Who Cares About China’s Enormous Workforce?

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Is its massive economic growth making people happy? If so, who?

Most people would think the obvious, the boss is happy, but is that entirely the case with China. Who is benefitting from the current state of affairs, particularly the Chinese government’s policy of growing a healthy middle class?  Although China is rapidly becoming the world’s largest consumer market as well as the world’s largest goods manufacturing base it is still estimated that up to two thirds of its population is living in poverty with a significant amount living below the UN’s defined level of poverty. Often those living in the most significant poverty are found on the fringes of China’s society, in the derelict rural villages or as urban poor in China’s massive and growing metropolises, many are seeking work, some are incapable of finding work and maybe some just don’t want to work. Yet, currently China is experiencing a major shift in its human settlement pattern as a large proportion of the impoverished rural population is migrating towards the cities in order to find the work they need to sustain themselves and their families.

China’s open door to the Western market

China is a communist country, which after accepting that capitalism was the only way to achieve significant economic growth, now has a heavy reliance on capitalism for continued economic growth. This policy has allowed many Chinese business people to come up from nothing to being amongst the wealthiest industrialists in the world. The success of the average Chinese business magnates could be attributed to deft business acumen and the drive to succeed at all costs, but it cannot be denied that the most significant factor in the economic development of China is China’s massive population which is willing to work for extremely low wages. This, as well as various government mandated tax incentives, has allowed China to enjoy an unfair advantage in the global manufacturing market. However, this advantage has come through the exploitation of the Chinese people.  This exploitation has, for some, come at a heavy price while for others the economic success has been the best thing to happen to them and their families, greatly increasing their standard of living; sometimes in a very short period of time.

Current affairs in the labour pool

Patterns of economic development are also skewed in China. Initial development policy during the early economic revolution was development of China’s coastal cities as a way of ensuring the economic routes to the West were secured. This led to massive development of the coastal region as a manufacturing center while leaving a significant portion of the country to remain underdeveloped and relatively stagnant. The development on the coast has also led to the drainage of manpower from the rural regions further propagating the downward spiral of economic and social stagnation. While a small proportion of urbanized China have become rich industrialists, mainly profiting off of the exploitation of their fellow Chinese, many average Chinese workers live in what, by Western standards, is considered to be poverty. However, despite what a Westerner may think, the average low wage earning Chinese migrant labourer is still enjoying a far better standard of living than the one they did in the country side. When this is taken into consideration along with the fact that there is a distinct difference in what is considered to be a good standard of living between the East and the West the average Chinese migrant worker is doing emotionally well, and is generally grateful to have the opportunity to earn and become more than they were on the countryside. Many migrant workers see their work in the sweat shops as a way to gain better opportunities through education and the ability for them to support their families. Often only meager wages over time is enough to build a house for one’s family in the countryside, which is more often than not, a significant increase in the standard of living for an entire family.

Filling the spaces in between

Although the development and standard of living increases along the Eastern coastal region have been occurring for the last 25 years relatively little development has occurred along the Western frontier. This is something the Chinese government is currently focusing its efforts on with the Western Development Policy. The Western Development Policy is China’s way of attempting to harmonize the economic growth of the country through the creation of industry and infrastructure throughout the Western regions, this also includes creating national parks. Should this policy come to fruition it would shift the balance of wealth creating a more equalised market base for China’s new middle class. This would also boost the standard of living for the people of the traditionally impoverished and depressed rural regions as they would now have more opportunities to tap into China’s booming economy, and often in the case of the poor in China, a little bit of opportunity and money can go a long way in securing the mental health of a family and a village.

