Dickens in China: Industrialism and the Perpetuation of Social Divides

by Marcel Koníček

We probably all own something made in one of innumerable factories in eastern Asia, be it China, Taiwan, Thailand or somewhere else. These articles are so ubiquitous that we may sometimes wonder, which of the things we own are not “made in China”.

Even though the news outlets inform us quite frequently about the problems of factory workers and the conditions they live in, they do not tell us much about the system that enables Chinese work force to be as cheap as it is right now.

When I first started to inquire into the issues of Chinese factory workers, a striking comparison came to my mind. The system clearly reminded me factories of nineteenth-century Europe. Twelve hour shifts, meagre pay, harsh working conditions, overcrowded accommodations and no possibilities of moving up the ladder of the company, all that was very common in the European factories of nineteenth century was also clearly present in the Chinese factories of the twenty first century.

However, the main difference between them lies in the way the system was created and sustained. While in Europe, the industrialization came into being without the will of the ruling class of the time, the landed gentry, so the governments consisting mainly of the members of the landed gentry did not feel much obligation to pass laws that would serve to disrupt the, so the development was guided mainly by the invisible hand of the market, this is not true for the current Chinese situation. Chinese government consciously enacts laws that perpetuate the factory work in its current Dickensian state. The main part of these policies is the hukou system, which limits migration of the rural population into cities.

While in the nineteenth century the rural workforce freely migrated to the cities, rising their population several times, and lived their life there with their families, raising up new generation with much better chance to climb the social ladder, rural workers of China cannot.  They are limited by the hukou, house registration, system that prevents rural workers from permanently settling in the city. They can live in the cities only for a limited time based on their employment and their children cannot attend schools in the city. This system also bars them from doing any urban jobs “except of those considered dirty and low paying” (Kam and Buckingham, 583) and keep their children from attending schools outside the district they were born in. This basically creates system of “urban-rural apartheid” and “cities with invisible walls” (Kam and Buckingham, 583), that makes the rural workforce very cheap and thus perpetuating the industrial system. Also, since the workers come from many language backgrounds, their employment is not long-term and they are basically at mercy of their employers, it is very hard for them to organize into unions or similar organizations. Thus, the system perpetuates itself and the social divides between the migrant workforce and the city dwellers broaden.

The ones gaining profit from this system are the rich industrial companies and their stock owners, not the people working there. It is quite ironic, that the country that uses this perfected form of unequal social organisation is the one that has “People’s” in its name and that claims to be “socialistic”. Only the future can say if the system holds.

Works Cited

Kam Wing Chan and Will Buckingham. 2008. “Is China Abolishing the Hukou System?” The China Quarterly 195:582-606. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20192236

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