Workers in a denim factory, southern China.
Image from the documentary China Blue
Workers in the recycling industry, Dharavi slum, Mumbai
When we returned from India in January, we had one week before spring semester classes began. All I could think about was India, but I had to prepare a class on China. More specifically, I had to prepare the class I teach for Colgate’s CORE Cultures and Identity program, an interdisciplinary course which lets me teach about Chinese history, society, political economy, art, religion, food, literature and anything else I can stuff into the 15-week semester. Normally I love preparing this class, but this time my brain only wanted to think about Indian history, society, political economy, art, religion, food, and literature. I found myself reading novels about India (Mistry’s A Fine Balance), histories of India (Dalrymple’s City of Djinns), looking up World Bank statistics about India, Googling Bollywood films…. I had to cut myself off and get to work.
I decided to sign up to teach my Nations and Nationalism course next year, so I could indulge in a whole unit on India. (I wonder if I can assign all 944 pages of Ram Guha’s India after Gandhi? Will students freak out when they see its telephone book-like heft? But it's such a fabulous read!)
But in the meantime, I want to find ways to bring India into my course on China. I always start off the course by giving students some statistics about China in comparison to other countries. I don't give them any background or explanation, but instead let them peruse the data to see what they notice. This year, I featured India prominently. For example, one of the tables I offered looks at GDP/per capita and growth rates:
Comparing China with Selected Countries 1980-2010
*current US $
Data from World Bank, World Development Indicators
As I hoped, my students noticed that China, India, and Syria are all very poor countries in comparison to the United States. They also note that China's economic growth in the last two decades has been exceptional. Compared to China, India looks like an underachiever. (This is something that many Indians obsess a great deal about, as I pointed out in a previous blog post, “Chinese in India.”) But compared to Syria (or Haiti or Indonesia or Romania or Nigeria), India’s economic growth looks very impressive.
I also plan to bring India into class later this semester when we look at the manufacturing economy that is the driver behind China's economic growth. In that unit, I have my students watch China Blue, a documentary about Chinese workers in a denim factory. Students find this film eye-opening and often emotionally devastating. They are appalled to see young men and women (mostly women) their age - and much younger - working to exhaustion to produce blue jeans for lower and lower prices. They not only find the exploitation horrifying, but also express disgust at the living conditions for the workers: tiny concrete dorm rooms stuffed with eight or ten girls, squat toilets, no hot running water. I have heard former students exclaim, months after they saw the video, that they still feel guilty every time they buy a pair of jeans.
This year I plan to ruin even more consumer products for them by assigning some recent New York Times articles about Foxconn, the Chinese company that produce Apple products, such as iPads. (The following image comes from the NY Times.)
Although I do want my students to understand the very human cost of their electronic toys and fashionable attire, I do not want emotional disgust to be the main lesson of this unit. I worry that my students end up simply antagonistic to China's manufacturing economy, and they do not understand the complexities and constraints that led to these economic policies. My students find China's factories upsetting because they are comparing the lives of the workers to their own privileged conditions here at Colgate University. But if those Chinese teenagers were not working in those factories, the alternative would not have been an elite American college, but life as a peasant toiling in the low-paying agricultural economy.
This year I hope to help my students reach a more nuanced understanding of the Chinese manufacturing economy by providing them with a counter example from India. In contrast to China, the Indian state has invested much less in the manufacturing sector. In 2010, value-added manufacturing was only 14% of the Indian economy, while it was 30% of China’s (World Bank World Development Indicators). The Chinese government has deliberately developed low-skill manufacturing as a way to absorb the surplus rural workforce. The Indian government has done very little to promote job opportunities for rural migrants, but that does not stop peasants from pouring into cities anyway. One of the results is giant slums. This year, after they watch the China Blue documentary, I will ask my CORE China students to read an article about one of the most infamous slums, Mumbai’s Dharavi. Dharavi contains over 60,000 buildings, most of which are decrepit, unsafe shanties. It is bereft of sufficient infrastructure for water, power, sanitation; it is rife with disease, overcrowding, and … hard work and entrepreneurial activity.
Unable to work in the formal economy like the factory workers in China, the inhabitants of Dharavi start their own semi-legal businesses and workshops, with an annual economic output of between $600 million and $1 billion. According to Jim Yardley in the NY Times:
Dharavi is an industrial gnat compared with China’s manufacturing heartland — and the working conditions in the slum are almost certainly worse than those in major Chinese factories — but Dharavi does seem to share China’s can-do spirit. Almost everything imaginable is made in Dharavi, much of it for sale in India, yet much of it exported around the world.
The people of Dharavi described in the article remind me of the working class people I have interviewed all over China - ambitious, optimistic, hard-working, deeply embedded in their families, and willing to invest everything they have in their children's education in hopes that they will have a middle-class life. Is it better to channel that energy in a Mumbai slum or a Chinese factory? Either way, the life many of them dream of for their children is the life that we have here at Colgate.