Understating the Impact of Official Stigmatization
Yet even the Economist's analysis of hukou fails to capture
its impact on the people of China. In a co-authored article, "China's
Troubled Workers," published in Foreign Affairs a year ago, Anita
Chan and I wrote:
It Feeds a Statistical Cover-up Too
The discrimination shows up even in China's statistical yearbooks. In China's booming coastal provinces--with economies often hailed as miraculous--"peasants" (often misleadingly called "migrant workers") usually make up the great majority of the work force. But: "Their wages do not appear even in the yearbooks of Guangdong cities like Dongguan or Foshan, where almost all the factories...hire only ["peasants"] on the production lines." So writes Anita Chan in the forthcoming issue of Chinese Sociology and Anthropology, a journal published by M.E. Sharpe.
Why, Dr. Chan asks, this glaring omission of "most of the industrial work force and the main contributors to the locality's wealth"? She surmises that people of rural origins either "are considered so transient and marginal as to be non-persons, or their wages are so low as to be embarrassing if published in official records."
The omission illustrates why the Economist could write:
"China's economic statistics are all but meaningless." So are the
euphoric reports about the growth of freedom in China.
Chen Yonghui found that the air in most Putian workshops she visited was so polluted that she started feeling dizzy from her first minutes there. She also found that most factories had no air purification system, and that some made do with ineffective exhaust fans (which were often shut off to save electricity costs). Since the young women workers were unfamiliar with the health perils they face daily, "They really are a group of lambs led to the slaughter," the reporter wrote.
How much would it cost to clean up the toxic air? After some research, Chen Yonghui learned that an amortized investment in an air cleaning system would cost less than a half cent per pair of shoes.
An Impoverished Rationale for Doing Nothing
Since the cost is so small when spread over total production, why don't factories install the equipment? The conventional wisdom among economists: China is "too poor" to do so. Two U.S. corporate lawyers, R. Michael Gadbaw and Michael T. Medwig, embrace that view in a contribution to a recent book (Human Rights, Labor Rights, and International Trade). They correctly point out that the "vast majority of workers" in the world do not enjoy basic rights, not even minimal protection against on-the-job health hazards. They then explain this situation by approvingly quoting an economist, Gary S. Fields: "The reason is simple: the economies in which they live are too poor."
Not so simple as simplistic. The young women in Putian are making shoes for economies that are not poor. The cost of making those shoes is ultimately paid by consumers in places like the United States. Pointedly, Chen Yonghui mentions that a pair of Nike shoes made in Putian sells for $120 in the United States.
The translated report from Chinese Women will appear in the forthcoming summer issue of Chinese Sociology and Anthropology. It is well worth reading. So are the issue's other reports from within China. The realities they describe serve to expose the flaws in some widely accepted economic rationales.
After all, as the son of an ethnic German father born near the borders
of present-day Austria, I might have lived through the Nazi era in Germany.
Instead of listening to anti-Jewish views in my home in Chicago (as I did
as a teen-ager), I might have acted on them in Berlin or Nuremberg.
Instead of serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, I might have served
in Hitler's Army or one of Germany's murderous police units. So I
can't help wondering:
My fear stems from an honest self-appraisal. I remember the many occasions when I, as an American living in freedom, have remained silent, done nothing, about obvious injustices. And that passivity was under circumstances when the cost of doing something, showing some courage, was mighty small--nothing compared to what it was for people living under the Third Reich, and still is for those living in the People's Republic of China.
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