In China, it’s not just the working that’s hard

28 Mar

The Longsheng rice terraces, near Guilin. Awesome to see, back-breaking to work.

With all the controversy about working conditions in Chinese gadget factories swirling, I thought it might be a good time to relate some of my experiences in China. While such tales don’t make me any expert on the country by any means, I’m hoping to at least explain how some of my perspectives on the issue have been shaped.

My first sojourn into China came in the winter of 2001. A group of friends and I had decided to tackle as much of the country as we could fit into three weeks. We were all in our mid-twenties and looking for some adventure, so China seemed as different a place as we could imagine.

We started in Hong Kong, a wonderfully efficient, modern and orderly place where the weirdest thing we encountered was the fact that we were considerably taller than most people. The culture shock only started to set in after we boarded the train to Beijing, a 27-hour test of endurance that included trying to go to the bathroom on a squatter toilet. It’s not an easy task at the best of times, so adding in a fast-moving and swaying train only made it harder to not pee (or worse) on one’s self.

In Beijing, we stayed in a dingy basement hotel room and got no sleep thanks to the gaggle of wild cats that had decided to hang out by our window. They were, ahem, clearly in heat. From there, the illnesses started. One by one, our group succumbed to a variety of maladies, from food poisoning to fever to diarrhea. I lucked out and didn’t get my dose till later.

We saw a lot of amazing things in Beijing – the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and so on – but the more memorable parts of the trip came in Shaolin and Tibet. We stumbled into Shaolin, a tiny town far off the beaten tourist path (at least for foreigners), on a frozen February day. With one of our group speaking a little bit of Mandarin, we managed to secure a small dorm room, notable only for its lack of heat. By this point, I was suffering from a full-blown fever, which was made worse by the fact that the only edible food available was a sack of peanuts.

We’d come simply because I loved kung fu movies and had to see the temple where the martial art was born. The only problem was, we’d chosen the worst possible time. A number of schools have sprung up around the Shaolin temple, which kids from all over China attend. Getting an education in martial arts opens up a number of possibilities for them, not just in movies but in sports, the military and law enforcement. However, with it being February, many of the students were at home for the Chinese New Year holiday.

Still, the long, exhausting travel, debilitating illnesses, lack of food and heat were all worth it when we went outside one morning to see a yard full of uniformed students – there must have been hundreds of them – practicing their kung fu moves in unison. It was all those movies come to life. I wrote about the experience, “A Grasshopper’s Journey,” in The Globe and Mail.

From there, we splurged and flew to Chengdu, where another of our group fell prey to stomach illness. We spent a couple days in the Western Chinese city waiting for our travel to Lhasa to be cleared and again saw some amazing things. The Leshan Buddha, carved into the side of a cliff over the course of 90 years, is one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen.

When we finally got our clearance and arrived in Lhasa, more illness followed. We hadn’t taken our altitude sickness pills correctly. Neither did some of the people on our flight, as evidenced by the streams of vomit that rolled down the bus that took us into town. The thing I remember best about our few days in the Tibetan capital were the pounding headaches that dogged us every step we took.

Also very memorable was the astounding poverty and pollution, which is not something we expected to find in a mountain town at such high elevation. Lhasa was a pit of squalor, the product of economic and ethnic discrimination. People walked around with dirt on their faces, the air was rancid and the streets were filthy. We spent one evening in a nightclub where Han Chinese soldiers and police were entertained by singers and dancers. I tried to go to the bathroom at one point but changed my mind when I entered the hallway leading to it. Even from 20 meters away, the stench was unbelievable.

Nevertheless, every Tibetan we met was overjoyed to see us. Everywhere we went, from temples to restaurants, we were extended the warmest hospitality. I took all of it as I think it was meant: the people’s effort to present the best face they could despite the circumstances that had been forced upon them.

That visit was, of course, before the train linking Lhasa to the rest of China was built. I yearn to go back to see what has become of Tibet since; whether the train and the resultant hordes of Han tourists has helped matters or made them worse.

A rural village not far from the tourist town of Yangshuo.

In the end, the lasting impression I got from my first trip to China was a good one. We could have flown everywhere, taken high-end taxis and stayed in luxury hotels, but that would have defeated the purpose of the trip (plus, we were cheap and brash 20-somethings). We saw the country mostly from the ground up and got a taste of the good and the bad. While the conditions under which we saw the country were thoroughly trying at times, in the end they made the experience much more worthwhile and memorable.

