Don't Let the Games Blind Us to the Plight of China's Workers

This is a dictatorship we aid every day – through our government, corporations, and choices at the till

Over the next three weeks, we will watch a slick propaganda parade of Chinese "sporting heroes". But we will not see China's true heroes in the glittering stadiums of Beijing - because they are in prison, or they have "disappeared." If you are indiscreet enough to ask after them, you will be instantly smeared as "anti-Chinese".

But what are these critics saying? Liu Shaokun is a young teacher in Sichuan Province. He watched his pupils die in the earthquake because their school was built using cheap substandard materials, by corrupt officials who pocketed the change. He took photographs to prove it and posted them on the internet. So he has been seized and indefinitely imprisoned without trial. Is he anti-Chinese?

Chen Guangcheng is a blind self-taught lawyer who exposed the government's policy of forcibly sterilising disabled Chinese women. So he has been jailed for four years. Is he anti-Chinese? Jiang Yanyong is a doctor who exposed the government's attempt to cover up the SARS outbreak, saving tens of thousands of Chinese lives. So he is under indefinite house arrest after a lengthy "re-education". Is he anti-Chinese?

Yet many of us want to believe we are being tolerant - and even anti-racist - by sticking our fingers in our ears when it comes to the conflict within China. Why? Because our silent societal taboo: we aid and abet the Chinese dictatorship every day. Through our government. Through our corporations. And - crucially - through our choices at the till. At some semiconscious level, we don't want the Chinese people to be allowed to speak and assemble and think freely - because it would mean we had to pay more.

Meet the young women crammed into damp dormitories in China's River Pearl Delta, and they will tell you why. These women - mostly teenagers, or in their early twenties - made most of the goods in your home. Like 200 million other young Chinese workers, they have made the epic journey from China's villages to its metastasising factory-towns, in search of a job. They live in their factories, sleeping on bunk-beds; they tell themselves they will do the job for a decade, then leave.

The China Labour Bulletin conducted a study of their lives. Ms Zhang, a 21-year-old woman who made artificial Christmas trees, was a typical interviewee. "We worked seven days a week, and we only had three days off a year," she says. "We worked overtime every night until 10 in the evening. The workshop was always filled with smoke. You couldn't see very far. When you entered the room, your eyes burned and watered, and you had difficulty breathing."

One night, Ms Zhang - exhausted and sore-eyed - was pushing plastic through an iron-roller when she felt terrible pain. Her hand was trapped. She was taken to hospital for extensive skin-grafts. Two weeks later the factory abruptly stopped paying for the medical treatment. They told her to get back to work. "I felt like jumping out of a window," she told the researchers. The skin on her hand is still peeling and painful.

"When you enter this factory," another young woman says, "you are under their control. If you get tired and want to stretch your neck or look around, you can't. They won't even allow you to look around!" If you do, you are docked the day's wages. To prevent workers from trying to seek out better factories, it's normal to pay two or three months in arrears. If you quit, do you get the backlog? Never.

The women were all worried that making our goods was wrecking their bodies. A 17-year-old explained: "We often come into contact with paint thinner. It stinks something awful, and you get pimples all over your face. We know it's bad for you to breathe in but what can we do?" She talked nervously about colleagues who had miscarried, and another who developed leukaemia. "I find it really hard to recover when I get sick these days. I've had a cold for a month now and it just won't go away. [One of my room-mates'] periods have stopped, and she's afraid it is because of the radiation from the electronic parts she has to handle."

Occasionally, inspectors from Western multinationals arrive - but the women are drilled to give false answers. Every month, 50,000 fingers are sliced off in Chinese factories; every year, 130,000 Chinese people die in them, while more than a million contract fatal diseases.

These women - and hundreds of millions like them - want to be able to band together and demand better conditions. But they are prevented, by law. Only one trade union is allowed in China - and it is controlled by the government and designed to suppress labour, not represent it.

If you try to organise independent of this bogus trade union in the workplace - to demand breathing masks, say - you are beaten, or put in prison. It is a strange hybrid: a Maoist police state, enforcing the most extreme model of capitalism.

Nonetheless, the Chinese people are kicking back: there are 87,000 workplace protests a year. Last year, there was a tumult in Chinese factories after a string of workers died of organ failure while doing 50-hour shifts. The panicked Chinese government was poised to make a major concession: they were going to allow the formation of elected trade unions in the factories.

It was startling: independent political organisations? Elected? In China? But it didn't happen - because there was panic from rich-world investors. Organised workers can ask for more safety measures, and better wages. Microsoft, Nike, Ford, Dell and others - acting through the American Chamber of Commerce - swiftly announced the laws were "unaffordable" and "dangerous", and muttered they might look elsewhere. European and American governments parroted the corporate line. Far from lobbying for freedom, they enthusiastically lobbied against it. So the Chinese dictatorship watered down the proposals, and the girls of the Pearl Delta factories are stuck. This isn't Chinese "culture" - it's our corporate culture's wet dream, forced on them.

Does this system work well for us in the rich world? If we can silence our consciences, yes, we get cheaper goods; communist suppression knocks pounds off your weekly shopping bill. But there is another price tag. All over the world, wages are artificially depressed because you are competing with a workforce that is prevented by a police state from asking for more.

And in the long term, there is a darker price still. The great true clichAf(c) of our age is that China is rising. (Cue the famous Napoleon quote, and on and on.) Do you want all that power in the hands of a sober government that is becoming steadily more accountable to its people - or a dictatorship that will look hungrily for foreign enemies to distract its people? Today - as we snuffle for the cheapest possible Chinese goods, and politely ignore the vanished Chinese defenders of human rights - we are all lobbying for the dictators to prevail.

--Johann Hari


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