E Pur Si Muove…And Yet It Moves

Read this article by Johann Hari. Just read it, and then reflect on how many Chinese produced electronic goods you have in your life.

I don’t care what you call China: communist, capitalist, socialist or state capitalist. Bugger the terminology. It’s academic.
It’s a slave empire in my book. Any country that allows workers to work 24 to 35 hours continuously, until they die of exhaustion, or commit suicide, is a slave empire.

Any country that tolerates workers being banged up in dormitories, not allowed to have sex and fed inadequate food, and then fed to the machine of endless production, is a slave empire. And we in the rich and decadent, declining consumerist West benefit from this state of affairs.

Western corporations like Foxconn are unwilling to see things change. They have their claws sunk deep into the necks of Chinese workers.

No-one who has the political interests of the working class at heart can support what goes on in China in the free economic zones.

It’s completely barbaric and it makes my blood boil.

Fortunately Chinese workers will not lie down and take it any more. As Marx once wrote (I’m paraphrasing): the liberation of the working class shall be the work of the workers themselves. And the working class is a power that no state can hold down for ever. Even in China.

The Chinese state is immensely authoritarian. Video surveillance of workers’ lives in the urban centres is ubiquitous. The internet is heavily censored. Penalties for political dissidence are severe. There are 3,000 state executions a year.

One would think that nothing could shift in this uniquely dystopian blend of communism and capitalism, held together by Han Chinese nationalism.

One would think that 1984 has finally arrived, and it speaks Mandarin.

E pur si muove…Orwell was wrong. Marx was right. Thank God.

Jacob Bauthumley.

Johann Hari: And now for some good news
6 August 2010

We’ll never know the names of all the people who paid with their limbs, their lungs or their lives for the goodies in my home and yours.

