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The Chinese Shadow: II

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Three superb recent books by John Friedmann, Pun Ngai, and Elizabeth C. Economy explore the effect of China’s economic “rise,” not on the United States but on China.1 John Friedmann’s China’s Urban Transition looks at it through the lens of urbanization. Mao Zedong was anti-city, partly for military reasons: industries were to be dispersed into western mountains and caves, provinces were to be self-sufficient. The population was divided into a privileged urban minority (17 percent) and an exploited rural majority (83 percent). The Maoist city was seen as a production, not a consumption, unit, with workers coralled into factory barracks. The flow of rural labor to cities was tightly controlled; indeed in the decade of the Cultural Revolution millions of “decadent” urbanites were forcibly sent to the countryside. The one-child-per-family policy, originally introduced in cities, held in check the urban population.

For Mao’s ideas, Deng Xiaoping substituted the “Ladder Step” doctrine. The country was divided into three big regions, coastal, central, and western, each to be assigned a specific task in overall development. Priority was given to the coastal region. Prosperity would be generalized, not so much by trickling down as trickling west. Four hundred and twenty-four focal growth points were identified mainly in two delta areas, those of the Pearl and Yangtze rivers. This approach implied opening up the cities to rural labor and opening up investment to foreign capital. Hong Kong businessmen shifted most of their light industry—toys, clothing, low-end electronics—into the Pearl River delta. Local authorities gave them free land, free factories, and free rein. The resulting increase in rural–urban inequality—the inequality ratio reached the same level as America’s—has shifted attention back to developing central and western China, now being linked to the coast by huge transport and communications projects.

The unique feature of China’s development during the Deng period was the amazing upsurge of rural industries, leading to the creation of vast urban sprawls radiating out from the cities. It was these “township village enterprises” (TVEs), now employing a quarter of China’s workforce, which lifted 200 million people out of poverty in a decade. This was a form of growth that was not so dependent on foreign capital. Why did rural manufacturing, promoted so assiduously and unsuccessfully by aid agencies all over the developing world, happen spontaneously in China?

Friedmann combines several answers: very high rural population densities (comparable to metropolitan densities elsewhere), large numbers of underemployed workers who could be moved out of agricultural production without affecting output, historical antecedents of industrial production in craft traditions, resourceful local leaderships, entrepreneurial talents, and a high level of household savings. TVEs were the product of a remarkable convergence of Party, local government, and private business, often with the local Party boss becoming the leading entrepreneur, and the villages being reorganized as companies or conglomerates, out of whose profits collective services like schools and hospitals could be financed. This is a property system unknown in the West.

But the dual nature of municipal government—part state bureaucracy, part buccaneering capitalism—had less-happy effects on cities, which Friedmann describes as follows:

The heady mix of fragmented markets, profiteering, administrative land transfers, speculation, endemic corruption, increasingly desperate attempts to uphold the pyramid-like system of central control over local affairs, gung-ho capitalism, ancient poverty, and crass new wealth give the appearance less of the calm stateliness of 1920s Beijing…than of a frenzied construction site.

Friedmann asks whether economic choice will inevitably lead to a demand for political choice. Is a civil society developing as huge groups of people engage in activities not organized by the Party while acquiring disposable income and a home of their own? Much of the new leisure is spent watching TV. New hobby associations have sprung up. There is a skyrocketing number of new publications. “Hotlines” dispensing “advice” abound. What is more, the state cheers people on to become active consumers. “Small state, big markets” is a slogan that seems agreeable to Beijing. Liao Xun, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, prefers to say “small government, big society.” The state must be purged of its “bureaucratic sickness.” Citizens must be free to choose not just consumer goods but education, occupations, political loyalties. There should be competitive elections for provincial government.

Friedmann is skeptical of how far the movement for political emancipation will go. The public sphere in the Western sense has not developed in China. Duties toward the state, family, community remain paramount: the middle ground of civil society in which there is a sphere of public life quite outside the control of the bureaucracy is missing. All NGOs are “coopted” by the state. But “so long as the party-state itself is not directly challenged, an ever-widening range of opinions and interest articulations can be publicly discussed.”

From the mid-1980s tens of millions of agricultural workers came flooding into coastal cities, their suburbs, and their rural and semi-rural hinterlands to work in factories producing for export. In Pun Ngai’s Made in China, the making is not of goods but of the new class of people who produce them—“the dagongmei,” the casual young women workers from the villages who are paid 40 cents an hour to manufacture low-priced goods for the customers of Wal-Mart. Her book starts with the story of Xiaoming, a twenty-one-year-old migrant woman worker, the only survivor of a toy factory fire in Shenzhen in 1993 which killed more than eighty workers and left her hideously disfigured. “I was satisfied with my job,” Xiaoming told Pun Ngai. “It was terribly hard work, but we had fun too. We had a plan. Before we went back home for marriage, we were going to save money to go to Beijing. It was such a big dream.”