I came away from the trip with a deeper understanding and appreciation of what life was like in a country that was still developing. Still, it was nothing compared to what came next.

In 2004, I decided to move to China with a girl I was seeing at the time. She was a teacher, so she got a job at an international school on the outskirts of Guangzhou, also known as Canton, in southeastern China. Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong province, which is the industrial centre of the country. It’s basically factory-land.

I quit my relatively cushy job at The Globe and, with China the hot news story of the day, decided to make a go of it as a freelancer. My gamble paid off as I had no shortage of work. I wrote mainly travel and business stories for Canadian and American newspapers and magazines, as well as the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

In my nine months there, I criss-crossed the country, seeing and experiencing amazing things along the way. I went all the way up to Urumqi in northwestern Xinjiang province, where all the mosques and morning calls to prayer make you forget you’re in China. I also ventured to Haerbin on the other side of the country, in between North Korea and Siberia, where I felt cold like I’d never felt before. I wrote about that particular trip – and my attempts to ski in China – for the Sydney Morning Herald (links to PDF).

Perhaps my most memorable excursion was to Yunnan province, which is where China exiled its smart people during the Cultural Revolution. When that particular madness died down, the intellectuals, artists and other exiles were invited to return to their homes. But, with the province sitting on a mountain plateau and thereby enjoying great weather year-round – its capital Kunming is known as the “city of eternal spring” – many opted to stay put.

Yunnan is thus considerably more progressive than the rest of the country. While pollution and garbage were the order of the day in much of eastern China, including my home city of Guangzhou, parts of Yunnan were remarkably clean and quiet (the public buses were electric!). One story I always like to tell is that of a young girl I spotted while people-watching in Kunming. She had just finished eating a banana and casually tossed the peel on the ground. Her parents loudly admonished her, made her pick it up and then cross the street to throw it in a trash can. Having been in the country for a few months, that was as astonishing to see as any giant Buddha.

Perhaps the one person most responsible for showing me what life was really like in rural China was Jim, owner of Jim’s Guesthouse Hotel in Dali. The medieval Yunnan town is firmly on the backpacker tourist trail, but only a few take Jim up on his side trips (as far as I can tell, he’s still in business). He took my small group to some of the small villages around Dali, where the poor simplicities of life were laid bare.

Doctor Li, who wasn't really a doctor.

Jim translated a conversation with Doctor Li, who wasn’t a trained doctor but nevertheless performed the role in his village. Doctor Li explained how he delivered babies; once the child had emerged, he’d slash the umbilical cord with a knife, sending blood spraying. The red stains on the ceiling of the hut proved he wasn’t kidding. I also wrote about this experience, for the Boston Globe.

The story was similar in Longsheng, which was closer to my home in Guangzhou. The Longsheng rice terraces aren’t easy to get to – you generally have to first get to Guilin, a tourist mecca because of all the surrounding karst rock formations, then take a long bus ride. The terraces are an outstanding sight, where rice paddies are stacked almost on top of each other on the sides of a valley. But equally as interesting were the people who worked them. They lived as simply as possible, in log cabins without any luxuries and amenities. It’s tough to imagine a harder life than going up and down mountains, planting and picking rice.

My travels provided a great window on what life was like across China, particularly in the further flung and poorer parts, but it was back home in Guangzhou that I got the best picture of the country’s modernization drive. Sometimes literally. I remember how one newspaper columnist who had parachuted in for a quick visit had written a breathless piece about how China was so sophisticated because there were countdown timers on the traffic lights that told drivers how much time was left before the green came on. It was too bad that in Guangzhou, drivers completely ignored the lights, which led to giant traffic jams and driving on the sidewalks. I wish I was kidding.

I never went into a factory, but it was hard to avoid them, scattered around the city as they were. I used to ride the bus past a big Heinz factory, which was funny because John Kerry was running for U.S. president at the time, and his wife was of course heir to the company’s fortune. The factory looked like any you might see in North America, although it always seemed quiet. To be honest, I’m not sure if anything was ever actually made there.

One thing that was hard to ignore was all the sleeping that happened on the bus. I bought my first MP3 player there (for $25!) to drown out the sounds of snoring. People slept a lot on their way to and from work not just because they worked long hours, but also because they stayed up late. Regardless of the time of night, it was easy to find restaurants and bars open, packed with people eating and carousing.