By products of development

Pollution from the massive industrial growth and the needs of the population has left China with a major pollution problem that needs to be dealt with if China wants a future for its people. Currently China is operating the most coal fired power plants out of any nation in the world this has created a large smog problem for Chinese cities leading to the degradation of the standard of living in the major urban centers of China. When additional pollution factors are taken in to account, primarily the Chinese car industry, which has the world’s largest market base cater to, and the massive amounts of environmental pollution that have occurred as a result of the rapid industrialization of China, the legacy of China’s pollution will potentially have global consequences. Currently many rivers in South Eastern China are potentially polluted beyond repair. In cities under the right environmental circumstances the air quality can be bad to the point of low visibility reminiscent of London England’s Great Smog incident of 1952. In recent times satellite imagery has captured a recurring large brown cloud originating over Asia, this phenomenon has become known as the Asian Brown Cloud. It is no secret that pollution poses significant risks to the physical health of human beings it also poses a significant threat to the mental health of the population. Recent incidents have seen many Chinese express their discontent through environmental activism, migration from the cities or various other ways. Although the Chinese government has taken action against this problem, China is the number one producer of green energy in the world and has made strong efforts to clean up its coal emissions, the fact is, China is addicted to manufacturing and the energy needed to feed its industrial machine. Because of this the potential healthcare burden of millions of sick and dying residents in China, be it from past or present pollution, would cripple the Chinese economy, forever.

Migrants viewed as interlopers

Although Chinese cites demand labour is, in many cases, filled by migrant workers many traditional residents of a destination city, justified or not, view migrants and interlopers within their cities further exacerbating local problems; in light of this apathy towards outsiders should not be seen as an attitude held by everyone in China’s cities. Xenophobia (the fear of strangers) is a fundamentally detrimental social problem which can lead to a vast amount of social ills including violence between groups, exclusion of outsiders from society, and the enclave factor which can lead to micro-societies within societies, which, can lead to fractionalization of a population. An example of the fractionalization in China was seen in 2009 when false rumours of the raping of Han Chinese women at a toy factory led to an eruption of violence amongst migrant Han Chinese workers and local Uighur left up to 200 people dead and over 100 injured. Situations like this lead to deep-seated resentment in a community which can manifest itself in many ways which can lead to the general degradation in the quality of life for everyone in a community.


The ones left behind

Those run down by the development in China have in most cases been left in the dirt and are often forgotten. In many cases cheap labour is also viewed as disposable labour and if a company can walk away from a problem, it will. And even though there are labour laws, workers protection organizations and labour unions in China that are intended to protect the workers in many cases they do not particularly since poor migrants often cannot afford legal defense. In cases where lighting is bad workers have been known to develop eye problems which significantly hinder their ability to find another job should they be fired. In other cases workers that are injured or crippled permanently are left in to fend for themselves often without any compensation; there are laws designed to protect these workers but they must win their case. If a crippled worker loses they may end up on the streets with little to no hope for redemption. Emotional problems faced by workers have also contributed to elevated suicide rates amongst migrant workers, and even though suicide hotlines have been set up in some areas in an attempt to address this problem, ubiquitous mental healthcare is still unavailable. Raping of women in sweatshops in places other than China is a problem, in China there is little evidence that raping of female workers is a large scale problem. Cases of varying degrees of sexual harassment in Chinese factories do exist on a significant scale but are in many cases not recognized as a communal problem by the community as a whole leading to an overall lack of the infrastructure required to care for victims of sexual harassment. In many cases the victim does not seek help to stop abuse. The struggle faced by the unredeemed workers of China is probably the most emotionally painful and bleak. Yet as China matures and adjusts to being a large industrial nation there may even be redemption for the most destitute of workers sometime in the future.
The dissidents

Although social protest and vocally opposing the practices of the Chinese government is generally a bad idea there are some people who do not whole heartedly agree with the direction that China is moving in both politically and economically. Amongst the more recognizable case, to the West, is the contemporary artist Ai Weiwei who has been openly vocal about his criticisms of the state to the point where he was arrested and held for a number of days for vague reasons and eventually released without charge. During which time he alleged he was emotionally tortured by his captors. Although there are countless individuals who have been locked up for directly opposing the central government over the years since China’s economic miracle, there are examples of people who work to change the situation through more subtle tactics often working within the framework of the Chinese system. They include workers rights groups, trade union and individual rights lawyers among others who try to level the playing field for the workers of China to ensure they have a standard of living worth living. A proportion of the youth of China, the ones most exposed to the trends of globalization through the internet have increasingly used the internet for activism against their social situations in China, speaking out about the issues that affect them and the average people of China including economic and environmental issues related to China’s economic bulldozer.


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Tim Kendal

As a geography and graduate from a Canadian university I like to travel and see how the rest of the world lives. I once wrote a thesis on China and a gazillion other papers on everything else and now I write freelance, sometimes.

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