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TEDGlobal 2012

Leslie T. Chang: The voices of China's workers

June 26, 2012

In the ongoing debate about globalization, what's been missing is the voices of workers -- the millions of people who migrate to factories in China and other emerging countries to make goods sold all over the world. Reporter Leslie T. Chang sought out women who work in one of China's booming megacities, and tells their stories.

Leslie T. Chang - Journalist
In her reporting and writing, Leslie T. Chang explores the lives of workers in China, focusing on the experience of women. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Hi. So I'd like to talk a little bit about the people
00:16
who make the things we use every day:
00:18
our shoes, our handbags, our computers and cell phones.
00:21
Now, this is a conversation that often calls up a lot of guilt.
00:24
Imagine the teenage farm girl who makes less than
00:29
a dollar an hour stitching your running shoes,
00:32
or the young Chinese man who jumps off a rooftop
00:35
after working overtime assembling your iPad.
00:38
We, the beneficiaries of globalization, seem to exploit
00:42
these victims with every purchase we make,
00:46
and the injustice
00:48
feels embedded in the products themselves.
00:50
After all, what's wrong with a world in which a worker
00:53
on an iPhone assembly line can't even afford to buy one?
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It's taken for granted that Chinese factories are oppressive,
00:59
and that it's our desire for cheap goods
01:02
that makes them so.
01:05
So, this simple narrative equating Western demand
01:07
and Chinese suffering is appealing,
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especially at a time when many of us already feel guilty
01:14
about our impact on the world,
01:16
but it's also inaccurate and disrespectful.
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We must be peculiarly self-obsessed to imagine that we
01:23
have the power to drive tens of millions of people
01:26
on the other side of the world to migrate and suffer
01:29
in such terrible ways.
01:32
In fact, China makes goods for markets all over the world,
01:34
including its own, thanks to a combination of factors:
01:37
its low costs, its large and educated workforce,
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and a flexible manufacturing system
01:44
that responds quickly to market demands.
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By focusing so much on ourselves and our gadgets,
01:50
we have rendered the individuals on the other end
01:53
into invisibility, as tiny and interchangeable
01:55
as the parts of a mobile phone.
01:59
Chinese workers are not forced into factories
02:02
because of our insatiable desire for iPods.
02:04
They choose to leave their homes in order to earn money,
02:07
to learn new skills, and to see the world.
02:10
In the ongoing debate about globalization, what's
02:14
been missing is the voices of the workers themselves.
02:16
Here are a few.
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Bao Yongxiu: "My mother tells me to come home
02:22
and get married, but if I marry now, before I have fully
02:26
developed myself, I can only marry an ordinary worker,
02:29
so I'm not in a rush."
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Chen Ying: "When I went home for the new year,
02:36
everyone said I had changed. They asked me,
02:39
what did you do that you have changed so much?
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I told them that I studied and worked hard. If you tell them
02:45
more, they won't understand anyway."
02:49
Wu Chunming: "Even if I make a lot of money,
02:52
it won't satisfy me.
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Just to make money is not enough meaning in life."
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Xiao Jin: "Now, after I get off work, I study English,
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because in the future, our customers won't
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be only Chinese, so we must learn more languages."
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All of these speakers, by the way, are young women,
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18 or 19 years old.
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So I spent two years getting to know assembly line workers
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like these in the south China factory city called Dongguan.
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Certain subjects came up over and over:
03:25
how much money they made,
03:28
what kind of husband they hoped to marry,
03:30
whether they should jump to another factory
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or stay where they were.
03:34
Other subjects came up almost never, including
03:36
living conditions that to me looked close to prison life:
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10 or 15 workers in one room,
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50 people sharing a single bathroom,
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days and nights ruled by the factory clock.
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Everyone they knew lived in similar circumstances,
03:51
and it was still better than the dormitories and homes
03:54
of rural China.
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The workers rarely spoke about the products they made,
04:00
and they often had great difficulty explaining
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what exactly they did.
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When I asked Lu Qingmin,
04:07
the young woman I got to know best,
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what exactly she did on the factory floor,
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she said something to me in Chinese that sounded like
04:13
"qiu xi."
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Only much later did I realize that she had been saying
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"QC," or quality control.
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She couldn't even tell me what she did on the factory floor.
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All she could do was parrot a garbled abbreviation
04:28
in a language she didn't even understand.
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Karl Marx saw this as the tragedy of capitalism,
04:34
the alienation of the worker from the product of his labor.
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Unlike, say, a traditional maker of shoes or cabinets,
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the worker in an industrial factory has no control,
04:45
no pleasure, and no true satisfaction or understanding
04:49
in her own work.
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But like so many theories that Marx arrived at
04:54
sitting in the reading room of the British Museum,
04:57
he got this one wrong.
04:59
Just because a person spends her time
05:02
making a piece of something does not mean
05:04
that she becomes that, a piece of something.
05:07
What she does with the money she earns,
05:10
what she learns in that place, and how it changes her,
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these are the things that matter.
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What a factory makes is never the point, and
05:19
the workers could not care less who buys their products.
05:21
Journalistic coverage of Chinese factories,
05:26
on the other hand, plays up this relationship
05:28
between the workers and the products they make.
05:30
Many articles calculate: How long would it take
05:33
for this worker to work in order to earn enough money
05:36
to buy what he's making?
05:39
For example, an entry-level-line assembly line worker
05:41
in China in an iPhone plant would have to shell out
05:44
two and a half months' wages for an iPhone.
05:47
But how meaningful is this calculation, really?
05:51
For example, I recently wrote an article
05:54
in The New Yorker magazine,
05:56
but I can't afford to buy an ad in it.
05:57
But, who cares? I don't want an ad in The New Yorker,
06:00
and most of these workers don't really want iPhones.
06:02
Their calculations are different.
06:05
How long should I stay in this factory?
06:08
How much money can I save?
06:10
How much will it take to buy an apartment or a car,
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to get married, or to put my child through school?
06:15
The workers I got to know had a curiously abstract
06:19
relationship with the product of their labor.
06:22
About a year after I met Lu Qingmin, or Min,
06:26
she invited me home to her family village
06:29
for the Chinese New Year.
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On the train home, she gave me a present:
06:33
a Coach brand change purse with brown leather trim.
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I thanked her, assuming it was fake,
06:40
like almost everything else for sale in Dongguan.
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After we got home, Min gave her mother another present:
06:45
a pink Dooney & Bourke handbag,
06:49
and a few nights later, her sister was showing off
06:51
a maroon LeSportsac shoulder bag.
06:54
Slowly it was dawning on me that these handbags
06:57
were made by their factory,
07:01
and every single one of them was authentic.
07:03
Min's sister said to her parents,
07:06
"In America, this bag sells for 320 dollars."
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Her parents, who are both farmers, looked on, speechless.
07:12
"And that's not all -- Coach is coming out with a new line,
07:15
2191," she said. "One bag will sell for 6,000."
07:17
She paused and said, "I don't know if that's 6,000 yuan or
07:22
6,000 American dollars, but anyway, it's 6,000." (Laughter)
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Min's sister's boyfriend, who had traveled home with her
07:32
for the new year, said,
07:35
"It doesn't look like it's worth that much."
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Min's sister turned to him and said, "Some people actually
07:40
understand these things. You don't understand shit."
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(Laughter) (Applause)
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In Min's world, the Coach bags had a curious currency.
07:51
They weren't exactly worthless, but they were nothing
07:55
close to the actual value, because almost no one they knew
07:57
wanted to buy one, or knew how much it was worth.
08:00
Once, when Min's older sister's friend got married,
08:04
she brought a handbag along as a wedding present.
08:07
Another time, after Min had already left
08:10
the handbag factory, her younger sister came to visit,
08:12
bringing two Coach Signature handbags as gifts.
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I looked in the zippered pocket of one,
08:19
and I found a printed card in English, which read,
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"An American classic.
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In 1941, the burnished patina
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of an all-American baseball glove
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inspired the founder of Coach to create
08:34
a new collection of handbags from the same
08:36
luxuriously soft gloved-hand leather.
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Six skilled leatherworkers crafted 12 Signature handbags
08:42
with perfect proportions and a timeless flair.
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They were fresh, functional, and women everywhere
08:50
adored them. A new American classic was born."
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I wonder what Karl Marx would have made of Min
08:58
and her sisters.
09:00
Their relationship with the product of their labor
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was more complicated, surprising and funny
09:04
than he could have imagined.
09:07
And yet, his view of the world persists, and our tendency
09:09
to see the workers as faceless masses,
09:12
to imagine that we can know what they're really thinking.
09:14
The first time I met Min, she had just turned 18
09:18
and quit her first job on the assembly line
09:22
of an electronics factory.
09:24
Over the next two years, I watched as she switched jobs
09:27
five times, eventually landing a lucrative post
09:29
in the purchasing department of a hardware factory.
09:32
Later, she married a fellow migrant worker,
09:36
moved with him to his village,
09:38
gave birth to two daughters,
09:41
and saved enough money to buy a secondhand Buick
09:43
for herself and an apartment for her parents.
09:45
She recently returned to Dongguan on her own
09:49