At first, this isn’t going to sound like a good news story, never mind one of the most inspiring stories in the world today. But trust me: it is. Yan Li spent his life tweaking tiny bolts, on a production line, for the gadgets that make our lives zing and bling. He might have pushed a crucial component of the laptop I am writing this article on, or the mobile phone that will interrupt your reading of it. He was a typical 27-year-old worker at the gigantic Foxconn factory in Shenzen, Southern China, which manufactures i-Pads and Playstations and mobile-phone batteries.Li was known to the company by his ID number: F3839667. He stood at a whirring line all day, every day, making the same tiny mechanical motion with his wrist, for 20p an hour. According to his family, sometimes his shifts lasted for 24 hours; sometimes they stretched to 35. If he had tried to form a free trade union to change these practices, he would have been imprisoned for 12 years. On the night of 27 May, after yet another marathon-shift, Li dropped dead.
Deaths from overwork are so common in Chinese factories that they have a word for it: guolaosi. China Daily estimates that 600,000 people are killed this way every year, mostly making goods for us. Li had never experienced any health problems, his family says, until he started this work schedule; Foxconn say he died of asthma and his death had nothing to do with them. The night Li died, yet another Foxconn worker committed suicide – the tenth this year.
For two decades now, you and I have shopped until Chinese workers dropped. Business has bragged about the joys of the China Price. They have been less keen for us to see the Human Price. KYE Systems Corp run a typical factory in Donguan in southern mainland China, and one of their biggest clients is Microsoft – so in 2009 the US National Labour Committee sent Chinese investigators undercover there. On the first day a teenage worker whispered to them: “We are like prisoners here.”
The staff work and live in giant factory-cities that they almost never leave. Each room sleeps 10 workers, and each dorm houses 5,000. There are no showers; they are given a sponge to clean themselves with. A typical shift begins at 7.45am and ends at 10.55pm. Workers must report to their stations 15 minutes ahead of schedule for a military-style drill: “Everybody, attention! Face left! Face right!” Once they begin, they are strictly forbidden from talking, listening to music, or going to the lavatory. Anybody who breaks this rule is screamed at and made to clean the lavatories as punishment. Then it’s back to the dorm.
It’s the human equivalent of battery farming. One worker said: “My job is to put rubber pads on the base of each computer mouse … This is a mind-numbing job. I am basically repeating the same motion over and over for over 12 hours a day.” At a nearby Meitai factory, which made keyboards for Microsoft, a worker said: “We’re really livestock and shouldn’t be called workers.” They are even banned from making their own food, or having sex. They live off the gruel and slop they are required to buy from the canteen, except on Fridays, when they are given a small chicken leg and foot “to symbolise their improving life”.
Even as their work has propelled China towards being a super-power, these workers got less and less. Wages as a proportion of GDP fell in China every single year from 1983 to 2005.
They can be treated this way because of a very specific kind of politics that has prevailed in China for two decades now. Very rich people are allowed to form into organisations – corporations – to ruthlessly advance their interests, but the rest of the population is forbidden by the secret police from banding together to create organisations to protect theirs. The political practices of Maoism were neatly transferred from communism to corporations: both regard human beings as dispensable instruments only there to serve economic ends.
We’ll never know the names of all the people who paid with their limbs, their lungs, or their lives for the goodies in my home and yours. Here’s just one: think of him as the Unknown Worker, standing for them all. Liu Pan was a 17-year-old operating a machine that made cards and cardboard that were sold on to big-name Western corporations. When he tried to clear its jammed machinery, he got pulled into it. His sister said: “When we got his body, his whole head was crushed. We couldn’t even see his eyes.”
So you might be thinking – was it a cruel joke to bill this as a good news story? Not at all. An epic rebellion has now begun in China against this abuse – and it is beginning to succeed. Across 126,000 Chinese factories, workers have refused to live like this any more. Wildcat unions have sprung up, organised by text message, demanding higher wages, a humane work environment, and the right to organise freely. Millions of young workers across the country are blockading their factories and chanting, “There are no human rights here!” and, “We want freedom!” The suicides were a rebellion of despair; this is a rebellion of hope.
Last year, the Chinese dictatorship was so panicked by the widespread uprisings that it prepared an extraordinary step forward. It drafted a new labour law that would allow workers to form and elect their own trade unions. It would plant seeds of democracy across China’s workplaces. Western corporations lobbied very hard against it, saying it would create a “negative investment environment” – by which they mean smaller profits. Western governments obediently backed the corporations and opposed freedom and democracy for Chinese workers. So the law was whittled down and democracy stripped out.
It wasn’t enough. This year Chinese workers have risen even harder to demand a fair share of the prosperity they create. Now company after company is making massive concessions: pay rises of over 60 per cent are being conceded. Even more crucially, officials in Guandong province, the manufacturing heartland of the country, have announced that they are seriously considering allowing workers to elect their own representatives to carry out collective bargaining after all.
Just like last time, Western corporations and governments are lobbying frantically against this – and to keep the millions of Yan Lis stuck at their assembly lines into the 35th hour.
This isn’t a distant struggle: you are at its heart, whether you like it or not. There is an electrical extension cord running from your laptop and mobile and games console to the people like Yan Li and Liu Pan dying to make them. So you have to make a choice. You can passively let the corporations and governments speak for you in trying to beat these people back into semi-servitude – or you can side with the organisations here that support their cry for freedom, like No Sweat, or the TUC’s international wing, by donating to them, or volunteering for their campaigns.
Yes, if this struggle succeeds, it will mean that we will have to pay a little more for some products, in exchange for the freedom and the lives of people like Yan Li and Liu Pan. But previous generations have made that choice. After slavery was abolished in 1833, Britain’s GDP fell by 10 percent – but they knew that cheap goods and fat profits made from flogging people until they broke were not worth having. Do we?

About jacobbauthumley

Just another Ranter in the blogosphere, based in the East of England in the UK. Interests literature and poetry, poets, communism and communalism, socialism, the destiny of humankind, the Ranter folk in the English revolution (one of their writers was called Jacob Bauthumley: click on About and you'll find a piece on Ranter beliefs, with a quotation from Bauthumley himself), the Green Party, philosophy, ethics, science fiction, the novel, France, Norfolk, global warming, humour, music, and survival. "We must love one another or die": W H Auden, in the poem 1st September 1939.
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10 Responses to E Pur Si Muove…And Yet It Moves

  1. Hi Jacob!

    Wow you have every reason to be angry about that!

    What can I do about it ?

    Don’t get the connection between Galileo quote and China’s human rights record. Explain!

    Wot no pictures?

    Please excuse my presentation hint, but sometimes the right side justification button makes the text look tidier.

