Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Better Off?

I haven't had a whole lot of time for blogging recently. I have had time to read plenty though.

I'm reading for about an hour every day on my lunch break and it is great. I'm really happy to be getting into books as opposed to focusing on news features on the web, what I've been more into the past couple years. I do have internet access at my work and could theoretically surf the web and/or blog during my free time, but I would prefer to get away from the desk where I spend my days. Going outside everyday with a book (no, I don't use an iPad or Kindle to read books) is something I'm really enjoying this spring.

The last book I finished was James Fallows' Postcards From Tomorrow Square that I referenced in my last blog post.

Fallows is a very humble yet keen observer. His perspective, as someone who came to China with a fairly blank slate (ie. not a "China hand"), has been refreshing. One passage in the book was particularly striking to me. It is a notion that I've thought about before that Fallows lays out very well.

From pages 92 - 93 from Fallows' book:
Has the factory boom been good for China? Of course it has. Yes, it creates environmental pressures that, if not controlled, could pollute China and the world out of existence. The national government's current Five-Year Plan - the 11th, running through 2010 - has as its central theme China's development as a "harmonious society," of hexie shehui, a phrase heard about as often from China's leadership as "global war on terror" has been heard from America's. In China, the phrase is code for attempting to deal with income inequalities, especially, the hardships of farmers and millions of migrant laborers. But it is also code for at least talking about protecting the environment.

And, yes, throughout China's boom many people have been mistreated, oppressed, sometimes worked to death in factories. Even those not abused may be lonely and lost, with damaging effects on the country's social fabric. But this was also the story of Britain and America when they built their great industries, their grand turbulent industrial cities, and ultimately their great industrial middle classes. For China, it is far from the worst social disruption the country has endured in the last 50 years. At least this upheaval, unlike the disastrous Great Leap Forward of the 1950s and Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s, has some benefits for individuals and the nation.

Some Westerners feel that even today's "normal" Chinese working conditions amount to slave labor - perhaps $225 a month, no life outside the factory, work shifts so long there's barely time to do more than try to sleep in a jam-packed dormitory. Here is an uncomfortable truth I'm waiting for some Chinese official to point out: The woman from the hinterland working in Shenzhen is arguably better off economically than an American in Chicago living on minimum wage. She can save most of what she makes and feel she is on the way up; the American can't and doesn't. Over the next two years, the minimum wage in the United States is expected to rise to $7.25 an hour. Assuming a 40-hour work week, that's just under $1,200 per month, or about 5 times the Chinese factory wage. But that's before payroll deductions and the cost of food and housing, which are free or subsidized in China's factory towns.
This is a very slippery slope. In no way do I romanticize what migrant workers in China go through on a daily basis. While I never saw factory life too much while in China, I was exposed to the lives of plenty of construction workers, restaurant workers, and day laborers while living in Xi'an. Their lives are utterly grueling.

Saying that, a person making minimum-wage in the US also has it rough. Fallows wrote this piece a few years ago and you can tell it's dated by a couple of the expressions he used. Although it is not totally up-to-date to 2010, what he wrote still applies. In fact, I think it's probably even more accurate now.

China has a plethora of domestic issues. It doesn't do me any good to try to list them out. Everyone reading this has seen them all before. But what is going on in China, and what has gone on for the past couple decades, has undeniably brought up millions of people.

And given the state of the US economy and how difficult it is to find work, standards between the two countries' citizens is at least worth discussing. The unemployment rate of young black men in the US is 34.5%. Generation Y's unemployment rate as a whole is 18.5%. Retirement isn't a reality for the millions upon millions of baby boomers entering their 60s. The American Dream® for many is fading or has been completely lost.

Qian and I are lucky. We have enough work to live a comfortable life. But there are scores of very qualified people right now who can't make ends meet. People who are less qualified? Well, they simply have no options.

Although this post is something of a screed against the US, I know that there are things that still make the US great (which I still think it is). One of the most important things that America still has on China is a society that is governed by rule of law. The book I'm currently reading, Wild Grass by Ian Johnson, focuses on the darker aspects of China's rise, particularly its lawlessness. There are significant drawbacks to China's method of development. I'll surely quote a passage from that book sometime here in the coming days.


Ramesh said...

Mark - Fascinating topic to muse on. I just finished reading Factory Girls by Leslie Chang, who is Peter Hessler's wife. You may have read it, but I strongly recommend this book to anybody interested in China. It is set in Dongguan, close to where I live . It follows the lives of migrant women workers and the perspectives are simply amazing.

Its just that the perspective of the worker in China is very different to the perspective of the worker in the US. Better or worse off is very relative to where your starting point is.

Ramesh said...

Oops Sorry Mark - The above comment was from me ; I have been forced to adopt this nickname by my blog readers who are having a huge laugh at my expense !!

Mark said...

All good, Ramesh!

Factory Girls is sitting on my book shelf waiting for me to read. Will get to it soon. Am really looking forward to it.

I agree that perspective is a major factor. I'm sure your thoughts, as an Indian living in China, bring a unique point-of-view as well.

Anonymous said...

Nice Trademark on The Dream. I do the same thing, read for an hour on my lunch break. Perfect way to get that reading in, and as you say, a nice break from computers and screens.

For me the point here is pretty clear. Its all about the direction these situations are taking and not necessarily how they compare. Statistically we must go by averages, and when you compare per capita income to per capita living expenses, no country in the world comes close to the US and China is still a distant ways behind. However, the real point here, and one that you and Fallows both make, is the outlook for the future. It is certainly easier to accept a tough situation if you see it improve and see hope, if you are that lower/middle income family in the US and see it harder and harder to make a living, it can be demoralizing, even if you are still better off than your Chinese counterpart. Whats the saying, its much worse to have been rich and lost it all, then to have been poor all your life. Especially when we consider the direction that these standards are going (and at a breakneck pace) for each country, its easy to talk about the eroding American Dream and the optimism of China. But as with anything (especially anything China), its complex, look at the ant colonies of Chinese college grads that cannot find work in their "booming" economy. The working classes are making slow progress, but the Chinese system is really about a few getting rich, and maybe, more getting rich later... well, a 'few' more that is.

Currently reading Oracle Bones and then Country Driving and hope to share my thoughts soon. Also reading 'Zen Baggage' about a pilgramage to all the important Buddhist sites in China. I would also recommend 'The Man Who Loved China' and 'Foreign Babes in Beijing'. One is a fascinating look at a scholar who exposed China's ancient scientific achievements to the world and the other is about an American girl who through chance found herself as an actress on one of the most popular soap operas in China. Both are excellent reads.

Mark said...

Nice comments, Hopfrog.

Fallows actually has some good words on the American/Chinese dream too. I'll type a bit here from pages 28 - 29:
Holland has a culture, but it does not have a dream. There is no Canadian dream, or Finnish dream. If there is a Japanese dream, the women's version seems to be to escape their salaryman husbands, and the men's is to escape the offices where they toil for their salaries.

The two countries whose cultures can plausibly support the idea of a dream these days are the United States and China. The American dream covers something so elemental in human ambition that people from around the world think it applies to them. The Chinese dream reflects the unprecedented opportunities now open to at least some of this country's 1.3 billion people.

But what exactly does the Chinese dream mean?

Fallows then goes on to discuss what this Chinese dream might be. Good stuff.

I think you're right that the "standard of living" discussion this post is about has a lot to do with future prospects as opposed to what the situation is at this instant. And as you say, each is headed in the opposite direction.

Thanks for the book recommendations. I recently purchased several books and will be getting through those over the coming weeks. But I'll add the ones you just mentioned to the list to get next!

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