Where Life Revolves Around Your Cellphone, the Factory Floor, and Forged Diplomas: A Q&A With the Author of Factory Girls

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Chinese cities today have more than 130 million migrant workers, most of whom have relocated from more rural parts of China, writes Leslie Chang in her recent book Factory Girls: “Together they represent the largest migration in human history — three times the number of people who emigrated to America from Europe over a century.”

Chang, a former Wall Street Journal Beijing correspondent and first-generation Chinese-American, documents the lives of these workers primarily through the stories of two women, Lu Qingmin (Min) and Wu Chunming, who live and work in the industrial Chinese city of Dongguan.

She has agreed to answer our questions, which you’ll find below, along with excerpts from Factory Girls.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONLeslie T. Chang
Question

How closely does what you experienced in China mesh with how Americans who have never been to China perceive the factory-worker world?

Answer

I think Americans — and many urban Chinese, too — tend to see the factory workers as passive victims, motivated by poverty and desperation. Spending time with these young women taught me the opposite: They are resourceful and ambitious, full of plans to improve their lot and change their fates, willing to challenge their bosses and quit their jobs for better ones, and willing to take night classes to improve themselves. When you ask these migrant workers why they came to the city, they will tell you that their families are poor, but they also talk about the opportunity and adventure of urban life. They may have very little power in our eyes, but in their own they are the leading actors in their own dramas and not victims of circumstance.

Question

You followed students for a semester at a school that teaches factory girls how to become “white-collar” workers. A major part of the curriculum teaches students how to lie effectively. How do the concepts and values being taught in these classes affect the manufacturing economy that these women make up?

Answer

A major part of the curriculum involved how to lie your way through job interviews into an office position. This ultra-pragmatism is pervasive in Chinese society today; people are less concerned with abstract notions of right and wrong than with getting things done. In economic terms, this fosters a business climate in which companies copy each others’ products, steal employees and business plans, and compete ruthlessly over tiny profit margins. But with little trust or sense of long-term planning and investment, they find it hard to grow and develop their businesses.

This system also takes an emotional toll on individuals. Everyone I knew in Dongguan had stories of being cheated and robbed and lied to, and over and over people told me, “You can only rely on yourself.” But even though this is a world marked by corruption and deceit, it is at the same time highly functional. It just functions by its own set of rules.

Question

Where do you see factory work heading in the next 10 years? As you wrote, newer migrants are less content and more ambitious than their elders were, so will factory life still hold as much prestige for rural women as it does now?

Answer

I think factory work will continue to offer economic opportunity for millions of rural Chinese. After living in the city for a while, many migrants move up from the assembly line; but masses of young people continue to come out from the countryside every year, and for them factory work is a good start.

Right now this exodus to the city is not having a major impact on agricultural production, because family farm plots are tiny — less than an acre on average — and easily managed by the parents or older relatives who remain behind. But in the next decade or two, we will probably see consolidation of farmland and the rise of large-scale commercial farming, as older people die off and there aren’t enough young people willing to farm the land.

Question

What was the most interesting aspect of your research for the book?

Answer

The sheer speed of change in people’s lives is probably the most interesting but also the most challenging aspect of writing about China today.

When I started reporting in Dongguan, I lost touch with so many migrants. I would call them a few weeks after we met, and they would have left their factory and no one knew where they had gone. I had to learn to adjust to this world: I gave out mobile phones so I could stay in touch with people, I called them constantly, and I got to know the people around them too. Over two years, I visited my book’s two main characters, Min and Chunming, every month, and each time they had some momentous life change to report: a new hairstyle, a new boyfriend, a new job or diet or career path. Because everyone they know is going through the same thing, most Chinese don’t seem to find this pace of change remarkable — it’s up to you to keep track of the changes and develop some perspective.

For a nonfiction writer, China at this moment is ideal: Hang around someone for two years and you will have amazing material and dramatic plot developments, guaranteed. There aren’t many places in the world where you can say that.

