The China Question (2011)

Director/Screenwriter: Brook Silva-Braga

By Marilyn Ferdinand

For about the last year or so, I have been on a crusade to buy American—or at least not Chinese. I had been buying items for two or three years on a shopping site featuring major labels I have always associated with quality merchandise, only to have the items fall apart in record time. Every one of them had a Made in China label. As I watched more and more businesses go belly-up and abandoned storefronts multiply in my community, I felt, if not patriotic exactly, a growing need to try to even the imbalance in the merchandising world. But not buying Chinese was much more difficult than I expected. Looking for a pair of low-cut boots at DSW, all I could find was a pair from Canada. At LL Bean, only their rubber Bean boots are still made in Maine. I found some SAS gym shoes and socks made in America. I paid more for these items, but I felt better about supporting my own economy and knowing that the merchandise quality justified the purchase price. However, I broke down and bought a Chinese-made toy for my great-niece’s birthday, having found only two objects that met my criteria, neither of them appropriate, at a large toy and party store. I find myself spending money on little but food, entertainment, and utilities these days.

After watching The China Question, an absorbing and thorough look at the forces that have shaped my merchandise-shopping experience, I learned that I am not alone in my boycott. The director’s mother has mounted the same protest, though for different reasons—to condemn the Chinese government for its human rights abuses and repression of basic freedoms. By the end of the film, Silva-Braga declared his mother’s boycott useless. I disagree—it can never be useless to get people to think about how they spend, and indeed, some of the people he interviewed wondered how our government could think so little about our long-term economic viability when China does little but obsess about the United States. But I understood where he was coming from, for the China question is indeed more complicated than I first imagined it to be.

Silva-Braga frames the film around Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when people stay up all night to be the first in line to start their Christmas shopping before the sun—and prices—start to rise. Even the rich like a bargain, but the need for such cost-conscious shopping reflects the wage stagnation and the loss of jobs among American workers. A lot of those jobs have gone to China, where small family businesses have grown into major employers that have attracted millions of workers from rural hamlets to China’s largest cities. These businesses, Silva-Braga points out, are not really manufacturing anything; instead, they take parts of objects made in other countries and assemble them for the export trade.

At this point in time, China is the world’s work room, and its workers are people escaping the extreme poverty of rural China to make the low, but still more substantial $200 a month at these jobs. In essence, low-wage or unemployed workers in the United States are only able to afford the needs and wants of life because the low wages of Chinese workers allow companies to keep their costs down and their prices low. These wages are often the only compensation for rural workers. The Chinese are registered in the government’s hukou system by where they were born; in its attempt to modernize and urbanize China, those with an urban hukou designation get free public education for their children, state healthcare benefits, and other perks; moving to the city alone will not affect one’s registration.

Of course, not every worker in China is low-wage. The middlemen and women who matchmake between Chinese suppliers and foreign buyers do very well. One of them, who has given herself the Anglicized and very appropriate name of “Dollar,” is a juggernaut, chatting on her cellphone, driving all over Shanghai to meet with company presidents, reassuring them that they will have a market for their goods—a concern since the economic collapse in the West—if they contract with her, and giving them a few tips on deceptive practices for internet sales that will help them understand the psychology of the average consumer. Dollar’s assistant thinks people would rather have more time to enjoy their lives, and confesses to having little ambition to be like Dollar.

Silva-Braga spends judicious time on Chinese history, recounting the events that caused China to close her borders and miss the Industrial Revolution and detailing the Opium Wars that resulted when Britain attempted to blast China’s trade barriers to bits after profitable opium traffic through a tiny door to China convinced the Brits there was a fortune to be made there. Chillingly, he reveals that companies eager to redress the modern trade imbalance are required by Chinese law to turn over their blueprints, a scenario about technology transfer that made Joss Whedon, the creator of the TV series Dollhouse, worried enough to pin the future of the scifi world of the series on it. It was this demand for trade secrets that caused Google to pull out of the country. More scary, the one strength the United States has had over the years is its ability to innovate. American businesses and governments are trying to bring science and language skills up in our schools to compete with the engineering whizzes in China and other countries, but without the “soft” skills the arts offer getting equal attention, we might lose our creative edge.

More recent history is recounted as well, when Silva-Braga discusses the government’s fears that the popular uprising for democratic reforms during the 1980s would lead to the insanity of the Cultural Revolution, fears that caused it to quash the protesters in Tiananmen Square. Silva-Braga asks two young Chinese if the date June 4 means anything to them, and both answer “no,” a demonstration that the Chinese are rewriting history. In a parallel example, however, a Chinese scholar says that Americans don’t know about the 1932 military assault on the Bonus Army of World War I veterans camping in Washington, DC to demand their back pay and benefits. Indeed, I don’t remember learning about this incident in school, but a quick Google search yielded the entire history of the event, something that would not be possible in China. Silva-Braga declares that The China Question will be banned in China because of this footage mentioning the Tiananmen Square massacre and showing the famous footage of the man who stood in front of a line of tanks leaving the square the next day.

