Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics - Key Lessons from American Factory
Written By: Bill Posters
What happens when a Chinese automotive glass company takes over a derelict General Motors plant in Ohio and begins putting Americans to work? This is the premise of American Factory, a 145 minute documentary released earlier this year. The question may at first seem intriguing, bringing to mind issues of cultural difference and how a company from nominally socialist China will be managed. In fact, the answer is easily predicted by anyone who has worked in a factory or building site. Regardless of the colour of his skin or the specific myths he uses to con workers, the interest of the new Chinese boss is the same as the old American boss: profit.
Over the course of a few years, the makers of American Factory interviewed managers and workers at Fuyao America, recording every aspect of factory life from the shop floor to board meetings. The camera’s omnipresence means that viewers are offered a unique opportunity to see how both labour and capital think, feel and act within a factory. To the class conscious observer, there are a number of important lessons to take away from this film.
The first is that “culture” is less of an issue than class. American and Chinese workers very quickly overcame any barriers of language and culture. American workers eagerly invited their Chinese counterparts into their homes and introduced them to the wonders of American culture, such as Thanksgiving and firing off pistols and shotguns in your backyard. Chinese workers opened up to their American colleagues and shared their feelings of loneliness at being separated by an ocean from their families. Culture wasn’t an obstacle between workers; conflicts instead came from management.
“Through interviews with Chinese workers and supervisors, we begin to piece together a picture of intense exploitation, family dislocation and dehumanising, callous treatment by management”
Throughout the film, Chinese managers present as facts to their Chinese staff insulting caricatures of their American workers. One manager states: “everyone who grows up in the US is overconfident” and that they “love to be flattered to death”, comparing them to donkeys. Another manager claims the Americans all have “fat hands” are “too slow” and need to be trained over and over. This did not come for no reason. It was the management’s way of discrediting the reasonable demands of American workers to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace. If the Chinese workers and lower level supervisors are conditioned to believe that the Americans are entitled, lazy and vain, then they won’t be inclined to show solidarity or, scarier yet for management, be bitten by the workers’ rights bug!
Ultimately, the conflicts in the workplace are the result of class relations not cultural ones. The work “culture” of Fuyao and the attitudes of its management are not a representation of something inherently Chinese. After all, American coal mine bosses were as vicious if not worse during the 1800's. It is instead a result of the relative strength of capital and lack of working class power in Chinese factories today. To put it in formal Marxist terminology, it is a manifestation of the specific unity of opposites that exists within the contradiction between labour and capital in China at present.
The management of Fuyao expected their American workers to be like their Chinese counterparts: silent and obedient. The “cultural” clashes in the film are a result of both the Chinese management’s dissatisfaction with the resistance of American workers and a technique for undermining those workers.
Chinese Capitalism In Action
While many parties and publications on the Left sing China’s praises as a socialist country, they either try to ignore or excuse the dynamics of factory life in China and the conditions of working people there. This is a very important topic to honestly address since, according to the head of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, 80% of Chinese jobs are in the private sectori. By contrast, American Factory doesn’t shy away from the topic. Through interviews with Chinese workers and supervisors, we begin to piece together a picture of intense exploitation, family dislocation and dehumanising, callous treatment by management.
“Exploitation and abuse in the capitalist world does not excuse or explain poor working conditions in China. Honest Marxists should recognise the actual class relations that exist in China”
An example of this was when a group of American supervisors on a company sponsored trip to a Fuyao factory in China, stumbled across a pair of workers in their late 50’s squatting on a large mound made of shards of glass. “Holy shit! He doesn’t have safety glasses on or nothing” said one supervisor. “Those aren’t even cut resistant gloves” stated another. The two workers spend all day, sorting the jagged shards of glass for recycling without even basic protective equipment. In another part of the factory, Fuyao workers were harangued by a man with a megaphone, shouting orders for them to line up in a military-style formation. After numbering off, the workers are then subjected to a bizarre ritual of shouted statements with pre-set replies they must repeat in unison. This is Fuyao’s equivalent of a “toolbox” meeting.
