Mr. China Comes to America

For decades, every trend in manufacturing favored the developing world and worked against the United States. But new tools that greatly speed up development from idea to finished product encourage start-up companies to locate here, not in Asia. Could global trade winds finally be blowing toward America again?

The Factory-Level View, From the World’s Biggest Factory

I had a more vivid sense of some of these challenges after this latest look at Chinese factories—especially at Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics maker. You learn a lot about China from its factories, of which I have now visited nearly 200—just as you would have learned a lot about the England of Charles Dickens and Friedrich Engels by seeing its factories, and the America of Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair. Factories are not the only arenas for high-speed social transformation in China: its farms, from which working-age people are fleeing, and its cities, to which millions of people migrate each year, are also the settings for individual dramas and collective adjustment at a rate and on a scale that the world has never previously seen. But on this trip I spent time in factories. And what I saw underscored the ways in which the tumultuous transformation of China is complicating life for its outsourcers and exporters.

At the Foxconn plant I visited, I know firsthand only about conditions I could observe in four hours of walking around the more than one-mile-square “campus” and being taken into selected dormitories, cafeterias, training rooms, and assembly-line areas by members of the newly accommodating Foxconn PR team. One part of the visit had the unmistakable note of the staged: In the sole dormitory we entered, whose occupants were all on their shifts at work, every towel and pillow in the four-bunk room I saw was perfectly aligned. The clothes were on hangers in precise order, and there was not a scrap of extra paper or debris on desks, dressers, the floor, or anywhere else. I could only assume that this room had been specially cleaned up; other parts of the campus resembled most other parts of China in being much more casually groomed. I’m acutely aware of all the things I did not see: conditions at night, the dorms where not four but six or eight workers live in each room, assembly lines where hazardous materials might be used or where the pace is exceptionally fast. Still, what I was allowed to see was more than a tiny keyhole glimpse—and my movement around the campus was less rather than more controlled than I’d been accustomed to on other factory visits. The scale of buzz and activity was so vast—cafeterias with thousands of people getting lunch, bus and shuttle stops with hundreds of workers waiting for a ride, coffee shops and convenience stores crowded with Foxconn patrons—that I doubted that every detail could have been orchestrated overnight. Plus, there were products to ship.

At most other big Chinese factories I’d seen, people walked around all day in uniforms—usually gray or blue coveralls for men, light-colored smocks for women. At Foxconn, people wore anti-static jackets and caps when at work on the assembly lines and shirts or vests with the Foxconn logo when in offices. But when walking to the cafeteria, going to the shops, or commuting to normal off-site apartments, where three-quarters of the workforce lives, people were dressed in the blue jeans or cargo shorts and fake Polo or NBA shirts of a normal Chinese crowd. On the lines I did see, where printed circuit boards and other electronic components were being put together in a process that combined the use of large, fancy, expensive machinery with detailed handwork, the pace and supervision seemed no looser or tighter than I’d seen at comparable sites elsewhere in China. If you are looking for the most-gruesome factory conditions in China, you don’t go to a multinational giant like Foxconn, which has to deal with Western customers and pay at least some attention to appearances and laws. You go instead to the small, ramshackle, often unregulated workshops, often away from the big cities, where conditions are as inefficient and sometimes as unsafe as they were when China was just beginning to industrialize.

Although I had heard about the Foxconn “suicide nets,” I was still taken aback to see them. Most dormitories and factory buildings on the site are five or six stories tall. Outside every upper-story window, open balcony, and other spot from which someone might plunge, the company has installed netting about 20 feet above ground level. The founder and CEO, Terry Gou, ordered the nets installed after a spate of jumping suicides in 2010; many of the upper windows also now have latches that keep them from opening fully, and some balconies have a fine mesh of jump-prevention wire. The idea, I was told by a Foxconn spokesman, was that while some suicide attempts reflect deep mental illness or depression, others are impulsive and half-thought-through, so anything that even slightly slows an attempt might deter a suicide altogether. (The peak suicide rate for Foxconn came in 2010, when it reported a total of 12 “completed” suicides at all its Chinese plants. On a per capita basis, this was below the suicide rate for China as a whole, but everyone at Foxconn recognized it as an emergency.)