    As regards starting a blog well -‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’.

    Whoops a bit of the inscrutable zen Chinese philosophy there !

  2. Mr Vulcan…Soyez le bienvenu! How is your logical planet these days? Well spotted the Galileo quotation…the reference is very oblique indeed, as befits my lateral intellect. Galileo was, I believe, challenging the theology of his time with his own heliocentric views.

    China has had a lot of Left theologists, Tourists of the Revolution and so on, who cannot see what is in front of their eyes! But Galileo could, and so can Johann Hari!
    Trust a Jewish journalist to cut to the chase. I’ve always had the greatest respect for Jewish intellect. Marx, Freud and Spinoza.

    I’ll try the button you mention next time. Muchas cosas a aprender, sin dudas, desafortunadamente…I did not even know it was there….

    I have not learned how to load photos yet. I need that skill for my next post, which will be about the wonderful boating trip around Blakeney bay with my brother and my friend…”Three Men In A Boat – Hopelessly At Sea.” The heavy duty political must be leavened with the light of laughter and the jigamarees of jocundity!

  3. “What can I do about it?”

    Support the TUC’s sweatshops campaign No Sweat.
    Understand and support the Chinese democracy movement.
    Join Amnesty International.

    Thank you for asking.

    As for boycotting Chinese goods, you’d have to accept a pre-technological existence.

    Not realistic!

  4. 3 men in a boat sounds like a good, balanced, follow-up post to round out your blog thematically, Jacob. I’ll look forward to it!

  5. Apologies (to all: especially as it is long) to http://www.thechinabeat.org for lifting this, but it seemed so germane to the issues of the Chinese model of development raised in Johann Hari’s article:

    Questioning the “Chinese Model of Development”
    July 28, 2010 in Books by The China Beat | 2 comments
    A Critical Reading of Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013

    By Zhansui Yu

    Chinese, following Chairman Mao’s famous phrase, tend to use the expression “like a fire burning in the wilderness” [燎原之火 liaoyuan zhi huo] to describe the unexpected rise and popularity of something marginalized or rebellious. Since the literary explosion in the years immediately after Mao’s death, mainland Chinese literary circles have rarely witnessed such a “wild fire.” Recently, however, a fierce literary “fire” suddenly broke out and shocked the entire Chinese intellectual world. The spark that ignited this fire is Chan Koon-chung’s 陈冠中 political novel Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 [盛世:中国 2013]. [1]

    The novel is set against the surreal background of the year 2013, when China reaches the peak of its prosperity, and the whole nation’s people—except for a few—suddenly contract “collective amnesia.” That is, a month-long period has been erased from the memory of the entire population, and all are intoxicated with the feeling of happiness. The book is divided into two parts. Part one introduces the main characters, focusing on their personal experiences and fates in the ever-changing political surges. Part two tells the story of how Fang Caodi 方草地, one of several people who inexplicably have memories of the terrifying lost month, and the Taiwanese writer Old Chen 老陈 together cross half of China’s territory to look for Little Xi 小希, who is both a potential witness to the lost month and Old Chen’s true love. During their long journey in search of Little Xi, the true face of a China with astonishing darkness behind its dazzling material prosperity unfolds before the two men. The story culminates with the truth-seekers kidnapping a high-ranking Chinese official named He Dongsheng 何东生, who is forced to tell the truth of the lost month. After learning that the Chinese “golden age” is achieved by cunning, deception, and terror, the characters decide to permanently leave this “prosperous, powerful, and happy” China.

    It has become quite clear that the success of Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 lies mainly in its political nature. What makes the novel unique is that it represents the first Chinese political novel which deals with the fundamental principles of the so-called “Chinese model of development” in a critical way. The intellectual strength of the novel can be summarized as follows: It exposes three problems, reveals three reasons, and raises three questions regarding the “Chinese model of development.”

