Global Issues TEDTalks

Meet two Chinese factory workers, Lu Qingmin and Wu Chunming

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

It’s hard not to get a lump in your throat when you read about the grueling conditions in Chinese factories. It’s hard not to feel guilt about those working 70 hours a week in Foxconn factories where iPhones and iPads are assembled, or to feel shocked at revelations that workers in toy factories regularly receive fines for going to the bathroom without permission.

But as Leslie T. Chang, the author of the book Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, explains in this talk from TEDGlobal 2012, those emotions obscure a larger point — that factory workers aren’t simply toiling to provide cheap products to the West. They are also toiling to make products for their own people, as well as to change their personal circumstances.

“We, the beneficiaries of globalization seem to exploit these victims with every purchase we make and the injustice feels embedded in the products themselves,” Chang says. “This simple narrative equating Western demand and Chinese suffering is appealing … but it’s also inaccurate and disrespectful. We must be peculiarly self-obsessed to imagine that we have the power to drive tens of millions of people on the other side of the world to migrate and suffer in such terrible ways … By focusing so much on ourselves and our gadgets, we have rendered the individuals on the other ends into invisibility, as tiny and interchangeable as the parts of a mobile phone.”

In China, more than 150 million workers — 1/3 of them women — have left villages to work in factories, hotels and construction sites. So who are these women? Chang spent two years in Dongguan, an industrial city in China’s Pearl River Delta, interviewing assembly line workers to learn what their lives are like and how they process their experiences.

To hear more about what Chang found, listen to her moving talk. Below, see photos and bios of the two young women Chang got to know best during her research.

Name: Lu Qingmin
Age: 26
Hometown: Yangshan Village, Hubei Province
Current job: Purchaser in a factory making construction cranes
Past jobs: Assembly-line worker in electronics factory; clerk in mobile-phone factory; human-resources clerk in rubber factory; human-resources clerk in handbag factory; purchasing assistant in hardware factory
Ambition: “A person should have some ambition while she is young, so that in old age she can look back on her life and feel that it was not lived to no purpose.”
Quote: “Desire is eternally unsatisfied. Don’t you think so?”


Name: Wu Chunming
Age: 37
Hometown: Jiugongqiao Township, Hunan Province
Current job: Signing up franchisees for a chain of traditional-style teahouses; private-equity investments.
Past jobs: Assembly-line worker in toy factory; selling health products; sales training for company selling funeral plots; selling Tibetan medicine; newspaper reporter; selling building materials; running building-materials wholesale company; running plastic-injection molding machine company; selling life insurance; selling feminine-hygiene and children’s products; selling imported wine, cosmetics, and air fresheners; selling synthetic leather for shoes
Ambition: “I want to keep raising the quality of my life. I want to find new kinds of happiness.”
Quote: “We were born into the world poor through no fault of our own. But to die poor is a sin.”

As Chang sums it up, “It is globalization — this chain that begins in the Chinese farming village and ends with iPhones in our pockets and Nikes on our feet — that has changed the way these millions of people work, marry, live and think. … When you talk to workers, they don’t say, ‘I want better hot water in the showers, I want a nicer room, I want a TV set.’ It would be nice to have those things, but that’s not why they’re in the city. From their perspective, where they’re coming from is much worse and where they’re going is much better.”

Comments (26)

  • Pingback: 從兩位女性的生活經驗認識「世界工廠」 | TEDxTaipei

  • commented on Sep 27 2012

  • commented on Sep 27 2012

  • commented on Sep 19 2012

    Reminds me of that famous American motto: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”
    Like every other country in the world, China is made of people, who have stories, dreams and aspirations. If you find it difficult to connect or agree with China’s policies, at least empathise with its people.

  • Sven AERTS commented on Sep 17 2012

    The website of the International Labor Organization … also with lots of interesting video’s too. The world was not made yesterday. The Universal Human Rights and the Rights of the Worker are the standard ! And anyone making people believe below that is ok is bull shit ! The owners of a company that manages to market purses sold for 6000 € and the owners of the manufacturing plant where they are made must pay their workers a couple of $ more so these Universal Human Rights are respected. That is the LEAST consumers who buy such expensive good can expect: that AT LEAST for that money their purses are made in dignity !

  • commented on Sep 14 2012

    A thoroughly thought out examination of the workers side of the story. We must balance the workers view of better with standards that need to be upheld worldwide. I have also posted a link to this @

  • Pingback: Meet China's Factory Workers - China Digital Times (CDT)

  • commented on Sep 14 2012

    Marx’s theory is not primarily about defining working class as a faceless mass. On the contrary, Marx relied on the proletariat’s to change the couse of history, to overthrow capitalism and build the world for themselves. No one argues that the workers cannot be happy, or satisfied. People will find a way to be happy under almost any condition. Positive feelings they might have about capitalism may be the result of the fact that rural living in modern China is even worse. Sentimentality cannot cancel out the fact that capitalism destroys lives of people, community and the environment. Just because we can connect to workers in China and understand them better does not mean we should condone capitalism and globalisation in any way. I can give thousands of examples of how people might see their situations as acceptable or even good, from wives who are beaten by their husbands to people who live under oppressive regimes who are happy just because the state has not knocked on their door yet. Their feelings about their situations do not make their situations more acceptable.

