[Marxism] Chinese Success Story Chokes on Its Own Growth

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Dec 19 11:03:16 MST 2006

NY Times, December 19, 2006
Chinese Success Story Chokes on Its Own Growth

SHENZHEN, China — When Zhang Feifei lost her job 
in this booming Chinese factory town, she was not 
terribly concerned. Jobs had always been 
plentiful in Shenzhen’s flourishing economy.

Then Ms. Zhang, a 20-year-old migrant laborer, 
lost her identity card and was shocked to find 
that no factory would hire her without a bribe 
that she could not afford. Desperate for money, 
she ended up working in a grimy two-room massage 
parlor in a congested alley here, where she has 
sex with four or five men each day.

“I was terrified at first, and I was really 
embarrassed not even knowing how to use a 
condom,” said the soft-spoken young woman, 
casting her eyes downward as she spoke. “I didn’t 
have any choice, though. Little by little, you have to get used to it.”

Few cities anywhere have created wealth faster 
than Shenzhen, but the costs of its phenomenal 
success stare out from every corner: 
environmental destruction, soaring crime rates 
and the disillusionment and degradation of its 
vast force of migrant workers, Ms. Zhang among them.

Shenzhen was a sleepy fishing village in the 
Pearl River delta, next to Hong Kong, when it was 
decreed a special economic zone in 1980 by the 
paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Since then, the 
city has grown at an annual rate of 28 percent, 
though it slowed to 15 percent in 2005.

Shenzhen owed its success to a simple formula of 
cheap land, eager, compliant labor and lax 
environmental rules that attracted legions of 
foreign investors who built export-based 
manufacturing industries. With 7 million migrant 
workers in an overall population of about 12 
million — compared with Shanghai’s 2 to 3 million 
migrants out of a population of 18 million — 
Shenzhen became the literal and symbolic heart of the Chinese economic miracle.

Now, to other cities in China, Shenzhen has begun 
to look less like a model than an ominous warning 
of the limitations of a growth-above-all approach.

While grueling labor conditions exist in many 
parts of China, Shenzhen’s gigantic plants, 
employing as many as 200,000 workers each, have 
established a particular reputation for harshness 
among workers and labor advocates. Monthly 
turnover rates of 10 percent or more are not uncommon, labor groups say.

The tough working conditions, in turn, have 
helped spawn one of the most important labor 
developments in China in recent years: 
large-scale wildcat strikes and smaller job 
actions for better hours and wages. The Guangdong 
Union Association, a government-affiliated group, 
said there were more than 10,000 strikes in the province last year.

Among Chinese economic planners, Shenzhen’s 
recipe is increasingly seen as all but 
irrelevant: too harsh, too wasteful, too 
polluted, too dependent on the churning, ceaseless turnover of migrant labor.

“This path is now a dead end,” said Zhao Xiao, an 
economist and former adviser to the Chinese State 
Council, or cabinet. After cataloging the city’s 
problems, he said, “Governments can’t count on 
the beauty of investment covering up 100 other kinds of ugliness.”

As the limits of the Shenzhen model have grown 
more and more apparent, other cities in China’s 
relatively developed east are increasingly trying 
to differentiate themselves, emphasizing better 
working and living conditions for factory workers 
or paying more attention to the environment.

“Some inland cities have started to provide 
migrants social security, including pension and 
other insurance,” said Wang Chunguang, an expert 
in class mobility at the Chinese Academy of 
Social Sciences in Beijing. “In Chengdu, in 
Sichuan Province, residency controls are 
loosening up and education for migrant children is getting more attention.”

Migrants do still arrive here, of course, drawn 
by the promise of work and undaunted by stories 
of the difficult life that awaits them. Some, 
like Ms. Zhang, who come here for the 
$100-a-month sweatshop salaries, end up trapped, 
literally too poor to leave. But many others 
quickly become disillusioned and return home.

