Books about industry usually hold as much excitement as watching grass grow. They're as fascinating as fallen dog droppings, as appealing as melted ice cream and as reliable as rhetoric at the National People's Congress.
With The China Price, The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage (2008, Penguin Press, 337 pages), a first-time author, journalist Alexandra Harney, delivers a quality-controlled exception.
For years, hundreds of thousands of factories in Guangdong Province near Hong Kong have provided a huge portion of the world's merchandise, everything from fashions to photo frames, toys to timepieces. “Much of this success is due to the marriage of Chinese labor with foreign capital. China's courtship of international business has drawn the world's manufacturers to its doorstep.”
What “real costs” in misery, environmental damage and more prevail as the ship-loads of inexpensive products leave Chinese ports?
“....a decade of monitoring by multinationals has not let to substantial improvement in working conditions in Chinese factories. Falsification and the use of shadow factories allow underpayment of wages, excessive overtime and unsafe conditions to persist.”
“The fact that so many factories are lying about their working hours and wages raises questions about their honesty in other areas, including chemicals and raw materials used in production. What else are Chinese factories hiding?”
The author urges consumers to think more. “Everyone needs to be more aware and to consider where products come from, how they're made and why they're so cheap,” she said. “It matters for quality and whether we feel good about what we buy.”
“Chinese factories’ skill at falsification has become a competitive advantage. In a world where so many are cheating to keep costs down, telling the truth becomes a handicap.”
According to Harney, “Much of the book deals with how China's changing on the ground. To the extent that my book raises consumer awareness and clarifies what may happen in China down the line, it should be well read in boardrooms.”
“The forces that will shape China's manufacturing sector in coming decades are already clear: rising wages and material costs, greater demand for unionization, a high risk of litigation, a dwindling supply of cheap workers, calls for better product quality and safety and substantial downward pressure on margins.”
Many authors make the mistake of endlessly juggling facts and statistics. Sometimes Harney tiptoes near the same precipice, but she always saves herself with telling observations, anecdotes and quotations. Deftly, she shows the big picture through individual realities. “The hours are long, the salary is low, and when you get sick, you get fired.”
Harney says: “The idea was to look individually at the stories of people within China's factory machine and try to introduce readers to how lives are affected by working in the workshop of the world. There's a story of a factory manager, how he's under pressure to produce things at ever-lower prices and what it's like to be him. There's a story about a woman who loses her husband to a lung disease that comes from inhaling so much dust because he worked in a jewelry factory.”
“Dotted across the Chinese landscape are ‘cancer villages’, towns full of widows whose late husbands worked in the same toxic industries, enclaves where women give birth to babies with deformed limbs and other disabilities.... Some of these ‘widow towns’ owe their fate to environmental pollution; others to a common workplace.”
The most intriguing chapter introduces “The Girls of Room 817”, migrant workers sharing a garment-factory dormitory room. “Their laughter, boisterous and infectious, made up for the families, the houses, the lives they had left behind.”
An inspiring section tells of Li Gang, a teenager who travels on “an old clunker” bus to the factory region. After a blur of 18-hour-workdays, seven-day-weeks making plastic bags, he loses a hand in the factory machinery. As an amputee, he studies and begins to defend other workers' rights.
Many (maybe most) of the names were changed to protect the people courageous enough to speak bluntly to Harney. The author, an American, has worked in Asia for nearly a decade, often covering China and Japan for The Financial Times.
Initially published in New York, The China Price will circulate in the UK. Then it'll appear in Chinese and Korean for more potential readers in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and South Korea.
Some critics may scoff that Harney has harnessed mostly beginner's luck, but that would be nonsense. Her flawless research and journalistic skills show on every page. She's precise and thorough, as proven by abundant footnotes and the bibliography.
The China Price carries a valuable message and deserves attention. Ideally, it should reside on a bookshelf in every household where the words “Made in China” appear.
Approval rating: 82 per cent.
For more information: www.penguin.com
(April 27, 2008)