You’ll hear a lot of pieties about China this week. As British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and London Mayor Boris Johnson schlep from Shanghai to Shenzhen, they will give the usual sales spiel about trade and investment, and the global race. What they will not talk much about is Zhang Lintong. Yet the 16-year-old’s story tells you more about the human collateral in the relationship between China and the West than any number of ministerial platitudes.
In June 2011, Zhang and his teenage classmates were taken out of their family homes and dispatched to a factory making electronic gadgets. The pupils were away for a six-month internship at a giant Foxconn plant in the southern city of Shenzhen, a 20-hour train ride from their home in central China. He had no say in the matter, he told researchers.
“Unless we could present a medical report certified by the city hospital that we were very ill, we had to go immediately,” he said.
As a first-year student at a secondary vocational school, it was illegal for Zhang (not his real name) to be sent on any kind of internship and under Chinese law work-placements have to be directly related to a pupil’s studies. Zhang was an arts major and a fan of the work of Russian realist painters. He was to spend half a year turning out iPhones and other consumer electronics.
The only child of a peasant family in the Chinese countryside, Zhang’s first experience of pitching up at a mega-factory was to be split up from his classmates. They were forced to sleep in different factory dormitories, among adult strangers. Then there was the work: Zhang performed one or two small tasks over and over again while standing for hours in a huge line turning out Apple products.
“It’s tiring and boring,” he told researchers outside work. “I very much want to quit, but I can’t.”
Incredible as it sounds, Zhang’s story is typical. As the No. 1 supplier to Apple and manufacturer for a host of other consumer-electronics firms, Foxconn is one of the largest employers in China — and among the biggest users of student labor. In October 2010, the company estimated that, at times, up to 15 percent — or 150,000 — of its million-strong workforce were students. More than 28,000 were estimated to be interning for Apple alone.
Nor is such exploitation merely the stuff of recent history: Just last week, Foxconn admitted that it had broken the law by making schoolchildren work overtime and night shifts. More than a thousand of them had reportedly been building the soon-to-be released PlayStation 4 games consoles.
FAR FROM HOME
Zhang’s interview was one of 63 with student interns collected over two years in a forthcoming book by Jenny Chan, Pun Ngai and Mark Selden. The children’s stories make upsetting reading. A 16-year-old girl suffers menstrual disorders in the middle of her internship. The pains continue for months, and she thinks they are caused by the night shifts and the stress of the factory.
“We don’t have breaks whenever we’re behind on the production targets,” she said.
The stranded girl is reluctant to discuss the issue with her male line manager, yet her parents are so far away they can only offer suggestions over the phone.
Zhang and his classmates and the hundreds of thousands of teenagers like them are at the heart of one of the most powerful economic relationships at work today. They are part of a trading relationship in which Chinese children are forced into a manufacturing machine, with the connivance of both major employers and local government, to produce shiny things to be sold by billion-dollar multinationals to Western consumers.