But to me the most significant aspect of the visit—one my hosts were so inured to that they barely mentioned it—was the sight of the enormous throngs at Foxconn’s recruiting and new-worker training sites on campus. In a typical week, the Shenzhen Longhua facility will take on about 2,000 new employees for its own factories, and recruit and train many more for other Foxconn sites. It brings in so many people because so many keep heading out; the annual turnover rate at the plant is about 60 percent—high but not astounding by Chinese standards.

A convergence of trends make operations in America more attractive and feasible, just as the cost and friction of operating in China are increasing.

You can draw many conclusions from this rate of churn. Anita Chan, an expert on Chinese labor conditions at the University of Technology, Sydney, said the turnover indicated some brutal realities of Chinese factory life, in ways that reflected both well and poorly on Foxconn itself. “Why do workers still go to Foxconn despite its bad reputation?” she asked, in an interview with The China Story, an Australian online journal. “I believe that it is because they know that Foxconn pays wages on time. While this may appear to be a crude view, workers at Foxconn often come from smaller companies where they have been cheated, are underpaid, or even owed wages. In this context, they know that Foxconn is synonymous with an assured income.” But to earn more money—or even enough money to stay ahead of fast-rising food and housing costs—the workers find that they have to put in overtime. According to Chan, “They willingly comply until they get totally exhausted and cannot tolerate the long work hours anymore. Their solution then is to quit.” Some go back to Foxconn; some go, often with a group of friends, to another factory in hopes of a better deal; some find retail jobs; some move back home or to other parts of the country. All in all, they change the labor dynamics of China’s vast factory zone, steadily increasing the cost and reducing the predictability of doing business there.

I spoke about workforce churn with Foxconn’s Louis Woo, whom I had met years earlier in Shanghai. Woo and Terry Gou had become friends in the early 1990s, when Woo was the general manager of Apple Taiwan. Four years ago, Woo accepted Gou’s offer to be Foxconn’s chief spokesman, and moved to Shenzhen. Woo told me that Gou, who turned 62 on the day of my visit, was at this stage of life increasingly conscious of the social as well as the purely industrial legacy of his work.

Terry Gou has done as much as anyone since Deng Xiaoping to shape life in China, or at least in the factory-dense southern part of the country. Although Gou is Taiwanese and Foxconn’s headquarters are in Taiwan, the company is the largest private employer in mainland China. According to Louis Woo, Gou is aware of the example of Henry Ford. Not the Ford of the assembly line and the mass-marketed Model T, whose achievements Gou has already matched, nor the elderly Henry Ford of the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Rather, the “welfare capitalist” Ford, who in 1914 announced a new $5 daily wage, roughly double the prevailing rate. Ford did this to reduce then-extreme turnover on his assembly lines, which was even more rapid than Foxconn’s current level, and to hasten the creation of a middle class capable of buying his cars.

Foxconn has raised basic wages four times in the past three years, in some areas doubling the starting-level pay. A typical Foxconn assembly-line worker spends 50 hours a week on the job—40 hours at base rates, and 10 hours of overtime at a time-and-a-half rate. For that, a worker typically gets about $400 a month, or about $2 an hour. During production surges, workers may put in another 10 hours of weekend overtime, for which they get double-rate pay. Six years ago, typical monthly pay in Shenzhen factories I visited ranged from $115 to $155 (the difference partly reflects the higher value of the Chinese renminbi today). Woo said that he expected the trend of rising wages to continue, and that Gou was mindful of the centennial of Henry Ford’s $5‑wage announcement, in 2014. This would reflect a calculation of long-term self-interest comparable to Ford’s: if Gou can accelerate the growth of China’s middle class, a large company like his will share in the returns. “If we have a new-generation middle class, that will fuel the need for products like those we manufacture,” Woo said.

