The “myth” of this book’s title is that Chinese capitalism offers a model for other developing countries. In a wide-ranging study, Dexter Roberts sets out to show that it is unsustainable. At the same time he is clearly sympathetic to the plight of China’s millions of migrant workers - the work is dedicated to them - who leave their country homes to seek jobs in the booming coastal cities. This means the book is a slightly uneasy mixture of first-hand reporting of these peoples’ lives and background from secondary sources, many business oriented.
Possession of a rural hukou, or residence permit, makes migrants second-class citizens in their adopted cities, subject to arbitrary detention or deportation to their home province. Nor are they entitled to the benefits that urban hukou holders can claim. For instance, their children aren’t entitled to attend a local school. Instead they have to either send them to an illegal migrants’ school or suffer a painful separation as their child is left with grandparents or at boarding school. Their precarious position makes them vulnerable to exploitation by ruthless sweatshop owners. Labour laws supposedly regulate conditions, such as workplace safety and working hours, as well as stipulating a minimum age of 16. But these laws are widely flouted.
In a particularly poignant passage, Roberts visits a factory producing for Disney among others, where some of the female workers, hidden in a back room, are little older than the children the toys are aimed at. In a thread that runs through the book, Roberts follows the inhabitants of Binghuacun, a small village in Guizho, one of China’s poorest provinces. This enables him not only to show the conditions faced by migrants in the manufacturing centres, but also to describe the conditions back home that drove them to leave. Concerted government efforts to develop the poorer inland provinces have improved employment opportunities. So there has been something of a trend for migrants to return to their home provinces, if not their actual villages.
But, for the residents of Binghuacun, repeated promises of a new access road and other developments have not been met, and the village remains mired in poverty. One particular development policy, so-called Taobao villages, is an attempt to disperse production by building small-scale factories in rural areas where costs are lower. These factories then rely on e-commerce to sell their products. The author’s wide-ranging approach enables him to identify an unexpected consequence of this policy: there has been a sharp increase in protests by super-exploited delivery workers in the major cities where most of the Taobao customers live. The dispersed nature of these factories also makes them more difficult to regulate.
So they can be even worse sweatshops than the coastal ones. Roberts is a journalist and his book is very readable, providing a vivid portrait of migrant and village life in contemporary China, particularly where he traces the aspirations and experiences of the villagers of Binghuacun. But it isn’t clear whether his critique of China’s development model is from their point of view or because it can’t sustain high economic growth. China is facing two looming problems. First, the model of the past three decades is no longer producing the same results — growth and productivity have both slowed. Second, moving away from the low-wage economy to a higher tech, more capital-intensive one, is fraught with problems.
But even if that is achieved it won’t do much for the majority of the population. Increased automation of production is threatening the livelihoods of migrants but creating few of the well-paid skilled jobs promised by officials. Roberts doesn’t really offer a way forward from either the business or workers’ perspective. There is a rather utopian suggestion that allowing plots of land to be bought and sold could create a rural society of prosperous small farmers. But, given the government push for large-scale Chinese owned agribusiness, the more likely outcome is that they would be gobbled up by huge corporations, resulting in a surge in numbers of landless labourers looking for work.
Although strikes and protests make several appearances in this book, workers are not seen as a force for change. But these actions show the potential for a very different solution to the problems facing China’s workers and peasants.