Last week China officially passed Japan to become the second largest economy in the world, with projections of taking the top spot from the U.S. within 20 years. Barely 30 years since China opened its doors to the world economy, the 21st century is poised to belong to China the way that the 20th century belonged to the U.S. It’s a rags-to-riches story blown to national scale, one that the rest of the world is trying to understand, if not emulate. But Jean Yves Cauchard’s eye-opening documentary Made in China asserts, “There is no economic miracle in China.” On the contrary, all this rapid progress was built on the backs of the world’s biggest labor force, whose sacrifices for the sake of a better future have taken a toll on their lives that has yet to be fully measured.
Made in China uses the story of one family to represent those of the over 200 million migrant workers in China. These migrants, who typically leave their impoverished hometowns in the farmlands to seek better-paying jobs along the more developed coastal cities, represent the largest geographic displacement of humans in history. Made in China follows Fan and Zhao, a couple working in a factory town outside Shanghai, who make a combined income of $250 a month at 50 cents an hour. Somehow they manage to save more than half of their earnings to pay off debts and support their children back home, who they haven’t seen in two years. During the Spring Festival (China’s equivalent of the Christmas/New Year’s holiday), Fan and Zhao finally put aside four days to visit their kids, who, like millions of countryside children, live more or less as orphans.
This type of widespread abandonment seems incomprehensible, the kind of thing you have to see to believe. This summer, retracing my steps as an English teacher in rural China, I visited some of my former students who are now teachers in public boarding schools filled with migrant worker children. Teachers effectively act as substitute parents, monitoring their students from their morning exercises at 5AM to lights out at 10PM, with every minute in between regimented by classes, meals and self-study. I couldn’t help noticing how much the kids’ tightly controlled school schedule resembled the down-to-the-minute routine of their parents in their factory jobs hundreds of miles away.
It remains to be seen what the long-term social effects will be of this generation of tens of millions of children who have grown up without their parents. But this phenomenon already invokes a crisis of values that pervades China in its present phase of rampant free-market capitalism, its promise of a better tomorrow for everyone belied by the widening gap between rich and poor. In Made in China, Fan and Zhao work on assembly lines making plush doll frogs and other disposable objects, earning much more than they would as farmers back home feeding the nation. This is just one of many disparities to be found in a country that, by keeping both domestic wages and commodities as low as possible, has pushed its labor force to the breaking point in order to sell more goods to the world. It’s a strategy that has enabled China’s breathtaking ascendance; its dominance in the global market is now unquestionable. The question now is: how soon will its own people benefit? How much more can they take?