From a book so rich in fascinating detail, it is difficult to pick only a few excerpts, but here is a sampling. On Dongguan:

Two decades after the first factories were built, development still feels new. The innards of a mountain spill out, red-earthed and raw, where its face was blasted away; exit ramps off the highway disappear in fields of marshy weeds. A brand-new corporate headquarters looks out on rice paddies, fishponds, and duck farms.

The buyers of the world stay at the Sheraton Dongguan Hotel, which gives guests a card listing every destination they will ever need:

-Guangdong International Exhibition Center
-Museum of Opium War
-Tai Ping Jetty
-Wal-Mart …

Without ever leaving Dongguan, these [factory] workers had figured out the global hierarchy of nations. American and European bosses treated workers best, followed by Japanese, Korean, Hong Kong, and then Taiwanese factory owners. Domestic Chinese factories were the worst, because “they always go bankrupt,” one migrant explained to me. They also knew when major policies were about to change; in early 2005, some workers told me that the minimum wage would rise, before it was officially announced.

Diary entries by Chunming:

May 24, 1994:

We start work at seven in the morning and get off work at nine at night. Afterward, we shower and wash our clothes. At around 10, those with money go out for midnight snacks and those without money go to sleep. We sleep until 6:30 in the morning. … Ten minutes to go: Those who want breakfast use these 10 minutes to eat breakfast, but I have seen many people not eat. I don’t know if it’s because they don’t want to eat, or to save money, or to stay thin … I certainly would not ignore my health for the sake of thinness or saving money. After all, what is the point of doing migrant work? Can it be that it is just to earn this bit of money?!

Undated:

Wu Chunming, you cannot go on living every day like this! Think about it: You have already been at this factory an entire half year, but what have you really gained? You know that to do migrant work in the plastic molds department for your whole life does not have any prospects, so you want to job-hop and find a satisfactory job. First you must learn to speak Cantonese. Why are you so useless? Are you truly so stupid?


After receiving a promotion, Chunming wrote in her diary:

March 26, 1996:

My promotion this time let me see the hundred varieties of human experience. Some people cheer me, some envy me, some congratulate me, some wish me luck, some are jealous of me, and some cannot accept it … As to those who envy me … I will only treat them as an obstacle on the road to progress, kicking them aside and walking on. In the future there will be even more to envy!

In hopes of furthering themselves, many factory workers take classes in English, computer skills, or other job skills. Chang describes the course material at the Dongguan White-Collar Skills Special Training Class:

It was the strangest jumble of ideas I had ever encountered, combining the primacy of the individual with rules that were at once New Age and rigid: “Purple represents mystery.” The message was modern — express yourself, be confident — but it came with traditional assumptions: “You will lift up your whole family.” … But I noticed something: The students did not fall asleep.

“We are all in the sales business,” the White-Collar teachers reminded their students again and again. “What are we selling? We are selling ourselves.” … As I sat through a semester of White-Collar classes, I realized I was witnessing a secret revolution in Chinese education.

One subject that never came up in class was ethics. Students learned how the office world functioned and they used that knowledge to lie their way into jobs for which they were unqualified. … “People who are too honest in this society will lose out,” [said Teacher Deng].

Even social drinking became a subject to be mastered:

Teacher Fu‘s instructions for alcohol consumption were detailed and unforgiving. As far as he was concerned, drinking was work. … Spontaneity was for Americans. Class that day ended with drinking-game drills. “If your manager is a little drunk, you may have to take over for him,” Teacher Fu said, with the solemnity of someone talking about the need to land a 747 in case of emergency.

Self-help gurus like Ding Yuanzhi have a large following among China’s migrant workers. Yuanzhi, whose book Square and Round has sold around six million copies, gives the following advice to migrant workers:

Now I will talk about copying. I think copying is very important. Everyone always talks about how innovation is important. But you need to invest a lot of time to innovate and the risk is high. Why not take things that have already been proven to work in other places? That is copying.

Making friends and dating are difficult in Dongguan, where a mobile phone is often the only thing keeping two people in touch. A worker’s whole social life is often dependent on her phone.