  • Katie Fiddler commented on Sep 14 2012

    Another reasonable look at Chinese factory workers’ situations, especially how they see their situation, is in part 3 of Peter Hessler’s Book “Country Driving”. I recommend anything by Hessler for a fair portrayal of modern China, especially of the people who make up this country.

  • halo gan commented on Sep 13 2012

    Just imaging without those factories, what the girls would do? Compare their work, their suicide rate with those left in the village who are working in the rice fields; compare them with those in other developing countries, in Inida, in Pakistan, in Africa; compare them with those who did the same kind of work 70s’ in Hongkong, 50s’ in Japan.

    cara membuat blog.

    • Sven AERTS commented on Sep 17 2012

      Yeah, look at e.g. the Quakers farmer community in the USA. They don’t even want to use modern tools, yet their farms look brilliant. If in rural wherever during generation’s time they were not able to make nice decent housing, fields, nice living conditions … someone has been ripping of people there, no?

  • Pingback: An eye opening look at factory workers | Keith the Green's Blog

  • Pingback: An alternative take on the so-called evils of globalisation « the(ir)amateur

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  • Gurpreet Singh commented on Sep 13 2012

    China, India, or any other populated country in the world. Bad working conditions, competition at a level where a few dollars can even decide the cheap value of life are all realities that we cannot overlook. A decent quality of life is a common desire by all humans but where we stand is a grim reminder of the future. If I – phones do not get manufactured at a certain price in China making people work for 70hrs week then the I-phone may become a tad expensive and out of reach for a certain % of world population. This in turn shall reduce demand and hence some of the 70 hrs workers shall be laid off. This cascading effect will never go away. Human beings are born equal but their circumstances are never equal.

  • Wei Wang commented on Sep 13 2012

    it’s such a self-assumed way to organize your narrative: hard work by some poor girls in a poor dangerous chinese factory, and fancy iphones in your western fat ass pocket…Just imaging without those factories, what the girls would do? Compare their work, their suicide rate with those left in the village who are working in the rice fields; compare them with those in other developing countries, in Inida, in Pakistan, in Africa; compare them with those who did the same kind of work 70s’ in Hongkong, 50s’ in Japan. We are from a developing country, born poor, and we are supposed to work harder than you western fat asses. Otherwise, would you split your income to share with me to feed my family, and buy myself a iphone 5 next month?

  • Valeria Maselli commented on Sep 12 2012

    I had the opportunity to live and work in China for a few months last year and the impression I got from this experience is by far different from what I expected. I’m sorry, Taylor, China is not as messy and shitty as you suppose to be (and at least not as shitty as some areas of your great country). People are nice, young, passionate about what they’re doing and proud to be chinese. It’s polluted (at least it was in Tianjin where I lived) but it’s so lively when compared with our countries. I cannot judge the political system because beeing a foreigner with a very very limited mandarin I couldnt read or understand politics but daily life was similar to ours in many ways (when I say our I mean european). Nice, caring people. I’m still in touch with a few of my chinese collegues. Before judging is better to start going around and SEE.

    • Sven AERTS commented on Sep 17 2012

      You’re not satisfied with how the BBC, the Guardian and other quality reporters all over the planet are reporting about these subjects? Maby you want to make some friends at the don’t forget the UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS … and frankly … bosses of companies producing bags that are sold for 6000 €$Y … there is not excuse they wouldn’t pay their workders a couple of €$Y more so they respect ILO and UHR.

  • Taylor Oliphant commented on Sep 12 2012

    This is a great talk. As an American I have no responsibility to China, and they like it that way. They wake up in the morning, take a big breath of that near zero visibility smog, and thank me. This is really great because I was starting to feel bad about supporting a culture that has no respect for the environment or the long term success of America. I get it now though. Chinese people love shitty conditions, so I should buy their shitty products so that they can enjoy being repressed on a level I can only dream of. Who knows, if I keep buying their crap and sending jobs over there, maybe American factory jobs will finally be available paying $1/hour to compete. That would be so great, living in a yurt to work at a factory in America. I can’t wait! Thanks TED!!! I’m going to Walmart right now to celebrate!!!!!!! (Clearly I’m being sarcastic, and I don’t want to make the author of this talk feel bad either, she seems like a nice person, but I believe some VERY important points were overlooked relating to the conclusions that were drawn.)

  • Eric Aubert commented on Sep 12 2012

    Thing is, will you be ready to pay more for the same product? Or even more, would you replace those workers, would you do the same? WOuld you be ready to leave EVERYTHING you have to work hundreds or thousands kilometers away home letting your Family behind? What will happened if workers get other skills?
    You re saying that HR in factories should open some basic skills classes(typing, english, word…) but factory managers doesn t want the situation to change because the more educate you are, the more you learn about your situation. And in their case, people would realize that their working conditions are purely unacceptable. That they getting paid around 300$/month (in the biggest region such as Dongguan) for producing thousands of 700$ phone????

