Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

U.S. misses full truth on China factory workers

By Leslie T. Chang, Special to CNN
October 1, 2012 -- Updated 0939 GMT (1739 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Leslie T. Chang: Conditions are harsh, but people ignore the full stories of Chinese workers
  • She says factory jobs have provided upward mobility, new opportunity in China
  • People look back admiringly at heroic work of immigrants to U.S. 100 years ago, she says
  • Chang: Chinese workers deserve our interest and respect instead of our pity

Editor's note: Leslie T. Chang, the author of "Factory Girls," covered China for a decade for The Wall Street Journal and has also written for The New Yorker, National Geographic and Condé Nast Traveler. She spoke at TEDGlobal in Edinburgh in June. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- A young woman leaves her farming village at age 16 to find work in a distant city. With three younger children at home, her parents can't afford to keep her in school.

Her first job, on a factory assembly line, pays only $50 a month. Over two years she takes night-school classes, gets a series of secretarial jobs, and lands a coveted position in a factory's purchasing department that pays more than $1,000 a month.

She meets a young man, a fellow migrant; they marry and have two children. The couple saves enough money to buy an apartment for her parents and a secondhand Buick for themselves. Then the young woman leaves her daughters in the temporary care of her husband and his parents, so she can return to the city to work again. "A person should have some ambition while she is young," she writes, "so that in old age she can look back on her life and feel that it was not lived to no purpose."

Watch Leslie Chang's TED Talk

Hear the voices of China's workers
Rare look inside Foxconn factory campus
China's job seekers

The outlines of this young woman's story are familiar; she could be one of the millions of immigrants who crossed an ocean to make a new life in America. We acknowledge that their lives were hard, but we believe that with adversity came opportunity and transformation.

But if I tell you that this woman's name is Lu Qingmin, and that she lives in China, all such possibility seems to fall away. She is recast as a victim of the world's largest authoritarian regime, where workers earn less than a dollar an hour and independent unions are against the law. Her story becomes one of misery and exploitation. How could it be otherwise?

I spent two years getting to know assembly line workers in the south China factory city of Dongguan. These young men and women labored long hours every day, sometimes for weeks on end without a break; the best factories gave one day off each week.

A government-mandated 11-hour workday was routinely ignored, and factories frequently paid less than the minimum wage or withheld pay for minor infractions. Injuries on the factory floor resulted from safety violations and minimal employee training. Workers might sleep 10 or 15 to a room, with 50 people sharing one bathroom.

TED.com: Behind the great firewall of China

Yet these workers did not strike me as cowed; despite their youth and inexperience, they were capable and resourceful at improving their situations over time. Almost every worker I met told me a story of challenging her boss over some injustice, which frequently led her superiors to take notice and treat her better.

The workers figured out who were the best employers, took private classes to learn computer or secretarial skills and talked their way into higher-paying jobs. They became the chief earners in their families and challenged long-held traditions. They urged their parents to keep younger siblings in school; they resisted pressure to marry early and return to a way of life they no longer wanted.

"Income from migrant work is the biggest source of wealth accumulation in rural China."
Leslie T. Chang

For these young women, the factory experience could not be boiled down to a set of working conditions. It also changed their lives.

Surveys have shown that Chinese migrants are younger and better educated than the people who stay behind in the village, and that they choose to leave home as much to see the world and to develop new skills as to earn money.

Factory work is an informed choice, not a desperate response to poverty. Other studies by Chinese and Western scholars show that migration fuels economic growth, social mobility and the spread of progressive ideas. Income from migrant work is the biggest source of wealth accumulation in rural China.

TED.com: The generation that's remaking China

By 2025, McKinsey & Co. has estimated, the Chinese middle class will swell to 520 million people, most of them former migrants who have done well in the cities and stayed.

One study has shown that having done migrant work makes a rural woman more likely to choose her own husband, to give birth in a hospital, and to seek equality in marriage. It's possible to acknowledge that the Chinese factory regime has immense problems but that it also brings benefits to individuals within that system. Perhaps Chinese workers deserve our interest and respect instead of our pity.

Just to say these things makes some people angry. Since my TED talk on Chinese factory workers was posted online, I have been accused of working in league with the technology industry to perpetuate the enslavement of Chinese workers. "You sicken me with your effort to discount the negatives of factory workers in China by making it sound like the workers want this," one person wrote.

What accounts for such visceral reactions? One answer lies in the nature of daily journalism. By focusing on extreme events, such as a violent brawl earlier this week at a Foxconn Technology plant that manufactures for Apple, journalists create the impression of an enormous underclass on the edge of revolt.

TED.com: Does democracy stifle economic growth?

Write about ordinary workers who have not endured violent protests or extraordinary suffering, and you may be attacked for hiding the truth or shilling for the corporations.

A widespread fear of China—a monolithic force that is taking over the world and stealing American jobs—blinds people to the complexities of life there. The Chinese government is not a democracy, yet its economic policies over the past three decades have improved the lives of millions. But it's far easier to believe that everyone there is exploited and miserable.

It's true that Chinese factories have harsh conditions. It's also true that Chinese factories have allowed huge numbers of people to improve their lives and change their fates. This same set of contradictory facts characterized America's industrialization more than a hundred years ago. To insist on seeing China in black and white reflects an ignorance of history and a failure of the imagination.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Leslie T. Chang.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT