Sunday, May 30, 2010

China's press is open to labor problems, especially those of foreign firms

Why is China’s Party/government currently allowing so much press coverage of all the labor troubles of foreign business'?

That question nagged at me often in the past few days as I followed the spate of suicides at Foxcomm, mass producer of iPads and other electronic gadgets for export. (See previous article.) Finally, I emailed my query to a friend of mine, Anita Chan, author, editor, and professor at the China Research Center in Sydney.

My email reached Dr. Chan in Guangzhou, China, where she is researching China's auto industry. Here is her reply:

About these media reports on China's labor troubles in foreign factories, I do not see this as particular new. It is just the development of a trend in news reporting that goes back to the 1990s. The press in China has always been much freer in reporting on the dark side of labor issues than the American press on its own problems. You have to recognize the fact that many newspapers today are not "the mouthpiece of the state". Many young reporters go into factories under cover to report on labor conditions.

You may not want to accept it, but the management styles of non-PRC Asian companies (like Taiwanease-owned Foxconn) can be worse than the Chinese's own management style. Indeed, there are more serious violations in such factories that supply the global production chain than exist in Chinese state enterprises or big domestic enterprises. The massive layoffs in the late 1990s were a different matter. Besides layoffs is a different issue from low wages, long work hours, and an abusive shop floor culture. As a result one should not be surprised that there are more reports on the problems of such factories' than on local factories.

Among the workers themselves, if you read the blogs, there are also very strong anti-foreign feelings with nationalistic overtones. This is unfortunate because nationalism overshadows class awareness. Chinese workers, the Chinese reporters, and the Chinese authorities share a very similar nationalistic outlook.

Also in the case of Foxconn, workers are seen as victims. Nothing wrong about exposing them being victims as long as they do not rise up in protest against the government and demand to have an independent trade union, which in reality these Foxconn workers are not asking for anyway.

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