The cramped dormitories at the centre of all the recent Foxconn controversy sound similar to those at the school I lived at. While foreign teachers (and me) were given rather spacious apartments to live in, the students on the other hand had very little space or privacy. What seems to be missing from some of the current news reports is that this is the norm in China. In a country of a billion-plus people, spacious rooms and lots of privacy are things only the rich – or foreigners – get to enjoy.

The school was, on a good traffic day, about a half-hour bus ride from downtown, which was a rapidly modernizing mix of skyscrapers and shopping malls. Since good traffic days were extraordinarily rare, the trip usually took more like two hours. A five-minute walk in the other direction, however, yielded a very different scene. Nestled amid apartment buildings were vegetable patches and rice paddies. Even though they were so close to a major city (Guangzhou had about 11 million people at the time), people were still subsisting by growing their own food.

One phenomenon I was exposed to again and again was the penchant to take shortcuts. Whether it was literally – by ignoring the traffic lights and driving on the sidewalk – or figuratively, it was a way of life. Architects told me of how construction workers would pour antifreeze into their cement to make it dry faster, but that this resulted in some of nice new buildings crumbling just years after being erected. Retail buyers told me of how factories would institute voluntary power blackouts for an hour or two a day to meet quotas, rather than reduce their overall energy usage. And of course there was piracy, the ultimate shortcut – why license somebody’s intellectual property when it’s much faster and cheaper to rip it off? Needless to say, it was hard to find a legitimate DVD in stores.

Young people trying to get jobs as interpreters at the Canton Trade Fair.

One thing I really liked about living in China, however, was its pervasive frugality. With many goods made there, the people generally tended to understand the cost of the goods they purchased. On the other side of it, merchants also understood that they could make as much money if not more by selling lots of things for a lower cost than by selling a few things at a big markup (Google has made this its business model). This is why expensive Western goods don’t tend to sell well in China, other than with people looking to acquire status symbols.

The final thing I learned about China, if it’s possible to generalize on such a giant and diverse land, is that it’s a very proud country. China is the world’s oldest continuous civilization, yet for most of the past few centuries it was ruled by foreign colonizers. Once free the country became insular under communism and has only in the past few decades re-emerged to take part in the world. Many Chinese people I met in my various travels were understandably very patriotic and felt their country was “number one” in all respects, despite the daily hardships they have to deal with.

All of these things must be factored into any discussions of the current Foxconn situation.

As I’ve tried to illustrate here, life in general in China is often hard. The simplest things we’re used to in the west – getting around, eating, sleeping, privacy, space, comfort, even going to the bathroom – are not necessarily easy there.

Some have suggested that Western companies such as Apple can force better working conditions at companies such as Foxconn by offering better profit margins. Given all of the above, there’s no certainty that would happen. Suppliers would be just as likely to pocket the extra profits and simply find better ways to mask their corner-cutting.

Furthermore, the suggestion that Western companies should step in to fix workplace problems is likely to be viewed by many in China as the sort of offensive colonial thinking the country has been trying to get away from for decades. There are certainly many people in China who feel that if there are any problems to be solved, it will be done so internally, thank you very much.

China’s leaders have no illusions about their country’s place in the world. While the country is currently a global manufacturing hub and is profiting greatly from it, the government has far bigger ambitions, which is why it is devoting billions of dollars to future technologies such as nanotech and biotech and graduating scores upon scores of PhD students. China isn’t content to just build iPads; it wants to design and sell such goods too. It desperately wants to be an innovator, not just a manufacturer.

By many measures, the country is on the verge of this happening. This “intellectual revolution” is far more likely to bring about improvements in workplace conditions, not to mention changes to deep cultural traditions, than profit margins doled out by Western companies.

(All photos courtesy yours truly.)

1 Comment

Posted by on March 28, 2012 in china


One response to “In China, it’s not just the working that’s hard

  1. Marc Venot

    March 28, 2012 at 1:41 am

    A very large part of hard drive production is located in Thailand.
    Most of the assembly of the gizmos like tablets or smartphones are done by robots. Is it really labour that motivate the large corporations to have them build in China or to dodge high taxation in market countries?

%d bloggers like this: