A look inside the world’s manufacturing center shows that America should welcome China’s rise—for now.
Half the time I have spent in China I have spent in factories. At least that’s how it feels—and it’s a feeling I sought. The factories where more than 100 million Chinese men and women toil, and from which cameras, clothes, and every other sort of ware flow out to the world, are to me the most startling and intense aspect of today’s China. For now, they are also the most important. They are startling above all in their scale. I was prepared for the skyline of Shanghai and its 240-mph Maglev train to the airport, and for the nonstop construction, dust, and bustle of Beijing. Every account of modern China mentions them. But I had no concept of the sweep of what has become the world’s manufacturing center: the Pearl River Delta of Guangdong province (the old Canton region), just north of Hong Kong. That one province might have a manufacturing workforce larger than America’s. Statistics from China are largely guesses, but Guangdong’s population is around 90 million. If even one-fifth of its people hold manufacturing jobs, as seems likely in big cities, that would be 18 million—versus 14 million in the entire United States.
One facility in Guangdong province, the famous Foxconn works, sits in the middle of a conurbation just outside Shenzhen, where it occupies roughly as much space as a major airport. Some 240,000 people (the number I heard most often; estimates range between 200,000 and 300,000) work on its assembly lines, sleep in its dormitories, and eat in its company cafeterias. I was told that Foxconn’s caterers kill 3,000 pigs each day to feed its employees. The number would make sense—it’s one pig per 80 people, in a country where pigs are relatively small and pork is a staple meat (I heard no estimate for chickens). From the major ports serving the area, Hong Kong and Shenzhen harbors, cargo ships left last year carrying the equivalent of more than 40 million of the standard 20-foot-long metal containers that end up on trucks or railroad cars. That’s one per second, round the clock and year-round—and it’s less than half of China’s export total. What’s in the containers that come back from America? My guess was, “dollars”; in fact, the two leading ship-borne exports from the United States to China, by volume, are scrap paper and scrap metal, for recycling.
And the factories are important, for China and everyone else. Someday China may matter internationally mainly for the nature of its political system or for its strategic ambitions. Those are significant even now, of course, but China’s success in manufacturing is what has determined its place in the world. Most of what has been good about China over the past generation has come directly or indirectly from its factories. The country has public money with which to build roads, houses, and schools—especially roads. The vast population in the countryside has what their forebears acutely lacked, and peasants elsewhere today still do: a chance at paying jobs, which means a chance to escape rural poverty. Americans complain about cheap junk pouring out of Chinese mills, but they rely on China for a lot that is not junk, and whose cheap price is important to American industrial and domestic life. Modern consumer culture rests on the assumption that the nicest, most advanced goods—computers, audio systems, wall-sized TVs—will get cheaper year by year. Moore’s Law, which in one version says that the price of computing power will be cut in half every 18 months or so, is part of the reason, but China’s factories are a big part too.
Much of what is threatening about today’s China also comes from its factories. Many people inside China, and nearly everyone outside, can avoid the direct effects of the country’s political controls. It is much harder to avoid its pollution. The air in Chinese cities is worse than I expected, and because the pollution affects so many people in such a wide range of places, it is more damaging than London’s, Manchester’s, or Pittsburgh’s in their worst, rapidly industrializing days. The air pollution comes directly from the steel works, cement plants, and other heavy-industry facilities that are helping the country prosper, and indirectly from the electric power plants that keep everything running. (Plus more and more cars, though China still has barely one-thirtieth as many per capita as the United States.) The sheer speed and volume with which factories and power plants across China increase their output of soot and gases make the country’s air-pollution problems the world’s. The heightened competition for oil, ore, and other commodities to feed the factories affects other nations, as do slapdash standards of food purity and safety, which may have led to tainted worldwide supplies of animal food. The ultimate fear in the developed world, of course, is that as China creates millions of new factory jobs unknown millions will lose such jobs in America, Canada, Germany, even Japan.
But these factories are both surprising and important in a less obvious, though also fundamental, way. Almost nothing about the way they work corresponds to the way they are discussed in the United States. America’s political debates about the “China opportunity” and, even more, the “China threat” seem distant, theoretical, and imprecise from the perspective of the factories where the outsourcing and exporting occur. The industrialists from the United States, Europe, or Japan who are deciding how much of their production to move to China talk about the process in very different terms from those used in American political discussion. One illustration: The artificially low value of China’s currency, relative to the dollar, comes near the top of American complaints about Chinese trade policy. (The currency is the yuan renminbi—literally, “people’s money”—or RMB). This is more like the eighth or tenth issue that comes up when business officials discuss the factories they are opening in one country and closing in another. And when it does come up, the context is usually whether the RMB’s rise will force a company to put its next factory not in China’s crowded coastal region but someplace with even lower costs, like the remote interior provinces, where salaries are lower and commercial space is cheaper—or perhaps Vietnam or Cambodia.
So too with complaints about Chinese government subsidies for exporting industries, widespread abuse of intellectual property, and even “slave labor” inside the vast factories. Some of these complaints are well-founded, others are not; but even if all were true, they would misdescribe and undervalue what is going on here. Talking about Chinese industrial growth, Americans are in the position of 19th-century Europeans who acted as if America’s industrial rise could be explained simply by its vast natural resources and its exploitation of immigrant and slave labor, plus its very casual attitude toward copyright and patent laws protecting foreign, mainly British, books and inventions. (Today, Americans walk the streets of China and see their movies, music, software, and books sold everywhere in cheap pirate versions. A century and a half ago, Charles Dickens walked the streets of young America and fumed to see his novels in cheap pirate versions.) All those factors played their part, but they were not the full story of America’s rise—nor do the corresponding aspects of modern China’s behavior fully explain what China has achieved.
I can’t pretend to know the complete story of China’s industrial rise. But I can describe what I have seen, and the main way it has changed my mind.
Large-scale shifts in economic power have effects beyond the purely economic. Americans need not be hostile toward China’s rise, but they should be wary about its eventual effects. The United States is the only nation with the scale and power to try to set the terms of its interaction with China rather than just succumb. So starting now, Americans need to consider the economic, environmental, political, and social goals they care about defending as Chinese influence grows.
The consideration might best start from the point about which I’ve changed my mind: So far, America’s economic relationship with China has been successful and beneficial—and beneficial for both sides. Free trade may not always be good for all participants, and in the long run trade with China may hold perils for the United States. But based on what I have seen in China, and contrary to what I expected before I came, so far it is working as advertised. Before thinking about what should be changed, Americans should appreciate what has gone right. A good place to begin that story is Shenzhen.
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