectors for a prototype or last-minute project, part swap meet where traders unload surplus components.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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