The Rise of China's Workers Change Worldviews

The recent strike at the Citizen watch factory in Shenzhen is just another reminder that the world we know is living on borrowed time.

Apparently the workers didn’t like the fact that Citizen was docking 40 minutes worth of pay from each day’s wages. The deduction was apparently for the estimated amount of time taken for bathroom breaks.

Remarkably, the practice had been going on since 2005 but the workers only called a strike in October 2011. This is just one indication of how beaten down China’s workers had been and how they are recently awakening to a new sense of their status not only as workers but as citizens and world-class consumers of a world power.

China’s newfound affluence has let the genie out of the bottle, and it won’t be going back in. It’s not just that China continues growing two or three times as fast any other major economy. Its workers are finding a new place within China as well as the world at large. During the first nine months of 2011 alone China’s average wages have jumped 25%. And workers are becoming more selective about the kinds of work they take, forcing many industrial cities in effect to engage in a bidding war with promises of higher minimum wages, more social benefits, paid leave during the holidays and even transportation to and from their rural home towns. The rising cost of employing China’s workers is driving many manufacturers to other parts of the world.

It’s only a matter of time before the world awakens to the new reality that the workers of the world’s biggest nation are no longer sweatshop labor. That is an unhealthy state of affairs that produces unwarranted smugness on the part of many Americans and even of many second-tier nations that will soon find themselves passed by China’s rising prosperity.

China’s workers increasingly see themselves at the heart of the success of the world’s second biggest economy, one roaring along on its way to the top spot by 2020. It’s a bit ironic, but it has taken 32 years of capitalist reforms to give China’s workers a semblance of the dignity they were promised by Mao’s Communist dogma.

I rejoice at each stride taken by China’s workers. I am not Chinese but I am Asian. The status of China’s workers directly influences how my fellow Americans see me, my family and all other Asian people. No matter how educated, affluent and acculturated we may become as an elite population segment in America, some part of the American psyche lumps us with the masses of people in Asia. And these days, Asia means China to the average American. If they see Chinese as sweatshop labor, they have trouble seeing us Asian Americans as their economic equals (or, in many cases, superiors).

Once Americans start adjusting their perception of China’s masses to a new reality in which they are more middle-class consumers than lower-class migrant laborers, we Asian Americans will be seen in a different light by even the least sentient among our fellow citizens. When they can no longer buy throwaway goods labeled “Made in China” but instead are told they must work harder to lure China’s consumers to the products and services they produce and sell, their minds and eyes will open to see us without the filter of scorn reserved for sweatshop labor.

Maybe this isn’t nice to say, but it’s the cold hard truth that we Asian Americans face day in and day out.

So as an aware Asian American I have no qualms about cheering at each milestone reached by China’s workers as they rush down the road to dignity, prosperity and an equal seat at the world’s buffet.