(Updated 27-11-2014 to add note at the bottom. Last paragraph rephrased)
Wu Lihua (or Lihua Wu as we would say) is my age, 22, and lives in a city neither you nor me can probably pronounce right called Gongqingcheng (共青城), somewhere in the Chinese province of Jianxi. Gongqing happens to be the only city named after the Young League of the Communist Party in China, but putting that honor aside, it’s your average “small” 120,000 people city (small for Chinese standards, of course!).
As many other cities of its kind, Gongqing hosts a plethora of factories of diverse kinds, and I happened to be inside one of them around April last year, supervising the manufacturing of a phone named Keon (want to know more? read this). You may be guessing by now how I met Wu Lihua… and you guessed right: there she was, on one of her first days as a trainee, putting together the last pieces of the first Keon ever made. I was both curious and anxious to see it finished (it was an historic moment in mobile industry), but in a subtle moment we looked at each other and exchanged a smile. There we were, two strangers in two radically different worlds, linked by a piece of orange plastic. At that very same moment (without me noticing) the camera of my colleague Rodrigo took the amazing pic above that takes us to the next chapter of this story.
It’s a bit over a year later, and I’m in Shenzhen, supervising the first batch of Blackphones. Actually it’s already midnight and I’m watching Cosmic Gate play for free at Pepper, one of the happening clubs of the city. Typical story, guy meets girl, and after a few drinks, serendipity happens. Not only she studied in Gongqing College of Nanchang University, but after showing her my pics from my trip to her college town, she spots Wu Lihua and screams “how do you know my classmate?!”. So yes, in a country of over a billion people, hundreds of kilometers away from each other, and there it is believe it or not. So, over the course of the night, I learn about Lihua (starting from her name) and promise myself to tell the world her untold story.
As the reality of millions of Chinese, Lihua emigrated from her hometown in the distant province of Hubei. This is the sad truth population face in these rural areas, who survive at the border of starvation and thanks to the subsidies given by the Party for their development. My new friend had some money and could go to college and study English interpretation, but Lihua as most of her friends had to face a tougher reality. After the Lunar New Year, they both took a train that brought them to Gonqing. It wasn’t hard for Lihua to find a job. 60% of Chinese factory workers don’t return to their jobs after the New Year Festival, which leads to massive recruiting and thousands of new faces in a factory that was in full production just a month before. And it will be again, in no time. Can you imagine this in Europe or the U.S.? Draw your own conclusions.
One of the challenges for young Chinese is being able to afford a house to live in, which is a cultural requisite for getting married. Lihua is new to the city and wants to start saving, so as most of her colleagues she will live at the factory dorms which means free lodging and food. As you can imagine, Lihua’s dream is not assembling mobile phones. She probably doesn’t even know what she is building exactly. But it’s a step towards freedom and prosperity. Despite having to sleep in a factory dorm away from home. Despite her humble salary of $400. Despite spending night shifts doing harder work than men because her hands can handle the tiny components better than theirs.
But she is happy. Happy to earn Yuans and not ration coupons. Happy to be able to afford watching a movie or wearing makeup. Happy to not be part of another generation harvesting with bare hands in her hometown. Happy to have the chance of a future ahead, even if it means living a few years in the small city of Gongqingcheng.
It’s easy to criticize a country without making the effort of submerging inside its culture and history. What some may see as a repressive government (which -don’t get me wrong- it is) others may see it as another period of a civilization that has stood still for thousands of years. What some may see as exploitation (it does exist) others may look at it as necessary step in progress. While opinions may be diverse, violation of human and workers’ rights are not to be justified by any means. Things move fast. China today is not China 5 years ago, and it won’t be the same in 5 years from now. I challenge you to leave your stereotypes behind and observe, be curious, interact with your eyes open. Be willing to be challenged by new angles in order to enrich your critical thought. It may help to understand the present world, as well as the one we will inhabit next.
Note from the author: the objective of this article is not to relativize (and much less defend) the violations of human and workers rights that happen in China, nor justify them in its social context. Neither is to showcase how happy or miserable factory workers may feel. I personally do as much as it is reasonably possible to encourage a better working environment through my company’s practices. Change is coming, and it’s coming fast and from within. The point of this piece is allowing a small peek into one of this worker’s life as well as challenging people to see the issues involving other cultures through multiple optics and not just their own.