In later interviews, the staff of this factory revealed that they work 12 hour shifts and were lucky to have 1 or 2 days off a month. If the factory is busy, they have no time off. The interviewed workers were parents with young children at home that they rarely got to see. This is not only because they work practically non-stop, but because they came to coastal cities to find factory jobs to support their families in the hinterland. With both parents working long shifts, and the Chinese “hukou” system partially restricting access to education and health services/benefits to migrant workers, there is little choice but to leave children with their grandparents. Back in the US, a Chinese supervisor was angered by his colleagues remarks that American workers can’t be forced to work overtime. With a dirty look on his face, he angrily stated: “It’s mandatory in China. I don’t give a fuck what they [workers] think. You want to sue me? Fucking go ahead, but you must come in [for overtime]”.
It may then come as a shock to readers that Fuyao China not only has a union but that 100% of workers are union members. Where is the worker militancy that we would expect to see with that kind of unionisation? In this regard, American Factory’s interview with the secretary of Fuyao’s union and Communist Party of China branch is telling. In the worst traditions of class collaboration the secretary stated, “Our workers union and the company are closely related to each other. They are like two gears rotating together. We need our workers to fight for Fuyao’s success”. The secretary of the union also just happens to be the Chairman’s brother in law.
“Ultimately, the conflicts in the workplace are the result of class relations not cultural ones”
Ardent supporters of “Opening and Reform” might take offense at this portrayal of a Chinese factory and rightly point out that unsafe working conditions, long hours, low pay, dehumanisation of workers and yellow unions exist in developed capitalist countries too. This is true and I’ve got stories about the Australian construction industry that would make your hair stand on end, but people making this argument are playing themselves. They are admitting to Chinese capitalism in their attempts to explain it away! Exploitation and abuse in the capitalist world does not excuse or explain poor working conditions in China. Honest Marxists should recognise the actual class relations that exist in China, that at least 80% of workers are subjected to, and begin their analysis from this reality.
Myth vs. Reality
As mentioned earlier, the filmmakers had unprecedented access to both the shop floor and boardrooms. Their ability to record meetings between the Chairman of Fuyao group and other top level managers, not to mention the reality on the shop floor, starkly revealed the difference between the stories corporations feed their workers, and what the bosses really think.
The movie revealed that the managers at Fuyao attempted to project certain messages to keep their staff in line. At first, they promoted the creation of the new factory as an exciting new prospect for Sino-American cooperation and a way to revitalise the local town. The American Vice President of Fuyao America at the time stated, “this is a historic project which is going to restore this community, give people jobs and give a future to your kids and my kids”. Chaiman Cao, the founder of Fuyao, focused his public propaganda on a supposed “love” for Ohio and how he viewed his investment as something charitable. Chinese workers and supervisors were told they were on a mission for their Motherland. Chairman Cao told them, “Now Chinese have come to America to open factories. The most important thing isn’t how much money we earn, but how this will change American’s views of China and Chinese people”. During the American supervisors’ trip to Fuyao factories in China, they were subjected to a company-organised Gala event that emphasised a Fuyao “family” spirit, meanwhile a formal meeting of Chinese Fuyao staff involved standing to attention and singing along to a song praising the “blessings of Fuyao”. Some worker’s seemed to buy into this propaganda, as one stated: “The only thing we have in our mind is to do our best. That’s true for everyone here”.
“Workers were being fired for sustaining workplace injuries and their pay was less than half what they received at General Motors”
Should this propaganda be taken at face value? Thanks to American Factory, we don’t need to speculate: we can see what these figures said and did behind closed doors. In reality, Cao and his management staff were obsessed with profit and control. As the possibility of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union being established at Fuyao America grew, Cao made clear to his American managers that he would not accept the presence of a union, threatened to close the factory if the union did get established and threatened the American president of the company saying: “If you want to keep working here, you’d better listen to my advice”. He didn’t hire American managers because he wanted an international team or to listen to locals, he did it because he thought American managers could control American workers. When it turned out that they couldn’t keep American workers as docile as Chinese workers, he fired the American President and VP, replacing them with Chinese ones.
Despite management rhetoric of listening to workers and being a family, a safety officer admitted in an interview that more accidents were occurring at Fuyao than he had ever experienced at General Motors. Workers were being fired for sustaining workplace injuries and their pay was less than half what they received at General Motors. Management continued to cut corners, expose workers to unsafe working conditions and demand ever greater exertion from workers. As the now former Vice-President told the cameras: “You can’t spell Fuyao without FU!”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a US corporation or a Chinese one, the drive of the enterprise is the same and motivated by the same consciousness”
The best demonstration in the movie of the difference between capitalist rhetoric and reality, was the campaign to prevent Fuyao’s workers from unionising. From the company’s inauguration, Fuyao managers fought to prevent union organising. They claimed it was because they wanted a close relationship with workers and that unions would prevent this. When the unionisation campaign was in full swing, Fuyao told their Chinese staff that American labour law meant that if Fuyao became a union shop, “we wouldn’t be able to communicate directly with our American coworkers. Isn’t that terrible?” The Chinese staff nodded with sad expressions, under the impression that they wouldn’t be able to talk to their new American friends anymore. This claim was of course a blatant lie.
In reality, Fuyao’s management knew a union would interfere with efficiency, i.e. corporate domination and profits. In board meetings, no crocodile tears were shed for being unable to communicate with workers. Instead Chairman Cao complained that unions got in the way of his production and would cause him to bleed money. Fuyao hired “union avoidance consultants”, the modern iteration of the infamous Pinkertons, to lie to and scare workers into opposing the union. These lies included claims that a union bargained deal might deliver lower wages and that employers had the right to “permanently replace” workers on strike. Meanwhile, Chinese supervisors were using the rapport they had built with workers to figure out who was sympathetic to the union cause. Remember the supervisor who blew up when he heard American workers refused to do over time? That same supervisor proudly showed a photo of a worker and union supporter he had “befriended” and told the cameras, “this person here, we get long pretty well. You won’t see him here in two weeks’ time”. Ultimately, Fuyao’s dirty tricks succeeded and the campaign to unionise was smashed.
In the closing scenes of the movie, we see Chairman Cao and some underlings, dressed in business clothes and spotless hard hats, touring the factory. A manager proudly tells Cao that they have mechanised portions of the factory and fired workers. As he walked past American workers, he pointed to a spot and stated in Chinese: “Next, I’m going to get rid of four workers here”.
Nostalgia For A Lost Past, Fears For The Future
To repurpose a famous Chinese saying, “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white”. It doesn’t matter if it’s a US corporation or a Chinese one, the drive of the enterprise is the same and motivated by the same consciousness. Workers toiling for their day-to-day survival in those enterprises need the same keen awareness of their interests and to organise to achieve them.
“The real victims here are the workers, Chinese and US alike, as the next phase of triumphant capitalism is rolled out”
American Factory provides ample evidence to back up this conclusion but, maybe with an eye to those who funded the program, fails to drive it home. Parting comments on the screen refer to the challenge for workers on an already disadvantageous labour market as automation jumps to a new stage. Many of the workers in the film also lack class consciousness even if they feel on an instinctual level that something is wrong.
A recurring theme in the movie is nostalgia for a more prosperous and caring past. Some US workers recall being paid $29 an hour several years before at the GM factory on the same site. One of them says he is convinced he will never achieve that kind of income level again. One of the women workers remembers being able to buy a pair of sports shoes straight away if her son needed them. Another woman, living in the basement below a house belonging to her sister and brother-in-law, feels herself in a difficult struggle to regain her status as “middle class”.
A Chinese worker at the US plant laments the disruption to a society that was based on the family and raising children. Even company supremo Cao thinks back to playing with others in the fields and streams of his youth. He sometimes wonders if he has played a demonic role by laying to waste so much of the countryside he once enjoyed so naturally. We needn’t waste sympathy on him. The real victims here are the workers, Chinese and US alike, as the next phase of triumphant capitalism is rolled out.
At one point in the movie, a Chinese supervisor explained to his American counterpart, “Here in China we say that you get what you put in. You need to prove you deserve it”. That supervisor might have felt he was extending a bit of ancient Chinese wisdom to his donkey guests, but the refrain is familiar to workers in the US, Australia and the rest of the capitalist world. Just like so much of the behaviour on display in the movie, it isn’t really about different cultures, it is about the logic of capital and it’s constant struggle to dominate labour.
Capital is capital. Whether it is wrapped up in the trappings of socialism, disguised behind a façade of patriotism or cloaked in the language of family, the fundamental interests and relationships remain the same. Private owners of the means of production and their minions will use every dirty trick in the book to make workers work harder and longer while cutting costs. Now more than ever, workers need to be class conscious. They must peer behind the curtain to see the true workings of the capitalist system arrayed against them and organise to fight for their own interests.