    I do deplore these conditions, the fact that most of them work so hard for us to get manufacturing goods.
    But keep in mind, as you mention, that those workers would for no reason go back, and that, don t get me wrong at all, but they do make more money working their than beeing farmers or anything esle in their home village. And the money they make, as you also mention, help all their entourage.
    So what s best, stop exploiting them and let them live miserably in their home village?
    It s a cornelian choice as none of these two options are GOOD but ONE of them is STILL better than the other…
    I would do the same parallel with countries like Thailand and Philippines. We rarely talk about other manufacturing countries in the news but many of them are exactly the same as china despite that China is in a WAY Larger Scale that the one mention above.
    But still, people are offended to see minor or very young children working in factories. Some people would argue that there is no place for a child in a factory and they should be at school. But try to say that to parents of those kids who does not get any pensions, and NEED (doesn t mean they don t love), but really NEED their kids to bring money home. So there IS ABSOLUTELY no chance for them to go to school. Now that this is said, what is better, factory or prostitution, stealing or begging in the street. It might sounds “reducer” or that I resume the situation in that but I m not far at all from the true.

    So it is very much a good thing to be preoccupate by working standards in China or any other similar countries but is there any other solutions? THis situation has been going on and on for decades, and changing consuming habits is now almost impossible.

    So what I would like to say here is that most of people can imagine the working conditions of those people but only VERY few of us would be ready to change their everyday habits.
    Therefore, what is the conclusion of this debate? Look how all the medias and many of us are exciting today by the new releases of the latest iPhone 5…………. Foxcon is already forgotten… unfortunately

    • Sven AERTS commented on Sep 17 2012

      I don’t agree. We all know the ball-mark figures of sales price, cost price for material, salaries, shipping, environmental costs. The boss of the the company selling the goods, the boss of the company making the stuff, they must both pay their workers a couple of $/€/Y more, as that is mostly all that is needed to make a difference between illegal worker conditions and respecting the Universal Human Rights. Furhter, people buying a bag of 6000$, AT LEAST can expect their bag is made in dignity !

  • Tim Brace commented on Sep 12 2012

    I think this talk adds some depth to our understanding of the situation described. I do think she too quickly glosses over American attitudes and doesn’t recognize the subtlety that they represent; much of America’s lack of comfort with the situation she is studying has to do with conditions, pay, and what is fair; not whether the workers are free to leave if they want, or whether their situation is better than the one they were in before. Still, a valuable contribution to the discussion.

    Xiangbin, thanks for your comment; please remember however, that TED is part of American media and so it has the power to help us understand things more deeply.

  • 向彬 李 commented on Sep 12 2012

    i think this come as a proof to what the media is making you people in the western to believe(no wars here , just expressing my own view, welcome to discussions.)

    • Andrew Ely commented on Sep 12 2012

      Its a lot more complicated than that. We went through the same thing, not so very long ago, the process of urbanization and industrialization, and for complex reasons, we have bitter memories of it. Mostly because some were horribly mistreated, and the exposes by journalists are what we chiefly remember. We forget, somehow, that through the sweat and suffering of those factory workers, we emerged into the modern age. But we also shouldn’t forget that they DID suffer. And, of course, its more complex when we see the Chinese people going through the same, because we seem to benefiting more than they from their suffering, and we wonder what they would be doing under another government. Its not a question of whether we think anything good can happen in China, I personally am quite happy to see their growth for the good it will do their people. But we do worry that all their work will go to benefit others, as much of it went to profit the tycoons in the West, or to profit us, and they will have striven for nothing.

    • Sven AERTS commented on Sep 17 2012 = International Labor Organisation = Declaration of Universal Human Rights

      Isn’t it amazing how well “little/honest people” all over the world tend to understand each other very well when they talk about people in power going corrupt and exploiting the system and thus the honest people and how difficult it is to unmask these corrupt=criminals, how much damage they do, how difficult it is to get rid of them? As it becomes more and more difficult to be a criminial in our/certain regions, “our”/these criminals move abroad. One of the strategies to pinch them out for good/that attitude all over the planet is coming together in larger entities and inform each other: for us it is difficult to find those from our own communities that are in fact criminals, corrupt. We can help each other to unmask them by communicating, if you see illegal activities that are in violation with the Universal Human Rights / International Labor Organisation, report them to strong unions in our/the countries for which the goods are destined. Don’t we have to set our ambitions higher 12 years after the year 2000? NO human should have to go through conditions we see in manufacturing plants of over-greedy owners! Doesn’t matter if it is in China, India, USA, Europe, Asia, LA, … they exist, have existed everywhere. They are run by stupid corrupt people. It should not be tolerated. Look at e.g. the Quakers-farmer community in the USA who refuse to use modern tools. Their farms look great. There is no other explanation but corruption and criminal activities happening if a community living on fertile land cannot make a nice place after so many generations. No normal community people want to live in slave factory conditions, babies that don’t recognize their parents anymore. Ridiculous and below ambitions of Earth anno 2012 and all living beings on them.