Pun Ngai, a sociologist from Hong Kong University, had a dream too—to do fieldwork in one of Shenzhen’s factories. As she puts it with disarming frankness: “The search for identification with the female workers helps to prop up my intellectual…fantasy of resisting the irresistible advent of global capitalism.” In 1995 she got permission, through family connections, from the Hong Kong owner of the “Meteor Electronic Company” (not its real name) to do her fieldwork there. For eight months she worked alongside the factory girls on the shop floor, slept in their dormitories, shared their meals and leisure, their dreams and nightmares, and every night wrote up the notes on which this book is based. Harrowing in places, sometimes ludicrously overtheorized, her book exemplifies the strength, flexibility, and also limitations of neo-Marxist sociology.

The dagongmei are a product of the system of hukous, or residence permits, which denies laborers with agricultural hukous the right to reside in cities, i.e., to establish families there and receive medical care and social welfare. This results in widespread use of dormitory labor in industrial and development zones. The workers, being migrants, can be exploited at will. Most return to their villages to marry or set up a small business with their savings, being replaced by more like them from a seemingly inexhaustible supply. Others become sex workers. (“No sex, no money,” one girl tells the author.) China’s rise is built on migrant workers from the villages. Since the Chinese state is behind the drive to make China the world’s workshop, it doesn’t allow independent unions or enforce its own laws setting minimum wages, safety standards, and hours of work. (The legal workday is eight hours, but most women work twelve-hour shifts, extended to eighteen hours when a rush job is needed.) This leaves companies free to maximize profits, without having to worry about replenishing the supply of labor in the long run.

As described by Pun Ngai, the exploitation of the dagongmei recapitulates the horrors of Britain’s industrial revolution. Is factory work freely chosen or in some sense coerced? Dagongmei labor, Pun Ngai insists, is not coerced. There is no violence, no deception involved in labor moving into the industrial world. Young Chinese village girls are well informed about the hardships of factory life. Pun Ngai argues that they are escaping from an oppressive patriarchal culture, left intact by Maoist communism. This contradicts other testimony that a major reason for their leaving home is to support their families. Moreover, her claims that their migration is voluntary are greatly weakened by her view that the girls’ “wants” are manipulated by the seductions of Chinese capitalism to lure them into the ogre’s den of deadening labor, prostitution, and mindless consumerism. As a Marxist, Pun Ngai needs “false consciousness” to explain voluntarily chosen behavior which contradicts “objective” class interest.

Factory owners prefer women to men because they are thought to be easier to regulate and control; however, the dagongmei, Pun Ngai argues, are not “docile” but “tactical” bodies, a specifically Chinese mixture of collaboration, transgression, and defiance. The main example is the use of illness and particularly menstrual pain to sabotage the assembly-line schedule. “The painful body…is not the defeated body but rather the resistant body.”

There is an inevitable conflict between women’s bodily time and industrial time. From this conflict arises the possibility of liberation; the nightly scream of Yan, one of the girls, becomes a metaphor of resistance:

Dream, scream, fainting, menstrual pain, inner splitting of self, workplace defiance, slowdowns, fighting, running away, and even petition and strike are all points and lines of resistant behaviors, forming a cartography of resistance that will inevitably direct a challenge to power and control.

It’s a shaky enough peg on which to hang the fantasy of revolution.

Mao Zedong may have been anti-city, but he did not like the country. Nature was to be conquered, not cherished. One of his more lunatic projects was to order villagers to get rid of sparrows and bugs. China’s population of sparrows almost disappeared, and with it the first line of defense against locusts and other pests. But capitalism has done no better. Elizabeth Economy’s The River Runs Black describes the devastating environmental costs of two decades of “economic development run amok.” Like Pun Ngai she starts with a disaster. In 2001, heavy rains flushed more than 38 billion gallons of highly polluted water from tributaries into the Huai River, which flows through one of the most fertile regions of eastern China. “Downstream, in Anhui Province, the river water was thick with garbage, yellow foam, and dead fish.”

Known for its rich supplies of grain, cotton, oil, and fish, the Huai River basin has over the past two decades become home to tens of thousands of small factories—paper mills, chemical factories, and dying and tanning plants, all dumping their waste into the river. Mao’s dam-building program did not help. Besides killing hundreds of thousands when the dams collapsed, the opening of sluice gates by local officials has repeatedly released polluted water that has poisoned crops and fish downstream. Reservoirs further limit the river’s capacity to dilute the pollution.

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    See the review of the listed books by Clyde Prestowitz and Ted C. Fishman in the first part of this article, “The Chinese Shadow,” in The New York Review, November 17, 2005.

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