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Made in China

Posted by on May 19, 2012

Note: Thank you to all those who took a look at my preview video of my book project! I’m about 30% of the way toward my fundraising goal so I can publish the paperback and format & publish the electronic version. I’m real excited about the project. So if you haven’t checked it out yet, please do! :) Click here, to open it up in a new window.

And now to this week’s article…

The idea of a factory in China doesn’t produce the nicest image, does it? Being in the U.S., half a world away, it’s easy to let rumors rule. But I was right there in China to see this kind of setting for myself. So from a Chinese college to a Chinese factory, let me show you how institutions work in these parts—-and interestingly, how these two aren’t all that different from each other.

It was a Thursday in May of last year when I toured a factory an hour west of Zhuhai. Though it is just one example, at least it gives us some idea to recall next time you hear about the ominous “factory in China”.

Sweat shops? No breaks? Dude with a whip looking over 8-yr-olds’ shoulders? Well, at least not where I went.

Out west of town actually reminded me of The West back home: desolate hilly and parched lands under a bright sun. Filling in the sparseness were these manufacturing plants. There were several. Zhuhai is designated as a Special Economic Zone(SEZ) in China. That means there are tax benefits provided for exports.

Our destination was an enormous industrial park, featuring some names you may recognize:

-such as Kyocera, and perhaps the company I was visiting: Flextronics

Flextronics makes components for products from companies such as Sony, Microsoft, and Motorola.

After the lengthy bus ride, the bus approached the Flextronics campus just off the main road. I exited in front of the of the security gate. Above it, “Flextronics” was written in big white letters on the blue canopy.

Well, 'Flextronics' and the Chinese equivalent.

The bus hung a right to go around the campus, and I walked toward the entrance. First, though, I noticed to my right: basketball courts and further back, some dorms; straight ahead beyond the gate were the offices and factories.

A guard dressed in uniform and red beret greeted me with a smile on this nice day.

A couple more guards were in the security booth, and a couple others were across the road on the exit side. I entered the booth, signed my name, and awaited my guide, Twigy:

(Yes, she named herself after the ’60s sex symbol.) She’s a Hong Kong Chinese girl who, herself, taught English at the company.

We started walking. Office buildings and factories straddled each side of the road. Like my college tour, the campus was nice–just not America nice. And if the pristine lawns, comfortable offices, and state-of-the-art amenities define the best work campuses in Silicon Valley, then the cracked basketball courts, plain offices, and metal-tray cafeterias of Flextronics would indicate a true Second World this day. But I was impressed considering what the implications of what a “factory in China” were supposed to be.

Even more like a college, and less like Google, was that most workers here live on campus. It’s the migrant worker culture. Few having cars and a willingness to come from long distances meant having them stay there 24/7. It’s insular, but it’s convenient, and the company worked to make living there enjoyable. In fact, most of the employees are young and single. So hey, all you students who wish you’d never have to graduate and leave the campus life. Well, here you go! And naturally, other businesses sprouted up–-eateries, night life–-as a result, making these industrial parks seem more like little towns.

Here they are building more housing:


My visit coincided with lunch, the perfect opportunity to talk to a front-line worker. Many were out and about with the excitement of any group of workers on a break.

'We're hungry!'

I found one guy, a fairly short, young man with thin, puffy hair and a nice, though uncertain smile. He was happy to talk. He was among the some 5,000 who worked and lived there and hailed from the province to the north, Hunan. He got the job a year-and-a-half ago through a friend who also worked there. While he was single, he said many of his coworkers were not and so send money back home to their wives and kids. Some arrive as a family and are provided housing for their situation. Others meet their spouse there.

Of course, he missed his family, he said, so enjoyed going home twice a year. This was a job and not home for him. Who knows what his hopes and dreams were? But he was happy to be able to work there:

It’s not ideal—what job is?—but it obviously beat what he had back home, hence his presence. It may be tempting to look askance at circumstances like these in other parts of the world. But for the company and the employee it was a win-win.

Then I took to the cafeteria and joined in for lunch:

After lunch, the employees put on their hard hats, and I put on my writing one—-especially since photos weren’t allowed—-to check out the heartbeat of this “city”: the factory floor. Twigy took me inside the manufacturing complex. A female security guard wearing another red beret waited just inside the entrance. Twigy got the okay, and we moved on in.

While we were entering, others were taking their lunch:

Walking in, the ordinarily-sized entry way gave way to the extraordinary-sized factory floor. Rows of big, noisy machines rested upon the smooth, concrete floor and below the super high ceiling. They pumped and grinded out black plastic parts the employees were tasked to inspect. Large banners hung over head, across the corridors, reading generic bi-lingual sayings such as: “The Customer is Always Right”.

I focused on one large compactor-type machine which had an independent, rotating component the size of an easy chair. Its two ends would clap together vertically, pivot, and separate, spitting out a freshly molded piece of plastic. I wondered if the newly minted piece was warm. I touched one in a nearby box; it was. Workers took razor blades to the new product to shave off edges and made sure they were tip-top. The piece that resulted was a football-sized hunk of black plastic to be installed in printers. The machines that made these parts were Hewlett Packard. (Ever think about the machines that make the machines?)

I left Flextronics realizing how easy it is to be removed from the manufacturing process anymore, especially in the U.S. where many factories have been shut down. We use our gadgets and appliances and probably take all the work into making them for granted. Well, maybe now you can look at your computer or cell phone with a little more “truth” to it. Like learning the history of a place before you visit, coming here added depth to my understanding of these products: the people behind them, the international relations involved, and the creation of the product itself.

I hope you enjoyed the trip to the factory.

I hope you have the chance to check out my book project:

I hope you have an awesome week.


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