Think about your knickers. Your bra, shoes, socks, running shoes, anorak, television, towels, light bulbs, computer, and, sooner rather than later, your car or its parts. If they were made here they would be far more expensive. But they’re made in China, so that’s all right then. OK, workers here lose their jobs, but that’s globalisation for you, and anyway there is still plenty of work for people willing to do it. So that China price is really worth it, right? But what if the China price includes Chinese workers living in dark Satanic conditions and hundreds of thousands of Chinese lives lost every year?
We should consider, too, the deadliest remark in Alexandra Harney’s eloquent and vibrant study, from the wife of a Chinese man dying of the lung disease endemic and often fatal for thousands of workers grinding, polishing and crushing stones for cheap export jewellery. Fifty-five per cent of China’s export goods are made of imported parts, ‘by contract manufacturers you have never heard of that produce goods carrying their customers’ brand names’. An expert on the working conditions of men like her husband, the woman said to Harney: ‘Isn’t it because you Americans have brought all your bad factories to China?’
Dead cheap is not China’s only advantage. It has an excellent infrastructure of airports, harbours and railways. For some labour-intensive goods, Harney explains,
the entire supply chain has moved to China, so that components, machinery repair shops and raw materials are clustered together within a two-hour drive of the factory. It will take time to replicate the cluster effect in other countries with lower costs than China.
The price, the real China price, lies at the core of this meticulously researched and wonderfully readable book. Lots of others, like Harney, with long experience in and around China, knowledge of the language and the grit to scramble beneath the curtains that disguise so much in Chinese life, have written on conditions in Chinese factories. Books and articles have exposed the deadly toys now withdrawn in their millions, the poisonous toothpaste and pet food and the horrifying realities of Chinese factories. There is a superb book on Chinese pollution, Elizabeth C. Economy’s The River Runs Black and another (not cited by Harney) on the toy scandal, Eric Clark’s The Real Toy Story: Inside the Ruthless Battle for Britain’s Youngest Consumers.
But Harney, who represented the Financial Times in Hong Kong and China, draws everything together: the gigantic scale of Chinese manufacturing, its international extent, the sometimes genuine, often bogus, attempts to control its corruption and vileness, the similarly dodgy extent of much international monitoring, the vast pollution Chinese manufacturing spews out that damages the health or takes the lives of its workers and many others. She writes, as they used to say, like an angel, and, uniquely, has spent hours with the men and very young women working in China’s William Blake-like world to bring you those cheap knickers.
The extent of Chinese manufacture, like everything else in China, staggers the mind. In 1984 China exported $26 billion-worth of goods. In 2006 that climbed to $969 billion. One company alone, employing 450,000 people, manufactures for Apple, Motorola, Dell and Hewlett-Packard. This year China will become the world’s largest exporter. $287.8 billion of those exports went to America in 2006 (this book is aimed at Americans) while American exports to China that year amounted to $55.2 billion. This trade deficit has cost Americans 1.8 million jobs since 2001.
Wages are very low. Chinese workers average $0.57 per-hour, 3 per cent of the average US manufacturing wage. These wages are lower, Harney says, than the earnings of UK handloom operators during the Industrial Revolution. As she writes, in her vivid way, the young women in Canton who work and live in sub-sub-standard conditions, or face the prospect of prostitution, have ‘taken up the baton in the relay race that began in 18th-century Britain with the Industrial Revolution. They were the most affordable and productive workers the world had found.’
Harney spent hours with 12 of these spunky teenagers:
There was no kitchen in room 817, no air- conditioner or heater, no dressers. Just a rusty fan and a cracked vinyl chair next to a broken mirror in the corner of the room. Their modest wardrobes took up only half a foot at the end of each bed — shirts and jeans hung from every frame. Their shoes and worldly possessions fit under their beds.
These conditions make one chuckle mordantly at recent assurances in The Times by well-known UK manufacturers that overseas workers making goods for sale here are paid the minimum wage — in China $0.57 cents per hour. They don’t mention health insurance, which few Chinese workers have, or pensions, which are almost unknown.
Indeed, the whole matter of monitoring, of which these UK household names boast, is explored minutely by Harney. Poisonous and counterfeit goods, bad enough, are not the biggest scandals. It is the diseases of China’s factory hands that might make even Scrooge wince. Owners lie, monitors skimp, ‘shadow factories’ manufacture in conditions that Wal-Mart never sees. Only six of China’s largest cities meet national standards for pure drinking water. Four of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, burning coal from the world’s most dangerous mines, are Chinese. One third of the entire population breathes pollution, from which 400,000 people die every year and the annual bill for water and air pollution is $54 billion.
And as Harney observes, ‘What happens in China doesn’t stay in China.’ Much Chinese pollution floats across to the US, along with carbon monoxide, ozone and mercury. So does the apocalyptic cargo of disease, poverty, horrible working practices and other scandals carried to our shores by those cheap goods that Marks and Spencer, Gap and H&M claim are so morally produced. The ghastly point is that Chinese workers work, live and die in conditions that Charles Dickens could not have described better than Alexandra Harney has.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 12, 2008