Gary Locke, Jin Liqun, the Chambishi mine and the Myitsone dam
Today’s International Herald Tribune writes about the popularity of Gary Locke, the American ambassador to China, who queues up at the Great Wall like an ordinary citizen and flies economy class. But the article also notes that Locke likes to talk about how his father, an immigrant from China, “worked every day of the year and taught him respect for family, education and hard work.”
This is a refrain that resonates with the Chinese government and many Chinese people, including those building dams and investing in factories. So it does with many Americans: in the same issue of the newspaper, economist Tyler Cowen advocates a “pro-discipline and pro-wealth cultural revolution,” bringing to mind Aihwa Ong’s observation years ago that “Asians” (i.e., increasingly, Chinese) had become the ideal enterprising American subjects.
Europeans are clearly the laggards here: Jin Liqun, the head of China’s overseas investment agency, recently admonished Europe’s “worn-out welfare societies” to change labour laws that “induce sloth, indolence rather than hard working.” As a friend from Benin commented, “For the very first time since I don’t know when a non-Westerner is dictating a code of conduct to Westerners! Are Chinese going to devise conditionalities for loans to the West similar to the ones of Structural Adjustment Programme to the Third World?”
Maybe. For now, Hungary, whose government has recently come out with the vision of a “work-based society,” announced the opening of two more Confucius Institutes. Do so many Hungarians really want to learn Chinese? Probably not, but the mayor of Szeged, where one of the new institutes is planned, says Chinese investors have “more trust in cities that have them.” (The mayor, by the way, is from the opposition Socialist Party.)
These reports make interesting reading against the background of the two biggest news about China’s overseas investments in the past month: the suspension of the Myitsone Dam project in Burma and the strike at the Chambishi mine in Zambia that led to the — albeit temporary — collective dismissal of all workers over demands for higher wages. A new report by Human Rights Watch criticizes Chinese-owned mines in Zambia for maintaining poor wages, long shifts and low standards of health protection compared to other foreign investors. Perhaps the most interesting finding of the report is that Chinese companies tolerate the presence of one union but not the other, more combative one.
The Myitsone halt triggered a range of diverse responses, but aside from political implications, the reaction of a frustrated Chinese worker on the construction site was this: “It’s tragic that a country like this doesn’t hurry up to develop! And it has the nerve to talk about democratically elected president this, bowing to popular opinion that! … What’s even sadder is the ignorance of ordinary people stupefied by politicians!” In contrast, a promotional film by Sinohydro’s 11th Office, the project’s contractor, describes the progress of the construction as a heroic and victorious battle against the jungle, malaria and Dengue fever, in terms reminiscent of the labour competitions of the Maoist era, such as “battleground” 战场 and “front” 战线. (The film has been removed from the company’s website, but a description is available here.)
What gives such talk weight is that, state and corporate propaganda aside, managers of Chinese companies abroad — not only state-run ones but also the private telecommunications giant Huawei — genuinely take hard work seriously, often take pride in their dedication, and are nonplussed by the lack of ambition they see in their local colleagues. A thirty-year-old manager at Huawei Hungary echoed Jin Liqun avant la lettre when I talked to him in October. If Europeans did not change their work habits they would lose out definitively to Asia in ten years, he said. Yet he phrased his concerns in corporate rather than national terms, as befits a multinational company: “The Hungarians have difficulties adapting to the culture of the company,” he said. “We don’t want people to just hang around (混). We want people who can perform.” The ideal managerial subjects, indeed.