If you thought China’s advantage in manufacturing was due to manipulation of its currency, or its theft of technology, you need to see ‘American Factory’. Whatever role a low Chinese yuan, or technology theft, has played in China’s dominance of manufacturing, this film shows that even if neither of these factors was present China would still have a huge competitive manufacturing advantage over the US and indeed most Western nations. The reason? Every right-wing capitalist’s wet dream- a highly disciplined and compliant workforce, with only fake, company-friendly unions to represent them.
‘American Factory’ tells the story of a former GMH factory in Dayton, Ohio. Following the GFC, the factory closed and 10,000 workers lost their job. In 2014, the Chinese auto glass manufacturer Fuyao bought the plant promising investment and hundreds of new jobs. Fuyao and its chairman Cao Dewang (referred to as “Chairman Cao”) received euphoric praise and more than $6m in subsidies from Ohio state taxpayers.
The new workforce in the plant is made up of a mix of American and Chinese workers. The wages paid are less than half of what the US workers used to receive working for GMH. And there are very different approaches in the culture of the American and Chinese workers. It not that the Americans are poor workers- far from it. They are hard-working people but with expectations of being paid for overtime and of other conditions that workers in most Western economies would consider normal. But the Chinese are typically fitter, faster and are prepared to work for far longer hours than their American counterparts. They are also far more integrated into the company’s ‘culture’. The film demonstrates that they also suffer exploitation having to spend long periods away from home and family for no extra pay. But it seems that these workers have no real expectation of more.
Contemporary China has a work culture referred to as 996– this means it is “normal” in China to work from 9 am to 9 pm six days a week.
A visit by some of the American workers to Fuyao’s plant in China demonstrates the quasi-military discipline of the workforce there. They have a union in China. But it is a ‘tame cat’ communist party union led by an in-law of Chairman Cao. When safety and other issues emerge in the Daytona plant, some of the American workers press for a vote on whether the workforce should be unionized by a genuine union. Chairman Cao and the company’s board spend US$ 1 million in successfully engaging the services of union-busting consultants.
The compliant nature of the Chinese workforce does not mean that they lack initiative on the job. It is clear that they are skilled workers and take pride in their work. Some are critical of their American workmates- as is Chairman Cao. No amount of training seems to help. Fuyao’s management openly tells its Chinese employees they are better than their American workmates. The latter is even accused of having clumsy “fat fingers”.
Whether the compliant nature of the Chinese workers is the result of Communist rule, nationalist fervor, or is a legacy of centuries of Confucianist ideology in favor of hard work and conformity to authority, does not matter. Whatever the cause the exploitative culture gives China a seemingly insurmountable advantage.
The relative success of the Chinese model for capitalist development should hardly surprise. When you have an economic system, like capitalism, which concentrates wealth and economic power at the top, it is hardly surprising that it can develop successfully under authoritarian rule- this is true of both the central government and the way production is organized within firms.