to take a job in a factory that makes construction cranes,
09:52
temporarily leaving her husband and children
09:56
back in the village.
09:58
In a recent email to me, she explained,
10:00
"A person should have some ambition while she is young
10:03
so that in old age she can look back on her life
10:07
and feel that it was not lived to no purpose."
10:10
Across China, there are 150 million workers like her,
10:14
one third of them women, who have left their villages
10:19
to work in the factories, the hotels, the restaurants
10:21
and the construction sites of the big cities.
10:25
Together, they make up the largest migration in history,
10:28
and it is globalization, this chain that begins
10:31
in a Chinese farming village
10:34
and ends with iPhones in our pockets and Nikes on our feet
10:37
and Coach handbags on our arms
10:41
that has changed the way these millions of people
10:43
work and marry and live and think.
10:45
Very few of them would want to go back
10:50
to the way things used to be.
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When I first went to Dongguan, I worried that
10:55
it would be depressing to spend so much time with workers.
10:58
I also worried that nothing would ever happen to them,
11:02
or that they would have nothing to say to me.
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Instead, I found young women who were smart and funny
11:08
and brave and generous.
11:10
By opening up their lives to me,
11:13
they taught me so much about factories
11:16
and about China and about how to live in the world.
11:18
This is the Coach purse that Min gave me
11:24
on the train home to visit her family.
11:27
I keep it with me to remind me of the ties that tie me
11:29
to the young women I wrote about,
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ties that are not economic but personal in nature,
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measured not in money but in memories.
11:39
This purse is also a reminder that the things that you imagine,
11:43
sitting in your office or in the library,
11:46
are not how you find them when you actually go out
11:50
into the world.
11:52
Thank you. (Applause)
11:54
(Applause)
11:56
Chris Anderson: Thank you, Leslie, that was an insight
12:02
that a lot of us haven't had before.
12:04
But I'm curious. If you had a minute, say,
12:07
with Apple's head of manufacturing,
12:10
what would you say?
12:14
Leslie Chang: One minute?
12:16
CA: One minute. (Laughter)
12:18
LC: You know, what really impressed me about the workers
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is how much they're self-motivated, self-driven,
12:21
resourceful, and the thing that struck me,
12:24
what they want most is education, to learn,
12:27
because most of them come from very poor backgrounds.
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They usually left school when they were in 7th or 8th grade.
12:31
Their parents are often illiterate,
12:34
and then they come to the city, and they, on their own,
12:37
at night, during the weekends, they'll take a computer class,
12:39
they'll take an English class, and learn
12:41
really, really rudimentary things, you know,
12:44
like how to type a document in Word,
12:46
or how to say really simple things in English.
12:47
So, if you really want to help these workers,
12:50
start these small, very focused, very pragmatic classes
12:52
in these schools, and what's going to happen is,
12:55
all your workers are going to move on,
12:59
but hopefully they'll move on into higher jobs within Apple,
13:00
and you can help their social mobility
13:03
and their self-improvement.
13:06
When you talk to workers, that's what they want.
13:07
They do not say, "I want better hot water in the showers.
13:09
I want a nicer room. I want a TV set."
13:12
I mean, it would be nice to have those things,
13:14
but that's not why they're in the city,
13:15
and that's not what they care about.
13:17
CA: Was there a sense from them of a narrative that
13:19
things were kind of tough and bad, or was there a narrative
13:22
of some kind of level of growth, that things over time
13:26
were getting better?
13:29
LC: Oh definitely, definitely. I mean, you know,
13:30
it was interesting, because I spent basically two years
13:32
hanging out in this city, Dongguan,
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and over that time, you could see immense change
13:36
in every person's life: upward, downward, sideways,
13:39
but generally upward.
13:41
If you spend enough time, it's upward, and I met people
13:43
who had moved to the city 10 years ago, and who are now
13:45
basically urban middle class people,
13:47
so the trajectory is definitely upward.
13:49
It's just hard to see when you're suddenly
13:51
sucked into the city. It looks like everyone's poor and
13:53
desperate, but that's not really how it is.
13:55
Certainly, the factory conditions are really tough,
13:57
and it's nothing you or I would want to do,
13:59
but from their perspective, where they're coming from
14:02
is much worse, and where they're going
14:05
is hopefully much better, and I just wanted to give
14:07
that context of what's going on in their minds,
14:09
not what necessarily is going on in yours.
14:11
CA: Thanks so much for your talk.
14:14
Thank you very much. (Applause)
14:15
Translator:Joseph Geni
Reviewer:Morton Bast

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Leslie T. Chang - Journalist
In her reporting and writing, Leslie T. Chang explores the lives of workers in China, focusing on the experience of women.

Why you should listen

Leslie T. Chang's book Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China traces the lives of Chunming and Min, two young women working in Dongguan, a factory city in South China. Leaving their home villages far behind in pursuit of work, Chunming and Min are part of an estimated 10 million young migrants (estimated to be 70 percent women) who work in China's booming factories. These migrants live in a "perpetual present," forging individual and nontraditional lives amid the breakneck pace of manufacturing.

As Chang gets to know these two women and others, she reveals the harsh realities of China's spectacular industrial growth, and also explores her family's own history of migration from mainland China.

Chang lived in China for a decade as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. She is now based in Egypt.

The original video is available on TED.com
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