China's Factory Girls: Nobody's Victims

Nothing seems to arouse so much hostility and confusion amongst veteran liberals and left-wingers as China’s burgeoning economic growth and power.

Many seem capable of seeing only the downsides of Chinese growth. They express concern about the exploitation of migrant workers in China’s city factories. They worry about the effect China’s growth will have on climate change and they protest bitterly against China’s modernisation of Tibet. Defending China’s development today is considered to be misanthropic and adolescent.

In truth, applauding China’s economic development – while still criticising the Chinese regime’s authoritarianism – rests on a very straightforward but important point: China’s development benefits the people of China. That’s right, it benefits them. Although many aspects of China’s industrial growth involve hardship and pain, it still leads to a far better life than that experienced by generations of Chinese people who lived off the land. Indeed, millions of young Chinese people have already voted with their feet and have moved to the big industrial cities.

This is the main argument put forward by American-Chinese writer, Leslie T Chang, in Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China. It’s a firsthand account of what it is like to be a young Chinese woman migrating from village to city, from field to factory. And it tells a heart-soaring, inspirational story along the way. Rather than narrowly focusing on 12-hour factory shifts and mind-numbing toil, the book also captures the process of social and individual change in China with compassion and insight. Unlike the one-eyed anti-globalisation campaigners who deem modernity as reprehensible, Chang illuminates the humanising qualities that a dynamic division of labour brings. Above all else, Chang links the emancipation of these young girls – from patriarchal village life, from domestic boredom – with their arrival in the factory and the office.

Chang often cites a phrase that young Chinese migrants use to describe their decision to leave home and enter the city: ‘chuqu’ – ‘to go out’, as in ‘there was nothing to do at home, so I went out’. Describing Min, who left home at 16 to work in a factory, Chang says ‘she should have been scared. All that she knew was that she was free.’ Elsewhere, Chang says ‘to come out from home and work in a factory is the hardest thing they have ever done. It is also an adventure. What keeps them in the city is not fear but pride: to return home early is to admit defeat. To go out and stay out – chuqu – is to change your fate.’

In the West, rural romantics are commonplace these days, and none of them will say just how stultifying and tedious rustic life can be – especially for the young. The Chinese girls Chang writes about might be working long shifts for a pittance, and they might be sharing a room with a dozen other girls, but they are also ‘having the time of their lives’. Chang writes: ‘Once you had friends, life in the factory could be fun. On rare evenings off, the three girls would skip dinner and go roller-skating then return to watch a late movie at the factory. As autumn turned into winter, the cold in the unheated dorms kept the girls awake at nights. Min dragged her friends into the yard to play badminton until they were warm enough to fall asleep.’

One of the progressive aspects of the factory system is that it brings thousands of people together in the same place. The work is frequently dull and the pay rotten, but the excitement of working alongside others offers some form of compensation. Indeed, it was precisely when women in America and Britain entered factories during the Second World War that traditional ideas of ‘a woman’s place’ were challenged. In Ben Hamper’s Rivethead, an autobiographical account of his time as a car assembly worker at Ford in Michigan, he points out that rural folk would happily travel two hours to work on the line. For them, the social aspect of work had a magnetic pull, and even the shabbiest of local bars seemed cosmopolitan and exciting compared to Hicksville. It is the same for these young Chinese girls – they see city life as an adventure and an opportunity. They have more choice than simply marrying the village idiot.

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