Book Review: The China Price by Alexandra Harvey

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I have three benchmarks of a good book which are as follows:
1.) Is it well-written?
2.) Is the substance new and interesting? Do I learn things ?
3.) Is the writer truly passionate about his/her subject?

Based on these benchmarks, Alexandra Harvey’s “The China Price” is a good book. Ms. Harvey, a Princeton grad who spent years working at the Financial Times of London writes in a style I would call smart and accessible. The China Price also reveals a lot of interesting information about China and its rise as the ” factory of the world.” Some of the interesting things that I took away from this book are:

1.) In the 1980s many US Department store buyers – in a survey conducted by Business Week – predicted that China would never be a strong export country. Let’s just say I hope they were better forecasters of products than global economies.
2.) By the end of 2006 China employed only 22,000 full time labor inspectors to oversee a labor force of 764 million employees.
3.) From 1980 to 2006 Shenzhen’s population grew from 321,000 to 12.4 million.
4.) Before 1995 there were no formal procedures for resolving labor disputes in China.

The book is mostly focused on the human cost of development, from widespread cases of Silicosis in the gem industry to pollution in China’s cities, where just breathing the air is a risky practice. For example in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, the home to China’s coal industry and at one time regarded as “the most polluted city in the world”, a 2001 WHO and United Nations Development study found that 70 -80% of Taiyuan’s air particles were polluted at a level considered “dangerous.”

The migrant laborers whose stories are told by Ms. Harvey are riveting. We learn the tragic story of Deng Wenping, who worked in the gem industry in Shenzhen, contracted Silicosis and died at 36. And there is Feng Lingzhong, another silicosis victim, who stood up to his employer and won a judgment of $ 40,000.

The only problem with the book is an underlying tone throughout that seems to condemn China – because of the human and environmental cost of development. Yet, development in any society is not a pretty thing. Industrial conditions in Britain during the Industrial Revolution or in the US at the turn of the 20th century were abysmal and spurred reforms – just as bleak conditions in China over the past 30 years have spurred reform. Only because of a series of incidents involving factory workers and their bosses and a few strong willed individuals was a grass-roots legal industry spawned in China. Now if workers have a claim against their employer – even if it is just because they don’t like the food in the factory, another anecdote passed on by Ms. Harvey – they can do something about it. As I see it this is progress. I would add that the sheer size of China’s society makes implementation of any reforms very difficult. The Chinese govt is trying to address labor issues but they simply do not have the trained manpower to do so as the statistic above regarding labor inspectors makes evident. Ms. Harvey acknowledges both the size of the task and the Govts efforts to make things better, but her tone is condemnatory nevertheless.

It also would have been nice if Ms. Harvey had touched, even if ever so faintly, on her experience working in Japan, which defined her career before she went to China. The government has made overwork, or kuroshi, illegal but it remains a social problem here in Japan. The term kuoshi means death by overwork and that is literally what happens sometimes. I wonder if Ms Harvey was aware of the problem when she worked here and how Chinese companies ( not factories that employ migrant labor ) match up with Japanese companies in this respect?

In the end though The China Price is a good book because it is well written and there is very interesting detail. But is Ms. Harvey truly sensitive about her subjects, my third benchmark of a good book ? I don’t know. One of the odd moments of the book in fact is the interview with Feng Lingzhong which takes place in a Starbucks in Shenzhen. Ms. Harvey writes: “We were sitting in a Starbuck’s in Shenzhen, its soft lighting and gentle- mannered staff at odds with Feng’s memories.” I somewhat cringed when I read this and thought to myself, “What an odd place to interview a Chinese migrant worker with Silicosis.” But I am sure Mr. Feng did not choose the venue for the interview.

Here are some other book reviews:

Poorly Made in China
One Billion Customers
China Shakes the World
The End of Cheap China

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