THE BLOG
11/21/2005 02:11 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Wal-Sprawl in China

The factory area around Shenzhen in Southern China is stunning for anyone who visits for the first time. What's most shocking are the numbers: the number of workers, factories, dormitories, tiny worker apartments that stretch for miles in every direction. Try driving to get out of the factory area and it could take you 45 minutes just to see yourself clear of people working their around the clock shifts, in their yellow, pink, blue uniforms--pants, shirts, tiny hat--as if dressed for a school with a strict dress code. During lunch breaks tens of thousands of people, mostly women workers who had come to work in the city from the countryside, stroll out of the factories. They head in different directions, most of them to eat at the street-corner cafes (Dai Pai Dongs) that serve rice and beautiful fresh vegetables cooked in steaming woks, others to just walk off the monotony of twelve hour work days, six or seven day work weeks. Others camp out in front of a television set up on the street and watch their noon time soap opera, with the same transfixed stare shared by millions around the world who listen to theirs in English, Spanish, or Arabic.

My colleague, Song Chen, and I had come to Shenzhen in June to interview and film factory workers at Wal-Mart suppliers for Robert Greenwald's just released film, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. The factory we found, with critical help from NGOs in mainland China and Hong Kong, is just one of the many thousands of such places that Wal-Mart uses to make their twenty billion dollars worth of goods shipped from China to the U.S. each year.

The main subject for the Chinasection, who Song dubbed Princess, is like most of the hundreds of thousands of other young women who work the lines in these factories: she is from the Chinese countryside. She is young, in her early twenties, engaged, and tired of the drudgery. She works on the assembly line making toys. Her fiance, Wenyi, is a factory guard. To say that she makes toys, however, mistates the matter. Princess' job consists of attaching one plastic part to another one part to another plastic part, a twelve hour a day six days a week mindless chore.

For Princess, who works primarily so she can send money home to her parents, the assembly line is as painful to her spirit as it is to her hands. Initially she was shy about talking about herself. Song would meet with her without a camera, just to chat. She would go back again to eat, to drink with Princess and the other workers who share the one bedroom apartment near the factory. Princess began slowly to speak about important things. She spoke earnestly about the desire to leave the factory and return home, the need to be close to her parents whom she misses dearly, about meeting Wenyi, about the fantasy of having a family with enough money to allow her daughter--she wants a daughter in a country where baby girls are often seen as a curse to peasant families)--to become educated, to become a news reporter. She would like her daughter of the future to report on her life, and on the lives of the majority of Chinese who are not getting rich in the new capitalist China. She would like her to report on other things as well, world events, life beyond the factory city of Shenzhen. She and Wenyi also told us of the punishment workers receive for speaking out against their low pay and horrid working conditions, and the bogus factory inspections by Wal-Mart operatives whose arrival is announced to the management before they come to "inspect" the workplace. They talked of workers being paid to say the right thing when asked by these visitors about how many hours they work a week, or the quality of the factory food.

Princess also spoke directly to the owners of Wal-Mart, asking a fairly simple question that has resonated through the ages: Why do so many work for nothing, while a few have everything? The query is not a political philosophy for the sophisticated, nor will the question end up on a final exam in a business course at one of our finest universities. The question, in the form of a plea, will at some point however, in China and elsewhere, have to be answered. And the Chinese people themselves, in some fashion, will have to do the answering.

I've heard the question many times before, but I will long remember the Shenzhen version from the "Princess." I will remember the geography of globalization in Shenzhen, where the race to the bottom by international capital is at its most rapid and fierce, with Wal-Mart demonstrating to both bit and major players how to negotiate the Chinese terrain. I will remember the factories without end, the cheap and wonderful sidewalk food, the thousands of bicycles that look like they had been made by the Wright brothers, the heavy night-time drizzle that made the city look like Engel's Manchester in the late 19th century, the billboard of former head of state Deng Xioping that stretched for a city block and that is an advertisement for a get rich quick capitalism in a communist state. I will remember the night the local factory police kicked in Song's door to see what this stranger was doing hanging around the neighborhood without permission. I listened on the telephone for twenty minutes as they shouted at each other, wondering how in the world I would get her out of jail. They eventually left, and we all moved to new hotel rooms. I'll remember the Chinese workers we met who, with whatever confusion, with hopes that may aim too high for the moment, are nonetheless fighting in their own way for a better day, for both themselves and for those daughters and sons of the Chinese future.