An American documentary about labour rights strikes a chord in China
THE COMMENTS came in thick and fast on Douban, a social network popular with film buffs and bookworms. More appeared on Weibo, a microblogging website, where the hashtag #AmericanFactory has gained more than 16m views. The documentary of that name, by a film-making couple from Ohio, was released on August 21st on Netflix. The American firm’s streaming service is not available in China, but pirated copies of the film have proliferated. Strikingly, it has drawn praise—even as the Sino-American trade war stokes nationalist feelings within China.
That reception is partly a testament to the faultlessly balanced take of “American Factory”, shaped by 1,200 hours of rare footage. Much was shot inside a plant in Dayton, Ohio, which was taken over in 2014 by Fuyao, a Chinese glass-making giant that supplies the global car industry. In 2008 General Motors had closed its complex there, so for jobless local people Fuyao’s arrival was a miracle. Before long, however, Stakhanovite bosses clashed with a restive and outspoken factory floor. The film is a parable of modern manufacturing, showing the strengths and weaknesses of each country. For Chinese viewers, the failings of theirs hit home.
“It was hard to watch,” wrote a user on Douban. “Who does not know that Chinese efficiency is driven by depriving workers living at the bottom of society of their health, safety and dignity?” Another comment came from the city of Fuqing, Fuyao’s base, to which American managers are taken to be trained in Chinese factory-floor culture (they are alarmed to see workers crouched on mountains of shards, sorting them for recycling, and bewildered by the militaristic morning roll-calls and 12-hour shifts). “The scariest thing is that we have grown used to this,” wrote the native of Fuqing, pondering whether to feel pride or sorrow at management methods like Fuyao’s.
Young Chinese have begun to resist them. Earlier this year engineers in the cut-throat technology industry led a rare online labour movement to protest against the “996” regime (a de facto work schedule of 9am to 9pm, six days a week, often without extra pay for those extra hours). Last year students and activists joined protests by factory workers at Jasic, a maker of welding machinery in Shenzhen.
Their gripes were poor working conditions and firings after some had tried to unionise—something that in America Fuyao fought tooth and nail, and successfully, to block. “American Factory” depicts a collision between two working cultures. But worries about the plight of blue-collar workers unite them.