Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

China vs the good life

Posted by metaphorical on 14 July 2007


In an e-mail note, longtime reader and commenter ClaireDePlume takes me to task for my high tolerance for China’s leaders and their economic and political policies. (See for example my travel memo here, but more formally, in a recent article about China and sustainability here, and one two years that explicitly discusses Chinese censorship here.)

Ms DePlume has graciously permitted me to turn our private exchange into fodder for this blog. She gets the first and last words.


As we discussed, here is the clip (YouTube, here) of auto workers actually inside a press. China vies for global economic status at a great cost—”modern”manufacturing in a country with a highly expendable workforce and inadequate labour laws. Meanwhile, Western capitalists salivate dollar bills as they court their newest potential money mate.

I did a brief search for statistics and fatalities but information is not as quick to find as hoped. China controls it’s stats and appears not to share this data, at least not in the obvious places. Most of their data is provided to lure business, not shock Western labour lobbyists & human rights groups.

Thank you for the link. I’m of two minds on China, though one of them is not a very popular view.

The Chinese economy started in 1980 from almost zero. That year, the first Special Economic Zone, the fishing village of Shenzhen had a population in the hundreds. Less than 30 years later, it is one of the largest and most vibrant cities in the world. The second economic zone, Pudong, now has a skyline more beautiful than New York’s, a huge and spectacular airport, and the world’s only functioning Maglev train. Pudong’s success is one of the things making Shanghai twice the size of New York, soon to be the largest seaport in the world, and the world’s largest shipbuilder as well. Shanghai gets much of its power from the Three Gorges Dam, one of the most ambitious engineering projects of the past 100 years. Yet, as successful as they are, these projects are one side of a coin that has economic and cultural disaster depicted on the other. The cultural genocide of Tibet of course is disaster #1. Three Gorges displaced several million peasants into almost completely dysfunctional new and artificial cities. The Forbidden City and the Great Wall are cheap theme parks now. The list goes on.

The conditions of the factory workers are horrific, both for working and for living. And yet they come from the countryside, many probably expecting a better life, many surely knowing, from friends and relatives, exactly what to expect. And they keep coming.

They keep coming despite the fact that the first thing the post-Mao governments did in the 1980s was stabilize the rural economy, the agrarian sector, so that no one would starve. These people do not have to leave the farms in the west for the cities in the east. They choose to come, looking for a better life. The conditions they live and work under are the same – the very same – as those my grandmother and grandfather, who chose, separately, to come to the U.S. 100 years ago. And today they still come. The faces are different – they are browner, and yellower, and the jobs are different – perhaps a meatpacking plant in Iowa, instead of a sewing shop in New York City or an auto assembly line in Flint, but still they come.

We in the U.S. so easily condemn the Turks for the Armenian genocide, when in the early 20th century the blood had barely stopped flowing from our own Native American genocide. So too, our immigrants chose to sacrifice themselves for a generation to make a better life for their children and their grandchildren, and yet we so quickly condemn the Chinese for making the same choice. (And the blood had just started flowing on the killing fields of Europe. We are so quick to allow 30 or 30,000 to die in battle for nothing, but not 30 to build an economy. But that is too callous a calculation for even me.)

We are like the California immigrants who move to Seattle and then five years later complain about all the Californians still coming. “I’ve got mine, now close the door.” We built an economic engine that can now comfortably keep us in food and iPods even in second gear, and we want to close the door and say, “From now on, everyone has to get here without 14-hour days and sleeping 14 to an apartment.” Even though that’s what it took for us to get here.

Leave the comparisons between the Somme and the sweatshops to others more cynical than us. But can we ask ourselves whether we could have the North American economy we do without allowing 43,000 to die annually on highways? We want the economy we have, which would be impossible without the mobility we have. And so we each enter a lottery with our bodies as the stakes every time we open the car door, and every year, 43,000 people lose that lottery. (We could, for example, close the highways from midnight to 6:00am and save half those lives.) The Chinese workers in their car plants know that their fingers and arms and entire bodies are the stakes in their lottery.

Would we prefer not to have these games of chance? That every factory be safe? That our roads be safer? Of course. Will be accept that cars be more expensive, that the meat from the meatpacking plant cost more, that we must drive slower and less often? Apparently not.

I hate what the Chinese are doing. And I hate our hypocrisy in condemning it. And so I say let us clean up our own house. And let us let them come to the city, to the factory, to a modern economy. If they themselves find it to be a better life, let them come into it.


I’ve read your letter about China 3 times—trying to wrap my mind around this situation without taking a personal stance. I appreciate the background—it helps me to see more clearly (I hope). and Yes, I’ve thought much on your observations in order to understand – understand why people play the life lottery with odds most often stacked in favour of the house, not the players.

China has been cocooned from the west and capitalism for ages, but the visual age of communication is dawning there too, and their politics can no longer “protect” them, and maybe there is no wish to protect any longer. The apple has been bitten once again.

No doubt, when others “see” what they perceive as life in a capitalistic society, they see only the best. They do not know of the soul sucking and life robbing price people pay for this, now or in the past. Nor do they care. They do not see the earth littered with the bones of others; they see only fertile soil for growing all of their dreams. Whether these dreams are visions of their own creation or ones of desire planted from other pollinating sources is immaterial. All they know is that they want a better life, and they are oblivious to the cost. Like all brave new wanderers in a new land, they are cavalier when they must answer the question, “at what cost?”.

When I sent this clip to you, I was the 5 or 6th recipient in an e-mail chain. Most of the comments to introduce this clip were glib and mocking and derisive—made by the more worldly apes of the west more seasoned and knowing than the naive players new to the game of working off one’s ass. Then there was some discussion in the office by those I work with, equally callous and condescending. Those brief, careless words coloured my opinion of the role we play as “older students of capitalism.”

While we are no more able to change the world than we are able to circumnavigate the universe or explain the meaning of life, it doesn’t give us permission to turn our backs on exploitations such as this. If Columbus had been operating under the watchful eye of his own society, would he have plundered the New World so easily and freely? If the British had managed only a tacit peace with other nations to master the Americas, would they have exploited the settlers and the Native peoples as they did?

To know oneself, is to know your own behaviour when you think no one is looking… and as we are evolving more and more into a visual society more than an auditory one, then when we “see” the apple being bitten into, perhaps it’s time to raise a red flag – one high enough, and bold enough it cannot be ignored?

2 Responses to “China vs the good life”

  1. Blue Athena said

    I agree with you almost entirely. I would hesitate to deny any other nation the same necessary growing pains as the current industrialized nations, except insofar as they may seriously endanger global environmental stability. But even then the sacrifice should not be one-sided, and the wealthy nations must make huge and clear sacrifices before asking that of others.

    The only reservation I have is in lumping together of these labor and industrial issues with the question of genocide. Yes, throwing stones as a nation should be restrained, but these are really very different issues. And to lump them together implies, probably without intention, that these two things (issues such as child labor on the one hand, vs. genocide on the other) are in the same range — as regards horrificness or necessity — when I think they are not.

  2. ClaireDePlume said

    It’s the way of life and human nature to compete for resources. A flower pot with mixed plants will do this. Is it genocide when one plant roots out another and kills it? Animals compete for food and kill what eats them. Is it lumping things together when presumably sentient humans observe their own behaviour and wonder what are the essential differences separating humanity from mold on a petrie dish?

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