    * * *

    In the novel, Zhuang Zizhong 庄子仲, a founder of the leading Chinese intellectual journal Dushu, lists ten major features of the “Chinese model.” They are: “democratic one-Party dictatorship, rule of law with social stability as its top priority, an authoritarian government for the people, a state-controlled market economy, fair competition dominated by the central government-owned enterprises, scientific development with Chinese characteristics, self-centered harmonious diplomacy, a multi-racial republic with sovereignty of one people, post-Occidental and ‘post-universal’ thought of the subject, and national rejuvenation of the incomparable Chinese civilization.” As readers might easily discern, almost each of the ten qualities is a combination of two incompatible elements such as “democratic” and “one-Party dictatorship,” “authoritarian” and “for the people,” “multi-racial republic” and “the sovereignty of one people,” etc. The novel exposes three major problems inherent in the Chinese model:

    (1) The predatory nature of the model. As demonstrated by the life of Zhang Dou 张逗, a child slave, and the fate of a little village in Hebei province which has been pushed to the brink of extinction by lethal pollution from a nearby chemical factory, as well as many other similar cases, the astonishingly rapid accumulation of wealth on the part of the Party-state and a tiny minority of the privileged is actually achieved by preying on the most vulnerable members of society and by passing on problems to future generations.

    (2) The collusion of varied elite groups in a monopoly of state power and in manipulating the people for their own purposes. The best example of this phenomenon is the “SS reading class” [SS 读书班 SS dushu ban]. The class is an organization composed of elites in every important aspect of society. It not only works as a conduit for information exchange among its members, but more importantly, it also serves as a hub to connect the whole nation’s elites. The primary task of the class is to inculcate in the younger generations its doctrine, which is essentially fascism in the guise of nationalism and patriotism. At the core of the doctrine is a philosophy proposing that hatred is the sole driving force for human activity, and that only after a nation is charged with hatred will it be energized and finally achieve wealth and power.

    (3) Massive abuse of power on the part of the corrupt bureaucracy. The miserable experiences of Little Xi, a victim of and witness to the abuse, illustrate the regime’s surveillance over and persecution of its own people and the astonishing arbitrariness of the judicial system.

    * * *

    Exposure of the Party-state’s manipulation of popular memory and of historical truth and the disastrous consequences this brings to China is another pronounced theme of Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013. Taking Little Xi’s only son, Wei Guo 韦国, as an example, the author provides a convincing assessment of how deceptive propaganda, historical misrepresentation, and forced amnesia work together to severely distort the personality and mentality of China’s new generations. In tracing the causes for the distortion, the author points to three factors:

    (1) The Party-state’s dictatorship. In the novel, the Party-state’s manipulation and control of the nation’s mentality are symbolically represented by the government treating China’s drinking water with a chemical which can change people’s moods. This is the secret behind the entire nation’s intoxication with the feeling of happiness.

    (2) Chinese intellectuals’ abandonment of their role as “social conscience” and their complicity with the Party-state. In response to Old Chen’s question of “whether Chinese intellectuals are really willing to reconcile with the Party,” Zhuang Zizhong repudiates this as a pseudo-question. As he argues, “the real question is not whether the intellectuals are willing to reconcile with the Party but whether the Party is willing to forgive the intellectuals [for their trouble-making and disloyalty]” He asserts that “recognition by the Party” is the greatest success and honor possible for Dushu and for himself. It turns out that Chinese intellectuals are bought into the system through the material gains and social status granted to them by the Party.

    (3) Acquiescence and indifference on the part of ordinary Chinese people. As the national leader He Dongsheng points out, though the Central Propaganda Department does indeed do a lot of work to cover up the truth of the lost month, it is the Chinese people themselves who choose to forget in the first place. As he argues, “If it were not that the Chinese people want to forget, it would be not possible for us to force them to do so.” He concludes that “it is the ordinary Chinese people themselves who voluntarily take the drug which causes the amnesia.”

    * * *

    Apart from exposing the pathology of the Chinese model and tracing the reasons for the historical and mental distortion in China, the novel also raises three philosophical questions regarding the Chinese model in particular and, more broadly, the modern nation-state:

    (1) The first question targets the moral and political legitimacy of the regime’s rule in China. As confessed by He Dongsheng, the Party-state, in order to carry out its grand economic rescue plan, adopts Machiavellian-style strategies to rule the country, and treats its people as an uncivilized and irrational mob in the Hobbesian sense. It turns out that the Chinese “golden age” is actually achieved by cunning, deception, bloodshed, and terror. This is the very reason why the Party-state works so painstakingly to erase the people’s memory of the violence, cruelty, and horror of the missing month. The question is: Is it morally and politically legitimate for a nation-state which defines itself as founded on “people’s sovereignty” or “people’s democracy,” and whose constitution presents workers and peasants as its leading classes, to treat its people merely as slaves or mobs in the Hobbesian sense? Is a political system is a good one if it values only economic success and national interests while ignoring human rights and individual freedoms?

