Tuesday, May 31, 2011


On Thursday we visited a motorcycle factory in the Han Gu (含谷) district of Chongqing, about a 40-minute drive from CTBU. The company is called Shineray (Xinyuan Kongfu 鑫源控服) and was founded in 1997 by a young entrepreneur who was in his early 20s. He apparently started out with only 7000 yuan, but as my colleague from the business school pointed out, this sum of money would have been a very good annual salary for a Chinese urbanite. Think of it as a six-figure salary of about 100,000 for a recent American college grad to put this into perspective.

I don't know where the founder and CEO got the money for this initial investment, but what he's done with it is impressive. The factory has the capacity to churn out 1000 motorbikes a day, and to date has produced at least 800,000 bikes and many more engine parts. The "bikes" include motorcycles for touring and transport, dirt bikes for competitive motor cross racing, and ATVs in shiny colors (I never knew I wanted one until I sat on a Shineray ATV and caught the glow! Fun!). They have also developed a line of small automobiles called Brilliance Auto, which sell for 30,000-40,000 RMB.

The company has an edge to it that perhaps reflects the youthfulness of the founder, who by all accounts seems to be a relatively forward-thinking and idealistic individual. The company is now the top Chinese company in the dirt bike industry and a proud sponsor of a national Shineray motor cross team that represents China in world championships. The factory grounds include a track for mx competition, for bike testing, and for training riders.

The grounds also include dormitories to house the workers, nearly 70%of whom are migrant workers. Moments before arriving at the factory I noted its location within a short walking distance from a long distance bus station advertising bus lines to far flung places: Kunming, Xi'an, Guizhou. I wondered which had come first, the factories in Han Gu or the bus lines to bring the workers there.

But this particular factory defied all of my students’ expectations about Chinese factories. Truth be told, I have only one other first-hand point of comparison—from a visit to a Nike factory in Canton about 13 years ago, which would have been right about when Shineray was founded. At that time, Nike factories were receiving a great deal of attention for their workers’ conditions in Asia. The manager— from Beaver, Utah—was clearly edgy and on-guard as he showed my husband and me around the place despite the fact that the Guangzhou factory was considered a model factory. Though he spoke about the safe conditions for workers there, the place seemed to me to be a miserable place to work, with many detailed tasks requiring repetitive motions in hot rooms with noisy machinery and the stench of chemical fumes.

The Shineray factory seems to represent an evolution in the model factory, clearly in a separate category from the Nike factory of over a decade ago. Like most Chinese factories, this one depends on human labor for tasks that have become highly automated in the U.S. It employees 1500 people, but the workshop itself is spacious and airy. It's a well-lit space, but not from harsh fluorescent lighting. One of my students pointed out to me that the lighting was "green" coming primarily from long skylights cut into the ceilings high above. The space was noisy, but it was the noise of engines revving up as young employees hopped on bikes fresh off the lines and raced them over to inspection stations, clearly delighting in the fact they had foreign kids as an audience. A student also noted that none of the employees on the line were wearing safety goggles or work boots, but I was actually impressed that they were all wearing either sneakers or crocks: footwear I could imagine choosing if I were standing on my feet all day.

A couple of other things about the factory that my colleague noted: the company keeps a great deal of inventory on the factory floor itself, in contrast to the American factories which move inventory out quickly, utilizing efficient transport lines, to maximize their use of precious real estate. She also noted that much of the equipment on the line looked like what we would have seen in American factories in the 1970s—not necessarily that the equipment itself is from the 70s, but this particular factory wasn't utilizing robotics in production in the same way as American factories. She cautioned me about generalizing from this one particular factory to all Chinese factories, as she did hear a report back from a student who visited a highly automated automobile factory in Chongqing last spring.

After our visit to a hall exhibiting the company's products and history followed by our tour of the factory floor, we were then taken to a large and bright reception room with chairs clustered around small tables. There we were served bottles of water (with Shineray labels) and we watched a video promoting the company. Shineray's treatment of its workers and its efforts at community engagement are clearly an important part of the articulated mission and public representation of the company. The video was in Chinese with English subtitles and showed employees gathered around a birthday cake and noted that every worker's birthday is celebrated, creating a warm atmosphere for migrant workers. It also said workers reside on site in an “Earth Village” equipped with exercise facilities and gardens, which grow "environmentally friendly" vegetables that are served in the cafeteria.

Community engagement was also highlighted in the film. Shineray dispatched hundreds of motorcycles after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the eiders were able to bring emergency medical and rescue supplies to hard-to-reach areas. The company has also founded a school for children.

A school for children? My ears perked up. After the video, ambling slowly to the exit and towards our bus, I asked our guide about the school: is this school for liushou children (children left behind). Her face brightened, "Yes!" she exclaimed, "It's called Hope School, in He Chuan (合川) district. Have you heard of it?"

No, but as of two weeks ago I've now heard of schools like it, or at least of ideals of schools like it. I thought of Dean Xu from Shanghai and his call at the social work conference for more investment in community development by private enterprise (see my blog post from May 27th, 2011). I wish I could visit the Hope School and I wonder what work is being done there and by whom. Newly minted social workers, personnel trained by NGOs or nonprofits?

