Will the Real China Please Stand Up?

Ironically, for a country that still claims to be communist, China has grown far more unequal of late. Many peasants and workers share little in the country's growth, while others are ruthlessly exploited. Corruption is pervasive, which exacerbates existing inequalities. At a local level there are countless instances in which government colludes with developers to take land away from hapless peasants. This has contributed to pent-up anger that explodes in many thousands of acts of social protest, often violent, each year. --Francis Fukuyama, Financial Times

Like jumping out of Foxconn dormitory windows, perhaps? The question for us here, from sea to shining sea, is how we as freedom-loving U.S. citizens can look the other way. How can we continue to buy products manufactured under such egregious conditions? How can we throw our hard-earned dollars everywhere but here?

For this year at least, I can't. Chatting with the family friend I mentioned a few days ago sealed the deal. As I said, it was as if Dad had sent an emissary to shore me up and give me the determination to go on. I'd been feeling defeated; bordering on silly. Made in the USA or Made in China or Made in Timbuktu. Who cared? It didn't help that my hairdresser--30-something, talented, upbeat and perky--had asked, as she slathered dark blonde tint into my roots and listened to me explain my New Year's resolution, "So, like, why are you doing this…?"

And just like that, the dear friend dating back to for.ev.er called. I had seen Lois at Dad's funeral. For days after, as I thought about embarking on a yearlong project dedicated to Dad, my thoughts continually turned to her. She and her husband, Chuck (who passed away about a year ago), once lived in the same neighborhood as my folks. They were young couples then, just starting out. The enviable friendship endured numerous moves and life transitions, and continues, stronger than ever, to this day. I thought about Lois (selfishly, I know) because she'd have first-hand knowledge of manufacturing and China.

"It is slave labor." Lois speaks softly, always has, and has the kind of voice that calms and soothes. But she's firm. It is slave labor. The China Lois knows and the China Time magazine's Mr. Karon (see prior post, "One Skirt at a Time") knows don't add up. Mr. Karon makes the Chinese government sound like a strong but benevolent superhero, scooping the poor out of poverty in an single bound, landing them into nice middle class houses with front lawns and BBQs. The China Lois describes sounds quite different. Plus, I don't even know Mr. Karon--which is why I refer to him as Mr.--and I've known Lois my entire life. She's one of the brightest people I've ever met. Reads voraciously. Even now, at 91, she sounds decades younger and keeps up with the news and knows what's what. So I choose her. I'm going with Lois's life-in-China view:

"They live in factory towns. Like the coal miners here used to do. The coal miners here were under the thumb of the mine owners, paid in factory scrip. In China, the workers live in dormitories. They're not paid enough to leave. All their money goes for daily living, right back to the factory owners."

A few years ago Lois and her daughter, Cathy, traveled to China. They've been there a couple of times. The way Lois describes it reminds me of the conversation with my brother. Remember how he said the factories where his furniture is made are so nice and the workers in the photos (his partner took during his on-site visit) are all smiling, well-dressed, and happy? Lois chuckles when I tell her about that. "Well, they make it all look so pretty. They know visitors are coming. They took us around and showed us everything pretty and nice. But Cathy and I would get out and look around where they didn't want us to look and we'd see stuff that's not so pretty."

Makes me think of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. How reporters there grew frustrated at travel restrictions and Internet censoring. How plainclothes government police aggressively followed journalists, videotaping them. (When the Olympic venues were being built, Human Rights Watch reported on the horrific conditions the migrant male workers endured, racing against the clock toward completion, living in dingy dorms with a dozen workers per room; they only saw families once a year.) I picture Lois and Cathy, petite and quiet, breaking free of their tightly controlled tour group in China, determined to see beyond the scripted China. Lois keeps repeating, "It's not so pretty. The people are so poor."

Her words seem to mirror Mr. Fukuyama's at the top of this post. To be accurate I should, however, explain that Mr. Fukuyama's piece is titled "U.S. Democracy Has Little to Teach China." The thrust of his thesis is that we, as a country, are so yesterday. "Polls suggest," he writes, "far more Chinese think their country is going in the right direction than their American counterparts." I wondered how, with virtually no free media in China, "polls" could even be conducted with any accuracy. But what do I know? Mr. Fukuyama is a fellow at the Freeman Spagoli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. No slouch. But back to Lois.

In the 1970s (about the time Dad was writing "Import Backlash"), Lois's husband, then CEO of a well-known clothing company, needed to decide whether to follow the growing manufacturing trend and move company operations to Taiwan. "They never did overseas business in Hong Kong. They did one shipment in Taiwan as an experiment, a small order, and that's all. It was nice work, but they decided they didn't want to continue doing business that way." Eventually the company was bought out by another company, and Chuck retired.

Despite the overwhelming trends in the opposite direction, Lois believes this country can get back to the business of manufacturing right here. "We have cotton. 'American Apparel' only manufactures here. It can be done. [Companies] have to be willing to pay their workers more. Americans want to work. A job is better than none. Anyone who's willing to work hard can achieve what they want here in this country more easily than anywhere else."

Mr. Fukuyama ends his piece in the Financial Times with this: "During the 1989 Tiananmen protests, student demonstrators erected a model of the Statue of Liberty to symbolize their aspirations. Whether anyone in China would do the same at some future date will depend on how Americans address their problems in the present."

Again, I'll have to give two-thumbs up to optimism, to this country's ability to recharge itself in unpredictable, stressful times. Maybe I'm naive, but I'm sticking with Lois. I like that she says: Hey, it can be done. Stay with me here, on this journey. Stay with me, Dad. I'm still learning. If any readers out there have first-hand knowledge of migrant factory life in China's opaque underbelly, please send a comment. I want to know more about who's sewing America's jeans. Don't you?

Next up: American Apparel. I want so much to buy from this Los Angeles-based company. But that darn CEO makes it a tough call. More to come.