    (2) A second question raised in the novel concerns international relations. He Dongsheng explains, and Fang Caodi sees firsthand, that the Chinese government adopts sheer utilitarianism, vulgar materialism, and the notion of the absolute superiority of China’s national interests as its guiding principles in its international relations. When the Chinese government deals with African countries, for example, it is only interested in those countries’ natural resources; it never cares whether or not those countries’ governments commit genocide or other human rights violations. As Fang Caodi states, “Chinese are not different from those old European colonists; they both collude with the corrupt local elite ruling groups to extort natural resources from the locality.” The question is: If a party-state which builds its moral superiority and political legitimacy on the discourse of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism behaves exactly like the old imperialists and colonialists, how can it maintain both the credibility of its ideology as well as the source for its moral superiority and political legitimacy?

    (3) Toward the end of the novel, in response to the truth-seekers’ accusation that the Chinese regime behaves like Fascists, He Dongsheng tells them that even if the current Chinese system can be considered fascism, it is merely at its primary stage. It could be upgraded to a much more advanced and therefore much more horrible form. At this point, we actually reach the most profound question posed in the novel: What are the consequences if a superpower is completely out of its people’s control? In some sense, we might say that all the descriptions in the novel actually aim at this single question.

    * * *

    A novel which has changed the way that Chinese define political fiction, Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 is a groundbreaking work. It presents a truly critical and in-depth reflection on the Chinese model of development, especially concerning the real and potential negative consequences that it could bring about.

    The novel can be read, from a social-political perspective, as a realistic presentation of the shocking darkness behind the dazzling economic miracle created by the Chinese model. It also proposes that China’s younger generations suffer from the consequences of collective amnesia and historical half-truths imposed by the Party-state. The book can also be read, from a philosophical perspective, as an allegory of the modern nation-state. Taking China as a case study, by questioning the morality and political legitimacy of the Chinese model of development, the novel is intended to lead us to the potential catastrophes that a modern nation-state may bring about if it is out of its people’s control. In this sense, this novel also represents a philosophical reflection on the fundamental principles of the modern nation-state and a warning against the blind belief in its absolute superiority.

    [1] The title of the novel now has several translations. The author himself translated it as The Fat Years: China 2013. Paul Mooney, in an essay for the South China Morning Post, rendered it as The Golden Age: China 2013. Linda Jaivin, in a recent article for China Heritage Quarterly, translated it as In an Age of Prosperity: China 2013.

    Zhansui Yu is currently a post-doctoral research fellow in the Institute for Asian Research at the University of British Columbia. He will teach Chinese as visiting assistant professor at Lehigh University starting September 2010. He conducts research on modern Chinese literature and thought.

    Interview in English with the novel’s author here:

  6. Phew! That’s the longest reply i have ever seen on a blog!

    A new friend of yours Jacob?

    Abiezer Coppe has got a lot to communicate and get off his chest. Perhaps he should start a blog of his own perhaps on China as he is clearly an authority upon Chinese politics.

  7. Well I read all about this fascinating critical novel of Chinese politics but sadly the link to an interview with the author no longer works. Should I be fearful of censorship at work here or a poor link?

  8. You are right Vulcan. Try this http://virtualreview.org/china/zoom/1557754/2013-the-fat-years—-interview-with-chan-koonchung, and follow the link Abiezer is another Ranter of the English Revolution, and my alter ego. I am talking to myself for want of company. The Fat years: China 2013 sounds like a big novel of ideas that I could get lost in.

  9. Erranter says:

    China is a continuous monolithic empire. It’s the Rome that never fell, only in the East. Without some fire and brimstone to clear away the thickening fields of corruption, such a state is bound to exist. And it frightens me. Only I know that what the west has—creativity—can always outwit it in the end.

  10. Pingback: “Drunk and Disorderly: The Joys of Ranterism, and Other Topics,” by Jacob Bauthumley « Robert Lindsay

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