Last night I had dinner with 3 of the American participants in the social work conference: two of them are social work faculty with extensive field experience; one is an education professor—a Catholic priest who has worked in central America and in US prisons. They are, unabashedly, "bleeding heart liberals" with stories and experiences to back their convictions.

I asked them about the history of American social work and about social workers’ perceptions of this history. Do workers in the field see themselves as creating the foundations for civil society and democratic participation? I wanted the inside scoop here--beyond the rhetoric, how do you see the purpose of your jobs, your roles in the world?

What I got back was a resounding yes, we really are political activists seeking social reform and that's unapologetically a part of our discipline. Paula joked that when she gave the graduation speech upon receiving her doctorate from Bryn Mawr, her comment that "we are indeed bleeding heart liberals" was met with resounding applause. The discipline has historically had its critics, both for the activism of social worker professionals and by those who have thought the activism doesn't go far enough: that social work interventions have a palliative effect on human suffering and end up supporting systems of inequity, failing to promote genuine structural changes within the system.

I wonder about the palliative effect of improved conditions in factories and what these mask about larger schisms in the social system. One of my students mentioned in our student blog that the factory conditions were a lot better than she has expected to find. This comment had me quick to remind students that what we saw was only one factory built, not representative of all factories. I was also aware that my students have not seen the back-story of this factory: the children and grandparents left behind in the attempts to mobilize cheap labor to feed our modern demands for profits and products. The birthday candles and organic vegetables don't make up for the loss of hearth and home; and the social workers and schools can never make up for a mother's cooking or a father's arms.

Still, why am I feeling hopeful about the creation of "Hope School" and "Earth Village"? I suppose I'm hopeful because I believe in the value of ideals as having power beyond rhetoric. And I believe palliative measures can go a long way towards restoring human dignity.

One characteristic of our global age is an increased cross-cultural awareness and concern for such abstract concepts as “human rights”, “human dignity”, and “democracy”. Our understandings of what these concepts mean beyond the abstract are changing, and I think evolving. The acceptable model factory I saw 13 years ago, managed by Americans, had a much narrower vision of corporate responsibility than the factory I saw last week, founded by a young Chinese. Both American and Chinese notions of the relationship between enterprise and community development are changing, and I'm wondering if this global connectedness might be creating a new market for human dignity.

I'm writing this blog now on my flight from Beijing to New York, having just looked out a window into a vast white glare, mesmerized by the fissures in the landscape below: the polar ice cap! I was not alone when I peered out the window but stood in a cluster of fellow international travelers who smiled at one another in anticipation, patiently waiting our turns to peer out the small portal of the emergency exit, appreciating this miraculous perspective on our shared planet. This ice cap is shrinking, yet there was a cluster of us there from around the globe compelled into this moment of reverence by our shared humanity. Hello! Hello! Bonjour! Bonjour! Hola! Hola! Konnichiwa! Konnichiwa-wa!

When moving from activity to activity these past few weeks I sometimes plug into music to give my soul a beat to move to. I've been particularly grooving on two recent albums by Michael Franti—“the Sound of Sunshine” and “Yell Fire”—both of which successfully find hope in our potential as humans while simultaneously calling attention to destructive injustices. Franti, with his compelling beats, is one of many who give me hope that as a species we can still move forward.

I'll close with a sample of Franti's lyrics from “Everybody Ona Move (on the album, “Yell Fire”):

“Everybody ona move, everybody let's move... Big people gotta move, little people gotta move, and you don't stop, and you don't quit. Keep rockin’ it, keep stopin' it.”

A big shout out to all you social workers, health care professionals, counselors, teachers, students, entrepreneurs, politicians, chaplains, organic gardeners, mommas and poppas and brothers and sisters, bringing hope and answers and love to your corners of the world, keepin’ ona move.


  1. Plum, I got a little shiver at the end of this essay. Some inspiring insights. I think you are right on about the idea that "Both American and Chinese notions of the relationship between enterprise and community development are changing." And this is a provocative thought: "I'm wondering if this global connectedness might be creating a new market for human dignity."

    The "market" has long been seen by the left (and parts of the right) as anything but a friend to human dignity. But I think there are "market" forces that are making dignified treatment of people ever more important to companies. Consumers are becoming more ethical in their choices, technologies (like Yelp and Glassdoor.com) are making company operations and actions more transparent and the firms that best inspire their workers are the ones that will stand out with superior products and services.

    In other words, increasingly it's the good guys that will win in business--the ones with an expansive definition of corporate responsibility. In the book I've co-written, Good Company, we say the business aphorism "you can do well by doing good" has to be updated. Increasingly, you can't do well unless you do good.

    And you don't quit. Keep rockin' it, Plum.

  2. Frau, it makes sense to me that inspired workers lead to better products. I'm glad those of you who are engaged with covering the workforce are seeing these corporate trends. I wonder, too, if a factor in this changing"marketplace" is that Chinese workers have more options (do they)? Are Chinese factories now competing for workers? I don't know enough about Chinese workforce patterns to know. I've just ordered Leslie Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. I've also pre-ordered Good Company. Time to read up. Ona move with you all, yo!