Silva-Braga travels the United States to show the eclipse of America’s industrial base, and the stories certainly are sad. Yet the story isn’t balanced by the rise of other market sectors, such as tech companies, and doesn’t recognize how technological innovations have made entire industries obsolete within our own borders. We see a young tech entrepreneur in China copy AutoTrader.com, an online used-car company in the States, but the Chinese version won’t compete with this local concern. The future of America could very well be the local and hyperlocal focus of many businesses today, micro- rather than macroeconomics, though the fortunes will likely be more modest. Silva-Braga asks whether Americans are willing to leave the center of influence they currently occupy as China rises, through its economic might, to world leadership. My personal answer is “yes.”

Silva-Braga’s film is rich in information and offers much food for thought, particularly about what is happening in the country that influences our daily lives so much. I thought his talking-head interviews were interesting and presented a cross-section of economists, scholars, and ordinary people that covered a lot of necessary bases. I found some of his arguments facile and ranging further than his thesis could support, yet I think this is an important film to watch. It raises questions many people may not have asked themselves and answers them. It also reveals a lot about the evolution of a capitalist economy and its effect on people learning to work within it.

At the end of the film, Silva-Braga goes to visit the construction site of Dollar’s spacious new apartment with her assistant. The assistant appears to have finally heard the siren’s call and started following in her boss’ footsteps (shades of All About Eve); I couldn’t help but notice that she had put on some weight, evidence to me that anxiety is now also her companion on the way to prosperity.

  • Pat spoke:
    20th/06/2011 to 3:49 pm

    Marilyn-

    Where did you see this documentary? I would very much like to view it myself.

    Since visiting China in 2008 – and witnessing firsthand the booming Western-style consumerism there – this a topic of great interest to me.

    On the subject of the Tianenmen Square attack – our Bejing tour guide, who was around 30, discussed the attack with us on the bus (a young man who had been her neighbor growing up was never heard from again after that day) but told us she would not be able to answer any questions on the subject once we were actually in the square since we would be under careful watch.
    I got the impression that many Chinese are aware of that event and discuss it privately , if not publicly.

    I applaud your decision to buy American, and can well imagine how challenging that must be. In 2005, I was vacationing with friends in New England and one friend was determined to buy only souvenirs that were actually made in New England. I can’t begin to tell how fruitless that search was – not a single lobster-shaped Xmas ornament, not so much as a coffee mug with Maine blueberries painted on the side was available that hadn’t been made in China.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/06/2011 to 4:30 pm

    Pat – I was offered a screener to review, but it was on PBS last week. It may be rebroadcast at some point, or I can lend you the DVD.

    As for Tiananmen Square, I think that if you were in Beijing at the time, you would remember, but anywhere else, the news was censored and the history is not taught. Some of the ordinary people he interviewed were not interested in making trouble for themselves or their families, so they didn’t protest the lack of freedoms.

    In America, the director interviewed an artist with a growing business. He was pure profit motive – and price gouging at that. He said he tried to work with American companies to produce products with his logo, but that they were late or backordered etc. (all symptoms of trying to stay in business with fewer workers) and that he could buy a baseball cap from China for 93 cents and sell it for $20. He won’t be able to do that for long with people unable to pay those prices here. Classic look out for number one thinking in both countries, though our American has no really good excuse.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    21st/06/2011 to 7:47 am

    I can’t wait to see this. I’m curious about a couple of things when I do see it, though. For one, there’s a lot of info on U.S. manufacturing that is misunderstood. If you look up the numbers on the government gdp pages or just go to manufacturing page on Wikipedia which provides links on this at the bottom, you’ll find America actually still leads the world in manufacturing. The problem is that what we hear about are the retail goods (ornaments, toys, shoes, furniture, etc). Most of that is made in China. Pharmaceuticals, high-end computer componentry, airplanes, technical textiles (for large scale manufacturing) are all led by the U.S. In other words, as your economy grows you move on from making matchbox cars to making experimental drugs. The developing economies, like China, take over the retail stuff. Eventually, they’ll move away from this too as they grow and in fifty years another country, perhaps a developing South American or African nation now, will become the country you see listed on everything you buy. And then they will be the bad guy, “taking all our business.” Just like the tea-partier saying the immigrants are taking all our jobs. You mention that they gloss over this a bit by not mentioning much U.S. technological innovation so it’s this area I’m very curious about.

    The problem I have with a growing economy like China taking on the lower-end stuff is the exploitation that goes on on both sides.

    I have a friend from Vermont who works in China. He got a job there doing quality control in a manufacturing plant (he’s here for about two months out of the year) and speaks of how filthy the air environment is. The plant workers get very low wages (although the cost of living is practically non-existent so his friends – the plant workers – are thrilled that they’re making “so much”) and the landscape is an industrial wasteland.

    I have no problem with America taking the lead on the high-end manufacturing, it’s the environmental and human exploitation that exists that’s so troubling. American and Chinese corporate concerns are more than willing to keep it going for a buck. From what you’ve described, this doc takes on the rural workers happy to make a living straight through to the middlemen moving up the ladder. It seems to have a good handle on the complete picture, which is why I’m excited to see it. It’s situation that could use a lot more examination and clarity.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/06/2011 to 8:47 am

    I tend to agree with you, Greg, that the more serious problem of China as the world’s work shop is the exploitative aspects of the working arrangement and the hukou system virtually guarantees a two-tiered social structure that will keep the worker bees working hard to be able to afford what urban hukou designees can expect by right.

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