A living wage for the laboring class would be one more sign of progress for China, as it was for the America of Ford’s era. But it would also be part of the process that is reducing China’s advantage as a site of cheap labor—and a sign of other challenges facing Chinese employers.

Two more things about the Foxconn workers surprised me: that so many were male, and that nearly all were kids. By kids I don’t mean the 14-year-old “apprentices” a different Foxconn plant, in the northern city of Yantai, was found to have hired earlier this year. (The company apologized to the youths and their families and, according to Woo, fired one of the managers involved and disciplined a total of nine.) I mean that at factories I’d previously seen across China, the workers looked and acted like country people weathered by their rough upbringing. Most of the Foxconn employees looked like they could have come from a junior college.

“Even a few years ago, the typical worker was a farmer,” Louis Woo told me. “He or she already had a family back in the village. They came, they earned their money, and when they were able to buy some pigs or fix up their house, they went home.” The standard workers today, he said, are those people’s children. “They’ve never farmed. They don’t want to, and they don’t have to, thanks to the hard work of their parents, who were the first generation of migrant workers. They’re coming here as part of entering a bigger world.” Chinese factory bosses face the same challenge in dealing with them that Chinese political bosses face with a better-informed, more intellectually independent populace. The “shut up and look at your paycheck” approach that has worked for people who remember China’s backwardness may not work for their children.

Promising new tools are making it possible for American innovators to rapidly convert their ideas into products—and jobs.

I noted a parallel change at some PCH factories. On my previous visit, four years earlier, virtually all of the assembly-line workers had been female. This time, all but one of the PCH factories I visited was staffed predominantly by young men. I asked the supervisor of the one all-female line why there were no men on it. “These are the more responsible jobs,” she said. (The women were handling online orders from American customers for a famous electronics brand.) She was partly joking, but many factory managers say openly that they prefer women for any job not requiring unusual strength. The prevailing view is that women learn new jobs faster, handle high-precision work better, and pose fewer disciplinary challenges. (I am just telling you what they say.) But as the modernizing Chinese economy creates more options for women, fewer of them are choosing factory work. That leaves men.

Among the consequences is greater fractiousness in the typical Chinese factory force. In September, a Foxconn plant in Shanxi province was temporarily closed because of a late-night riot that eventually involved several thousand workers. According to Louis Woo, the riot was touched off not by worker-management tensions but by the Chinese equivalent of an ethnic-gang war in an American prison, as workers from one province took the side of a colleague who was fighting a worker from somewhere else. This is the sort of thing that happens more frequently with more men in the workforce.

Ten years ago, Chinese factory life stood comparison to the “dark Satanic Mills” of William Blake’s England in the early 1800s. Five years ago, I was struck by the parallels with accounts of Chicago packinghouse life in the 1890s. Now I see a counterpart to the American 1920s, with the first sizable generation of moderne post-rural life. In September, after turnover surged at many Chinese factories, PCH commissioned a nongovernmental organization to do a survey of worker attitudes. I sat in on a focus group from the factory discussing the findings. It’s not the long hours we mind, most of the workers said; according to the survey, fully 80 percent welcomed an average of two or three hours of overtime a day, because of the extra pay that meant. But we still want to “have a life,” they told the survey takers. The No. 1 item on their wish list was more organized social activities on the weekends, and singles nights and mixers for all the unaccompanied young men.

China’s economic and social maturing, tumultuous or smooth as it may turn out to be, will certainly affect the world division of labor. Some very low-skill jobs may move to very low-wage economies, such as Burma, India, and parts of Africa; some will move to inland China; some will be automated or done by robots; some will stay in China, but at higher costs. But some of the next round of jobs that might have moved to China will be more attractive for producers to keep in the United States.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent. His latest book, China Airborne, was published in May. 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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