China’s Troubling Robot Revolution

More about why Shenzhen–and the forms of creativity that are being developed here–has far, far reaching effects. Full article over at the NYTimes, snippet, below.

Ethics Asylum

Image Credit: Kristian Hammerstad

OVER the last decade, China has become, in the eyes of much of the world, a job-eating monster, consuming entire industries with its seemingly limitless supply of low-wage workers. But the reality is that China is now shifting its appetite to robots, a transition that will have significant consequences for China’s economy — and the world’s.

In 2014, Chinese factories accounted for about a quarter of the global ranks of industrial robots — a 54 percent increase over 2013. According to the International Federation of Robotics, it will have more installed manufacturing robots than any other country by 2017.

Midea, a leading manufacturer of home appliances in the heavily industrialized province of Guangdong, plans to replace 6,000 workers in its residential air-conditioning division, about a fifth of the work force, with automation by the end of the year. Foxconn, which makes consumer electronics for Apple and other…

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making noodles, deskilling labor

When I was young, I heard Johnny Cash singing about John Henry–the American version of man versus machine. However, an informercial about the Shandong style noodle-bot (below) reminds us that we’re talking about the social organization and reproduction of skilled labor.  Continue reading

cultural economics 101: how do you find reliable workers in shenzhen?

The expression “a friend is a means of getting something done (一个朋友一条路)” is a concise description of the Shenzhen labor market. It is, of course, also a description of “relationship-ology (关系学), the social art of making full use of one’s relatives, friends and acquaintances. Given the importance of relationships to getting things done in China generally and Shenzhen specifically, relationship-ology manifests in some ugly ways. Nepotism is classic relationship-ology as is the art of making friends through wining, dining and bribing. Nevertheless, having friends help get things done isn’t as coldly instrumental as it sounds. Continue reading

foxconn + walmart = shenzhen, or globalization after mao

China Labor Watch has reported another Foxconn strike, this time at the Zhengzhou campus. According to the report, the shortage of iPhones led to increased demands on Foxconn workers, who were required to work over the holiday, for longer hours, at jobs that they did not have the skills to perform. Moreover, quality control inspectors also joined line workers in the strike for more reasonable work conditions. From the report:

(New York) China Labor Watch (CLW) announced that at 1:00PM on October 5 (Beijing time), a strike occurred at Foxconn’s Zhengzhou factory that, according to workers, involved three to four thousand production workers. In addition to demanding that workers work during the holiday, Foxconn raised overly strict demands on product quality without providing worker training for the corresponding skills. This led to workers turning out products that did not meet standards and ultimately put a tremendous amount of pressure on workers. Additionally, quality control inspectors fell into to conflicts with workers and were beat up multiple times by workers. Factory management turned a deaf ear to complaints about these conflicts and took no corrective measures. The result of both of these circumstances was a widespread work stoppage on the factory floor among workers and inspectors.

Ironically, on the same day, Salon dot com reported that workers at Wal-mart also went on strike for the first time in the company’s notoriously anti-union history. As at Foxconn, Wal-mart workers are striking in large part because they are being to asked to do the impossible — do the jobs of several people. From the article:

I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m scared…” Pico Rivera Wal-Mart employee Evelin Cruz told Salon yesterday about her decision to join today’s strike. “But I think the time has come, so they take notice that these associates are tired of all the issues in the stores, all the management retaliating against you.” Rivera, a department manager, said her store is chronically understaffed: “They expect the work to be done, without having the people to do the job.

News of these two labor strikes resonate ironically in Shenzhen because Foxconn (鸿海科技集团) and Walmart were two of the first multi-nationals to benefit from Shenzhen’s establishment in 1979.

Foxconn has 13 factories in China, but its oldest and largest is the Shenzhen Longhua Campus, which has an estimated population of 250,000 workers and managerial staff. Moreover, the Shenzhen Campus is the location of Foxconn China’s headquarters and represents over 1/4 of the Company’s global workforce. Foxconn is the worlds largest contract provider of computer, communication and consumer electronics products. In addition to Apple, Foxconn partners with Acer Inc, Amazon, Cisco, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Microsoft, Motorola, Nintendo, Nokia, Sony, Toshiba, and Vizio. In other words, Foxconn employees also make Kindles, PlayStations, and Xboxes in addition to iPhones, so if you’re using any kind of high-end electronic product — especially a smartphone — odds are it was made in one of Foxconn’s Chinese factories. Foxconn posted net profit of US$ 102.74 billion in 2011.

Similarly, as Walmart’s world buying headquarters, Shenzhen is a critical site in the multinational’s chains of production and consumption. Walmart reportedly sources 70% of its merchandise from China, and many of its earliest subcontractors were located in Shenzhen. Importantly, the level of worker exploitation at Foxconn Longhua and Zhengzhou cannot be understood outside the context of Walmart in China. With a global workforce of over 2 million people (or two Foxconns), Walmart is the world’s largest private employer and shapes daily life at the level of both supply and demand. By 2005, Walmart had become China’s sixth largest export market–just behind Germany–making it a larger trader partner than many countries. Indeed, Anita Chan argues that “When the two giants Walmart and China established a stable symbiotic relationsip at the turn of the millennium, and as Walmartization of the supply chain took root on Chinese soil, Walmart’s competitors had to use the same sourcing techniques to survive.” Walmart reported US$ 15.4 billion net revenue in 2011 (or roughly 15% of Foxconn’s net revenue for the same period).

As Walmart is to commercial products, so Foxconn is to high-end electronics. Given their global dominance in their respective niches, both companies are in a position to squeeze more labor out of their workers, demanding (as on Foxconn Zhengzhou’s iPhone 5 production lines) overtime work that effectively pushes wages down below even locally acceptable wage levels. Here, “forced overtime” can be understood in two ways. 1. As in Foxconn Zhengzhou, where workers are expected to put in extra hours to meet orders. And 2. as in South California Walmarts, where one worker does the job of several, so that even when working a “forty-hour” week, they may have put in 60 hours worth of labor.

Here’s the Shenzhen connection to new forms of labor exploitation. During the 1980s and through the 1990s, but especially during the pre-1992 Southern Tour years, Shenzhen business offered Chinese citizens an opportunity to opt out of the planned economy, in both cities and rural areas. The lure, of course, was a salary that was based on market demands, rather than fixed by the central government plan. Indeed, in 1988, the Shekou Tempest began when visiting Beijing officials accused local workers of being nothing more than gold diggers, who were motivated by greed, rather than by nobler sentiments, such as patriotism to modernize the national economy.

Shenzhen is not the first city to boom through low wage production. In fact, many of the earliest companies that set up factories in Shenzhen simply relocated from nearby Hong Kong and Taiwan. However, in retrospect, it is clear how small the 1970s Asian miracle actually was. With the establishment of Shenzhen, the world’s largest corporations suddenly had access to the world’s largest workforce — a workforce, moreover, that was trained, disciplined, and  eager to work for wages, making forced overtime a globally viable corporate strategy. Today, forced overtime has become one of the most effective means of labor management, not only because it results in higher profit margins, but also because exhausted workers are more docile.

Even as China debates pushing forward the Shenzhen model of production, it’s clear that this model has already gone global. Consequently, Shenzhen may be the key to understanding globalization in the post Mao era. In fact, Shenzhen has become the city that US Americans would recognize as “middle class” in both practice and ideology. Most residents are migrants, who came to Shenzhen to make their fortune. Moreover, they believe that individuals need to work hard in order to get ahead; Shenzhen espouses individual effort, transparency in business deals, and home ownership as simultaneously being the means and ends of the good society. As in the United States, Shenzhen residents talk on their iPhones while shopping at Walmart. As in the United States, this standard of living has not spread throughout the general population because it depends upon increasing levels of exploitation. Thus also as in the United States, now that the factories have moved to Zhengzhou and Vietnam, the squeezing of service industry labor has intensified, which leaves enquiring minds to wonder: when will workers in Shenzhen’s 12 Walmarts strike?

union elections in shenzhen

In keeping with Shenzhen’s place at the core of Guangdong reforms, Shenzhen has announced that 163 companies with more than 1,000 employees will introduce elections for union leaders. These elected representatives will then work with the City, District and Precinct level union organizations in order to represent worker rights in negotiations with company management. According to Southern Daily, the impetus for this move has been ongoing independent worker demands for better wages and benefits. Indeed, the first company to implement the election system was OMO, a German company with a plant at Bantian. The article notes that holding union representative elections seemed to have dispelled worker dissatisfaction.

I’m not sure how to interpret this development other than to note that provincial Party Secretary, Wang Yang is actively promoting this reform. Indeed, as we approach the Two Conferences season, Wang Yang has been very active promoting “Happy Guangdong (幸福广东)” and its recognizably middle class values. It is also worth mentioning that the targeted 163 companies are large and many are foreign. Hopefully progressive change at larger plants will help less protected members of the workforce. The problem, of course, is that like the US American workforce, the Chinese workforce is fragmented into segments that receive more and less protection depending not only on worker skills, but also public visibility. Large, international companies are monitored not only by Chinese unions and news media, but also to some degree by foreign groups and media. In contrast, a large segment of the population works under unseen conditions in smaller factories, restaurants, and services or does piecework at home.

But still. One hopes.

BOOM! Shenzhen in process

We finish installing Boom! tomorrow. Through the process of designing, building, and installing the pieces, I have become increasingly aware of the labor necessary to make such a project. In fact, I’ve found it humbling to realize how little I have contributed in the face of my collaborators’ and workers’ skills and willingness to get it right; yes, this kind of artistic production begs Marxist critique. Below, impressions of folks who have worked hard to make Boom! possible. The tag Boom! Shenzhen will bring up other posts from the show.

BOOM! opens 9:00 pm, December 8 in OCT, B-10 venue. Please come.

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特 – a manifesto against special privileges

More from 乌有之乡, this time an essay on “Why is creating SEZs a logical fraud? (为什么说搞“经济特区”是一个“逻辑骗局”?)” And yes, these thoughts have been expressed before, but they really do bear repeating. And then, it’s worth applying the analysis to other, non-Chinese spheres where legal exceptionalism remains the primary form of creating competitive advantage. As the anonymous author argues, governments have made it their business to help multinationals squeeze even more out of workers.

Why is Creating SEZs a Logical Fraud?

Key point: The original purpose and core intention of creating “Special Economic Zones (SEZs)” was to explore possible paths for reforming and opening China. However, the problem appeared with the character “special (特)”. If what is being created is a “special” zone, logically speaking it isn’t relevant to ordinary life. In other words, the paths that are suitable for a “special” zone are “special paths”, and not the ordinary path of reforming and opening China.

[translation note: 法律特权 literally translates as legal privilege, however, it functions analogously to the American English concept of legal exceptions — the rules don’t apply to me — and where appropriate that is how I have translated it. In most places, however, I’ve tried to stick to “privilege”.] Continue reading