It isn't every day that a university professor goes to a factory in China and enrolls as one of the workforce in order to study the conditions there and the experiences of its workers. But this is what Pun Ngai has done in this remarkable book.
Made in China is in one way a bombshell, but it is also two very different books. On the one hand it's a vivid and persuasive first-hand account of life in China's factories in the late 20th century -- places where a huge range of the commodities you see in shops from Taipei to Cincinnati are made.
The personal histories of workers, many of them female and under 20, are quoted verbatim, and their nightly screams and dreams (the author's phrase) recorded. But on the other it's also an academic work replete with expressions such as "the power, discourses, and processes of sexualizing bodies in the workplace" and "individuals torn by the tensions between capitalist forces, state socialist power and the local patriarchal culture."
To be accurate, Pun Ngai wasn't a professor when she enrolled as a worker in an electronics factory in Shenzhen in November 1995. But she is today, an Assistant Professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. This book, though, could well make her into a world figure.
She worked 11 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, for seven months on the production line of a Hong Kong-owned business. The company director was a personal friend and agreed to the project, though thinking it would be better if she chose to work in the offices and live in an apartment with some of the mostly Hong Kong office staff. Most of her co-workers believed she was planning to write lurid fictional narratives based on their life-stories.
As part of her project, the author positions herself among the conflicting theories that stir modern academic sociologists. These sections of her book will not be of much interest to ordinary readers, but for the record she aligns herself with E.P. Thompson's 1963 classic The Making of the English Working Class and in so doing rejects the more stringent Marxists who insist on the dominant power of materialist historical forces. The specifics of the situation in one place and time and the initiatives of individuals all play their part in Pun Ngai's analysis.
The book, though frequently academic in tone and perspective, nevertheless gives a vivid idea of life in the factory. There are details of the cumulative lack of sufficient sleep (all the workers spend the first half of their one day off a week sleeping), company pay stoppages for infringements of the rules, issues between workforce and management over such things as the radio, attempts by workers to slow down the production line due to exhaustion, and so on. The monotony of the work is so extreme that even reading about it induced in me a sense of fatigue and disgust.
But the real shock comes with the rates of pay. The average wages of these young female factory workers in 1996 were almost unbelievably low. I will quote the relevant sentence in case you think I have mis-read the text. "With overtime pay and the production bonus the line workers could have an average pay of around 500 to 600 yuan a month" (page 125). The men on average earned some 30 percent more. Even at the most favorable exchange rate this woman's rate only equals some NT$2,500. This is not per day but per month for working 12 hours a day, six days a week in repetitive, demeaning, cramp-inducing, eye-sight-damaging work, with no talking allowed and the radio only occasionally on in the day for a short time.