A girl might signal her interest in a young man by offering to pay his mobile-phone bill. Couples announced their allegiance with a shared phone.

Migrant workers are a major reason the Chinese mobile-phone market is the world’s largest, yet the industry has mixed feelings about them. Migrants were behind the market’s poor economics … they supposedly drove down prices because they were willing to pay for only the cheapest services.

The quality of Chinese pop music had deteriorated in recent years, I was also told, because migrants chose the least sophisticated songs for the ring tones of their phones. … Manufactured, sold, stolen, repackaged, and resold, the mobile phone was like an endlessly renewable resource at the heart of the Dongguan economy.

In Dongguan, fancy karaoke bars, massage parlors, and hair salons serve as prostitution fronts. Most prostitutes choose this line of work because the money is good and they have more free time than factory workers. Chang writes about her trip to a Karaoke bar with some businessmen:

A woman called a mami came in to tally which customers wanted sex and which just wanted to sing.

The girls entered. There were seven of them, wearing shiny gold evening gowns with spaghetti straps that made them look like high-school girls on prom night. … Each girl had a plastic tag clipped at her waste with a four-digit number. … If a man liked a girl, he would tell the mami her number …

If a girl went out with a customer for sex, the club charged 800 yuan for a single encounter; that was called kuaican, fast food. … Some of the girls didn’t like to go with men very often. The ones who did could make 20,000 yuan a month — $2,500, an astronomical sum in the migrant world. … [The karaoke girls] lived a casual and disorderly existence. In a city where most lives were ruled by the factory clock, they slept as late as they pleased and worked fewer hours than anyone I had met.

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  1. D iversity says:

    They sound just like 19th century New England or Lancashire mill girls on speed.

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  2. Chris says:

    That’s a fascinating subculture.

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  3. Brad Hicks says:

    Re #1: I was thinking something similar, they sound like grisettes. But if there are grisettes, and there are night clubs, where are the bohemians?

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  4. Mark says:

    I love the self-help guru’s comment on copying. It’s so true, and it’s the flipside to innovation that our society seems to ignore entirely. There is a huge societal value in being able to copy good ideas, the trick is just making sure it doesn’t discourage people from coming up with the good ideas in the first place.

    See Boldrin and Levine, “Against Intellectual Monopoly,” for a persuasive argument that preventing copying actually does not encourage innovation. I’m not sure they’re completely right, but it’s a refreshing change from the usual chorus of talking heads who think that locking up all the good ideas will make our society better!

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  5. Eric M. Jones says:

    “A major part of the curriculum involved how to lie your way through job interviews into an office position.”

    And into that corner office as well! A company I worked for passed over all the really good candidates and hired a depraved sociopath with narcissistic personal disorder. I got along with him because I knew he was insane–but smart and creative. Furthermore he was surprisingly honest. He would stab me in the back regularly, but the pay was good.

    After a while the company fired him and interviewed 95 more good candidates to hire (with gleeful fanfare) a charming meth-addicted sociopathic crackhead, cheat and con-man, whose resume was at least 80% fantasy. Nobody thought to check his resume because it would not have been polite…….

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  6. Jason says:

    Working in Shanghai, I thought these excerpts really capture the spirit of the Chinese working class. They are aggressive and entrepreneurial, centered on getting things done. A huge portion feel the need to pick up a second or third language, in addition to their local dialect and Mandarin, to gain the edge they need. A Taiwanese executive explained it to me best: “China is full of sharks. You have to be aggressive or you’ll be eaten.”

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  7. Ronald says:

    Good piece on the factory workers. It just shows what type of world we live in where lying is the only way to make your way up or in some cases get your way in. But when your back is against the wall, what would you do if your life depended on this job? The payoffs are high and the consequences are disasterous. It just shows Mackavelli is a genius…

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  8. Jim Satterfield says:

    This “get things done” attitude is also how you wind up with melanine and other contaminants in food. It’s how lead paint way past legal limits winds up on toys. It seems like a promotion of all things dishonest. Frankly, it wouldn’t make me want to do business with Chinese companies if they hold these values.

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