In the two weeks since “American Factory” hit Netflix, the documentary’s depiction of a Chinese-funded factory in America’s industrial heartland has caused a stir on both sides of the Pacific. Despite not yet having a Chinese distributor, hashtags related to the film on Twitter-equivalent Weibo already have more than 13 million views combined, and it has an average score of 8.4 on the country’s most popular review site.
“American Factory” tells the story of Chinese billionaire glass magnate Cao Dewang and the automobile glass factory he opens near Dayton, Ohio, in 2014. The factory, a subsidiary of Cao’s Fuyao Group, employs more than 2,000 locals, many of whom lost their jobs when the town’s General Motors plant closed in 2008 after decades of operation.
Optimism quickly turns to disillusionment, however, as the local workforce chafes under Chinese management, while the latter bemoans the laziness of American workers. Much of the film centers on Fuyao’s attempts to crush a worker-led unionization drive.
On the surface, the conflicts between Chinese managers and American workers are about the differences in factory management practices in China and America, as well as the clash between these two cultures. However, the documentary also suggests that workers in both countries, and indeed around the world, face a common challenge: In this neoliberal era, they have become dispensable. First capitalists turn people into machines, then, when the machines mature, they abandon them.
About 40 minutes into the film, Fuyao flies several of the factory’s American managers to Fuqing in Fujian province, southeastern China, to visit its plant. There to learn how to increase efficiency, what they find is eye-opening not only to them, but also to Chinese audiences unused to unflinching depictions of factory life in mainstream media.
Life in Fuyao’s Fuqing plant revolves around a mixture of traditional, “feudal” paternalism, nationalism, and the vestiges of socialist collectivism. According to Fuyao’s own publicity materials, the factory is a “tight-knit family.” Cao, the patriarch, sits at the top. Under him are various levels of middle managers. At the bottom are the workers, who carry out mechanized tasks along the assembly lines.
A screenshot showing He Shimeng, chairman of the Fuyao Workers Union, giving a tour of Fuyao’s Fuqing factory. From Douban
In this metaphor, workers must work hard to support their corporate “families.” This means constantly striving to improve themselves, increase productivity, and create value. Chinese factory workers routinely work 12-hour shifts, 28 days a month, and those from distant rural areas might only see their families once a year. Worker performance is moralized in Fuyao’s official rhetoric: Those who resist the factory’s military-style discipline and fight for their rights may be regarded as lazy, selfish, and ungrateful.
Chinese factories also routinely conflate the prosperity of the company with that of the nation. Workers are exhorted to “repay the nation and serve the people,” and slogans about hard work have largely displaced the discourse of surplus value. Some traces of collectivist culture remain: Workers live in the factory, eat in the factory — some even get married in the factory. But the positive socialist values of devotion to social construction and the communal good are now exploited in the service of private enterprise.
In short, underneath the glossy socialist rhetoric lies a fierce capitalist ethos, and the relationship between labor, machine, and human value has been completely transformed. The working class is degraded, and, as elsewhere in the third world, workers have been reduced to a source of cheap, alienated labor for international capital.
Fuyao’s workplace norms cannot be directly transplanted to the United States, where the eight-hour workday and five-day workweek were enshrined into law after a long battle led by labor unions. In the eyes of their Chinese managers, accustomed to the norms of China’s workplace culture, American workers are lazy, chatty, and inefficient. They care only about getting paid, and lack the sense of mission and responsibility of their Chinese counterparts.
“American Factory” offers a window into the declining status of the American worker. One new Fuyao employee tells the filmmakers she used to earn $29 an hour at the GM plant; she makes $13 an hour at Fuyao. Across the Rust Belt, race- and class-based stratification and segregation, poor educational opportunities, and declining social mobility have left the American working class feeling trapped. Yet, because their wages are still higher than those of their counterparts in third world countries, and because they enjoy hard-won labor protections, corporations continue to move manufacturing jobs offshore.
