Pictured in the book New China, housing development for workers at Hangchow, Chekiang province, 1953 (via here)
Workers in Shenzhen, China, toil day and night sewing clothes, building iPhones and iPads, constructing skyscrapers and new subway lines, and cleaning hotel rooms for global capitalists negotiating business deals. During a recent visit to Hong Kong and mainland China, I explored labor relations in this city of 13 million that has been at the heart of the nation’s industrialization miracle. A booming factory town, Shenzhen feels in some ways as I imagined New York City or Chicago one hundred years ago: their neighborhoods overflowing with working people and families, the streets jammed with traffic, peddlers of various kinds shouting out their deals and tempting you to buy. In each blossoming industrial cityscape, migrants, often from peasant backgrounds, mingle and bustle across the crowded sidewalks and streets. But whereas New York City’s industrial working class in the early twentieth century was composed of immigrants from across Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean, Shenzhen workers are mostly internal migrants from China’s countryside—they are China’s famed “peasant-workers,” as they are commonly known. Forming a class of nearly 290 million people, according to China Labour Bulletin, the peasant-workers constitute 35 per cent of China’s total working population (810 million) and have become central to the success story of Chinese capitalism.
What challenges do these peasant-workers face as they build a life for themselves in Shenzhen—particularly at this historical moment when President Xi Jinping has steered his country sharply toward authoritarianism? While gleaming shopping malls dot the urban landscapes of China, selling Nikes, Coach bags, and Prada shoes, a more authoritarian regime is making it harder for workers to organize or protest their low wages and poor working conditions. Consumer capitalism is king. “We have one freedom only,” a labor activist explained to me, “the freedom to consume.” With consumerism as the only panacea, harsh working conditions, low wages, virtually no union protections, and a legal system that denies full rights to peasant-workers in cities like Shenzhen, Chinese communism has created the most brilliant system on earth for capitalist exploitation of its working class.
Shenzhen sits in the Pearl River Delta in South China, just north of Hong Kong. A small market town of only 30,000 people in the 1970s, Shenzhen became the first Special Economic Zone (that is, an area with special tax incentives to encourage foreign investment) in 1980, when Deng Xiaoping decided to experiment with free-market capitalism. The city rapidly grew into a manufacturing, tech, and global financial hub: between 1978 and 2014, its GDP per capita rose by 24,569 percent, a faster growth rate than that of Singapore or Hong Kong. Although the government in recent years has moved a significant amount of manufacturing away from coastal cities and to the west—largely as a response to labor protests and working-class discontent—Shenzhen remains central to the nation’s export industry, due in part to its strategic location near Hong Kong and Macau. It is home to major corporations including drone maker DJI, telecommunications giant Huawei, and internet and social media conglomerate Tencent.
My journey into this world began in Hong Kong, where I talked with scholars at the University of Hong Kong and visited the office of Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM). SACOM activists shared their strategies for bringing employer offenses to light and to help workers fight for better working conditions. The following day they led me on a tour of Shenzhen’s manufacturing districts. We explored an area of small electronics companies, the garment district, and finally, the vast world of Foxconn, the Taiwanese corporation famous both for making Apple’s iPhones and iPads—and for an ongoing problem with employee suicides. With the recent announcement that Foxconn is building a large campus in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, an examination of the company’s approach to managing and disciplining workers in China is more relevant to the United States than ever.
Even before the recent authoritarian turn in Chinese politics, working-class life was extremely difficult. With little opportunity to make a living in the countryside, tens of millions of young Chinese now migrate to cities for work (most factory workers in Shenzhen are migrants in their teens and early twenties). They leave behind any children to be raised by the grandparents, so entire generations have grown up with their parents absent. As social life has fallen apart, China has experienced a rising suicide rate among elders in the countryside. Meanwhile, the migrant workers’ household registration (hukou) remains linked to their original countryside residence. Although they are legal residents of the city, they are denied a wide range of educational, health, and housing benefits. This makes the peasant-workers of Shenzhen (and many other cities) second-class citizens—similar in some ways to undocumented immigrants in the United States. They feel trapped because the absence of economic opportunity in the countryside makes it impossible to return home; yet in their new home, they are cut off from even fundamental welfare benefits, thus increasing their vulnerability and dependence on their employers.
Peasant-workers settle into jobs in the electronic, garment, construction, or service industries in cities like Shenzhen. The jobs pay low wages, below the minimum considered necessary to sustain life (the minimum wage in Shenzhen is approximately ¥2,200 per month, or roughly $330; around double that amount is required to survive). This forces workers to seek a punishing schedule of overtime work, with employers using overtime to control workers as needed. To make ends meet, workers crowd together in small dormitory rooms, often provided by their employer, with surveillance cameras throughout the building and the threat of eviction if they protest.