Increasingly short of workers, factories recently 
have increased assembly-line wages by as much as 
20 percent. But even so, critics say, Shenzhen’s boom has spread little wealth.

While the city is dependent on migrant labor to 
keep its factories running, onerous residency 
rules discourage migrants from settling here 
permanently and make it difficult for them to 
obtain public services from education to health care.

“The government has evaded its responsibilities 
toward migrant workers,” Jin Cheng, a member of 
an influential local civic forum, Interhoo, said bluntly.

The resulting rootlessness has fed a wave of 
crime of a sort hardly ever seen elsewhere in 
China. Gunfights, kidnappings and gang warfare 
are rife, and crime rates are skyrocketing.

Although the city does not publish crime data, 
the Southern Metropolitan News, one of the most 
reputable Chinese newspapers, reported that there 
were 18,000 robberies in 2004 in Baoan, one of 
six districts in Shenzhen. By comparison, in 
Shanghai, a city of around 18 million, there were 
only 2,182 reported robberies for all of 2004, 
according to figures compiled by the city.

Near the gates of Foxconn, a huge electronics 
assembly plant that is one of the city of 
Shenzhen’s largest employers, a half-dozen former 
factory workers lounged in the shade on a recent afternoon.

Asked if it was their day off, one of them, a 
20-year-old, explained that he had been fired 
when he developed lesions on his arms from 
exposure to paints and asked to switch jobs. Now, 
he said, he and his friends survived by “beating people up for a living.”

In addition to shakedown crews like this one, 
prostitution, usually thinly disguised in karaoke 
joints and massage parlors, but increasingly in 
the open, ranks as one of the city’s biggest 
industries. In Shenzhen’s blue-collar 
neighborhoods, thick with fetid workers’ 
dormitories, the frustration with hard labor, 
merciless factory bosses, low pay and miserable living conditions is palpable.

“I’ve changed jobs many times,” said one man, a 
onetime factory floor manager, who was lying on a 
bunk bed in a stiflingly hot room jammed with 
other workers. “The pressure is very high in 
these jobs. They don’t give you weekends, or 
breaks — especially the Taiwanese companies.”

Migrant workers describe the city’s labor market 
as a predatory environment filled with 
unscrupulous job brokers, fraudulent training 
courses and a multitude of other scams aimed at 
cheating the most disadvantaged part of the population.

Yu Di, a 19-year-old from Hubei Province with a 
junior high school education, said he worked in a 
grimy watch-casing factory, loading and unloading 
heavy boxes from a truck 11 hours a day, six days 
a week. With a salary of about $80 a month — and 
no benefits — Mr. Yu has to borrow money from his 
parents just to cover his living expenses. He 
lives in a dim and filthy dorm room, crammed with 
12 bunk beds and mattresses made of bare springs 
covered with cardboard. “The only thing I regret 
is not working hard in school,” he said.

In the room next door, Zhou Hailin, 20, who grew 
up in Guang’an, the hometown of Deng Xiaoping, 
seems better off. Mr. Zhou, who came to the city 
four years ago, earns about $120 a month as a 
machinist in the same watch factory.

To do so, though, he must work eight-hour shifts, 
plus three or four hours of mandatory overtime, 
six days a week. A typical workday, he said, ends 
at 10:30 p.m., when he often goes to visit a 
sister who works in another factory nearby.

Asked if he ever visited downtown Shenzhen, which 
bristles with skyscrapers and shopping malls, he 
said he had never had time. “I have to work every 
day,” Mr. Zhou said. “All the factory jobs here 
are the same. That’s what it’s like being a migrant laborer.”

Mr. Zhou calmly accepts his lot, but for many the 
merciless grind of factory life is too much. 
Their health failing, or their dreams of amassing 
sizable savings broken, these workers opt to 
return home to simpler lives in the countryside.

“Shenzhen may seem prosperous,” a worker said, 
sitting in his bunk in a steamy dormitory, “but it’s a desperate place.”

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