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'American Factory' stirs mixed feelings in China over working conditions and culture

Viola Zhou

For American viewers, the Netflix documentary American Factory reveals the life of US workers on Chinese-owned production lines.

But for Chinese viewers, the film serves as a reminder of the human costs behind China's rise as a manufacturing superpower " and it has generated strong interest in the country as the US-China trade war intensifies.

The film, backed by Barack and Michelle Obama's new production company, documents how Chinese auto-glass company Fuyao built a factory near Dayton, Ohio, where thousands of workers were laid off when General Motors closed its plant in the rust belt a decade ago.

Fuyao brought not only new jobs to Ohio, but also the high expectations and harsh management style that are customary in factories across China. It most notably spent more than US$1 million to put down a unionising campaign.

Although Netflix is not available in mainland China, pirated and Chinese-subtitled copies of the film have been circulated online, and it has been widely discussed on social media.

On popular social network WeChat, a post offering a summary of the documentary along with discussion of whether Fuyao could be considered representative of a Chinese-run factory has been viewed more than 100,000 times.

Meanwhile, an entry under the hashtag #AmericanFactory on Weibo was read more than 10 million times, with many commenters saying they had mixed feelings about the documentary.

Workers in the furnace tempering area of the Fuyao factory in Dayton, Ohio, in a still from "American Factory". Photo: Netflix via AP alt=Workers in the furnace tempering area of the Fuyao factory in Dayton, Ohio, in a still from "American Factory". Photo: Netflix via AP

Fuyao's investment in Ohio was welcomed at first, but the cultural gap soon emerged.

The American workers complained about long hours and insufficient safety measures. The Chinese management staff on the production lines were unhappy about the pace of the American workers and the quality of the products they were making.

Fuyao's billionaire chairman, Cao Dewang " a household name, dubbed "the king of glass" in China " visited the factory, replacing the top American manager with a Chinese who had years of experience in the US.

Some Chinese viewers noted that it was especially interesting to watch against the backdrop of the escalating dispute between Beijing and Washington.

"It's a good documentary and it stirred mixed feelings as we watched it at this time, during the US-China trade war," one person wrote on Weibo.

Another commenter said he had a better understanding of why US President Donald Trump was so eager to start the trade war after seeing the plight of the rust-belt city in the documentary.

At the Fuqing factory, migrant workers live in dormitories and work 12-hour shifts. Photo: Handout alt=At the Fuqing factory, migrant workers live in dormitories and work 12-hour shifts. Photo: Handout

Other viewers expressed their fascination with the sharp contrast between Fuyao's factories in America and China.

The Ohio employees worked eight hours a day, five days a week. Some made enough to rent their own apartments. They complained about the low wages and safety hazards despite the difficulty of finding other factory jobs.

In the southeastern Chinese city of Fuqing, however, migrant workers lived in dormitories, worked 12-hour shifts and went home once or twice a year. They chanted slogans every morning pledging to work hard. They picked up shattered glass with minimal protection.

The contrast has led to a wave of reflections on the life of blue-collar workers in China as well as a heated debate over whether the country's economic success has justified their ordeal or not.

Some regard the film as a poignant criticism of China's labour abuse, which includes harsh working conditions, a workplace culture that encourages self-sacrifice, and state crackdowns on independent unions.

"Who doesn't know China's efficiency comes from stripping low-class workers of their health, safety and dignity?" read the top-voted comment on review site Douban.

"Chinese people have given Americans a lesson on what capitalism is like," a Weibo comment said.

But others said the film demonstrated the superiority of China's culture and political system " without the harsh factory work, the country would not have achieved rapid development as a whole. They also defended entrepreneurs like Cao for creating jobs and lifting people out of poverty.

American Factory is the first release of the Obamas' production company, Higher Ground, which partnered with Netflix. In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert said they wanted to spark a conversation about how the working class, both in China and America, were being affected by the forces of globalisation and automation.

The film was also made at a time when the governments in both countries are trying to revamp their manufacturing industries. While Beijing wants to reduce China's reliance on cheap labour by developing hi-tech sectors, the Trump administration has vowed to create more factory jobs in America. But as shown in Fuyao's story, the jobs that companies are now willing to offer may not be what the workers wanted.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.