Abandoned by their companies and the government, residents of the Rust Belt may have thrown the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump. In 2012, Democrat Barack Obama won Ohio by almost 4 percentage points; in 2016, Hillary Clinton, another Democrat, lost it by 8. Many factory workers saw Clinton as a representative of coastal elites who disdained manufacturing as an engine of economic growth.
Instead, they were seduced by Trump — himself a coastal real estate mogul — and his call to “Make America Great Again.” Ironically, Liu Daochuan, Cao’s hand-picked choice to replace the “incompetent” American head of Fuyao’s American operations, seizes on Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan to encourage the plant’s workers to be more productive.
A screenshot showing a relief sculpture of Fuyao CEO Cao Dewang. From Douban. Cao is depicted holding an entrepreneurship award and the Chinese flag.
There are real cultural differences between Fuyao’s Chinese managers and its American workers that cannot be overlooked. The Americans, used to praise and encouragement, struggle to accustom themselves to the harsh criticisms of their Chinese supervisors.
Yet, the core problem here is not American workers feeling disrespected because the Chinese do not compliment them enough. Neoliberal elites might prefer to keep attention focused on issues of race or international conflict — whether in the form of Trump’s repeated assertions that the Chinese are stealing American jobs, or Fuyao CEO Cao’s belief that his American staff was dissatisfied because of their antipathy toward the Chinese. But the collision of culture and race cannot be allowed to obscure class interests that extend beyond national borders.
The tragedy of “American Factory” comes from watching workers at the bottom of the social hierarchy pitted against one another on the brutal battleground of global capitalism. In the film, American workers reminisce about the days of high wages and good benefits that now seem gone forever. It is important to remember, however, that Chinese workers have never experienced these luxuries, not simply because capitalism arrived late to China, but also because, in the hierarchy of the global market economy, third world workers remain stuck on the lowest rung.
When major U.S. corporations outsource production to China, they outsource practical issues such as workers’ benefits, safety, and moral responsibility. Since their primary motive is savings, and hardware costs are relatively fixed, factories in China — whether Chinese-, American-, or Korean-owned — are incentivized to keep labor costs down and force workers to work long hours.
A screenshot showing one of Fuyao’s former forklift operators taking part in a protest against the company. From Douban
The hardships faced by Chinese workers are rendered largely invisible to American consumers by the great physical and psychological distances between them and the individuals who produce the products they use every day.
Meanwhile, widening inequality on a global level foreshadows a bleaker future for workers; unions are weak, and workers lack the means to defend their rights. “American Factory” shows how “Fuyao” spent $1 million on union-busting private firms such as the Labor Relations Institute to crush its workers’ unionization drive. Union busting has become a lucrative industry, while unions themselves are constantly demonized and misrepresented by both corporations and the corporate media.
When I discussed “American Factory” with an American scholar-friend of mine, Professor Andy Hageman of Luther College, he expressed disappointment at the film’s problematic intercultural dynamics and lack of deeper insights into labor and global markets. He also argued that the film fails to explore how and why unions struggle to survive and be effective under current structures of production, circulation, and consumption.
“(The film) appears to aim for objectivity and critical thinking, but reinforces rather than disturbs conventional and often demonizing depictions of the nation and people of China in the U.S. social imaginary,” he said. “I see this as feeding the current Sinophobia well beyond the realm of the Republican Party.”
I agree with him and admire his perceptive critique and internationalist consciousness. The involvement of powerful commercial media companies, including production company Participant Media, may have played a role in the overtly neutral portrayal of capital-labor relations in “American Factory,” which was produced with American audiences in mind. But while the film lacks the sharp critical edge of their earlier social activist documentaries, directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar do show deep compassion for their working-class subjects, whether American or Chinese.
In a recent interview, Reichert said the end of “American Factory” is supposed to be unsettling; it is not the kind of film you are meant to stand for and applaud after watching. The proletariat of the world has lost the battle to unite, and capital is free to spread its wings across the globe and prey upon the working class.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: A promotional poster for the documentary “American Factory.” From user “芝心不改” on Douban)