Social mobility and spread of progressive ideas

Factory Girls

As Chang (2012) points out, “factory work is an informed choice, not a desperate response to poverty. Other studies by Chinese and Western scholars show that migration fuels economic growth, social mobility and the spread of progressive ideas.” In her 2009 book Factory Girls, Leslie Chang visits the land of her ancestors to explore the real stories of Chinese factory workers. Chang’s ancestors migrated thousands of miles within China, through Taiwan, and eventually ending up in the United States. As the author reflects on the primary subject of contemporary Chinese factory workers, she places their experiences in the context of historical and global population migrations. People migrate for a number of different reasons. Finance is, of course, a primary driver of population migration. Where there is no work and opportunity, residents are often forced to move elsewhere. Yet there are also other reasons for population migration such as personal ambition to extricate oneself from village life and the social, economic, and political oppression that it often entails. Many of the factory workers that Chang (2009) meets and introduces in Factory Girls sought new horizons, opportunities, and worldviews when they left their respective villages for Dongguan. Americans generally view Chinese factory workers with pity, notes Chang (2009), but those factory workers should instead be viewed with the same respect and admiration offered to the forebears of modern-day Americans who also dealt with incredible hardship.

Factory Girls highlights the structural issues associated with population migration and migrant labor, and intermittently discusses the implications of migrant labor pools on the global market economy. Viewed also with an eye for the big picture of history, Factory Girls shows how China’s current economic, political, and social affairs are not necessarily stagnant. In fact, the very women profiled in Factory Girls are the ones that are changing the future of the nation and possibly the world. The women profiled in Factory Girls are not victims. Quite the opposite, these women have taken their lives in their own hands in a bold display of self-determination and verve. The women are ambitious, and future-focused.

Chang divides the book into two main sections, “The City,” and “The Village.” The comparison allows the reader to draw conclusions about the reasons for population migration within China. City life in places like Dongguan is not easy. The life of a factory laborer can be especially trying, with cramped living quarters, unsafe working conditions at the factories, and long, grueling hours for little pay. However, the life the factory workers left behind in the villages is no less tiring, unsafe, or uncomfortable. Comparing the village with the city allows Chang (2009) to drive home the central idea that it is critical to keep an open mind and when exploring issues related to factory labor in China.

What Chang (2009) suggests is not that China’s model works well, or that the system should not be changed to accommodate for workers’ rights. Chang (2009) does suggest that the system will change, and is changing, as the workforce achieves upward social mobility. As more Chinese people achieve upward social mobility, tremendous changes are bound to take place within the society. Currently, the factories are the best opportunity many rural people have for personal, social, and economic advancement. The stories told in Factory Girls are strongly reminiscent of those told about the early American pioneers who took their covered wagons across thousands of miles of dirt track, venturing into the unknown and often dying as a result.

Chang was a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, and as such understands fully the business concepts and implications of Chinese factories. Chinese factories occupy a peculiar place in the global market and supply chains. The success of China’s economy is linked to the effectiveness of its factories, which, as Chang (2009) points out, is also linked to the business and organizational culture. The worker slogans are designed to create the strong organizational culture and organizational socialization needed for a cohesive workforce, while the strict bureaucracy and hierarchies are integral to the business environment. The culture has a strong power distance, which means that most workers are acculturated to accept the business environment of the factories. Chang (2009) notes, however, that individualism and independent thought are not as completely stifled in China as many Americans believe. Workers who show promise as future leaders can and do emerge from the masses, and are singled out for promotions. The situation is not much different than it would be in an American factory, when the negative issues such as working conditions, are taken out of the equation. Chang (2009) also suggests that the early days of the Industrial Revolution in the United States and Western Europe must have looked a lot like modern China. China may simply have some catching up to do.

Chinese business culture is integral to the functioning of the global market economy, as American businesses often work in tandem with the places described in Factory Girls. It is therefore impossible to view Chinese factories as being distant places unrelated to the American business world. In fact, American companies are intimately connected with their Chinese counterparts and dependent on those Chinese companies for cheap parts, cheap manufacturing locations, and especially for cheap labor. Many American companies would go bankrupt were it not for their Chinese subsidiaries or suppliers. Chinese factories like those described in Factory Girls do raise humanitarian and ethical concerns because of the harsh labor conditions and low job security, but those issues are also dealt with in the United States.

Factory Girls also raises questions about wealth transfer and how it will impact the China of the future. Migrant labor allows for radical and transformative transfers of wealth, as capital shifts from countries like the United States to China, and also as capital shifts from urban to rural regions. Wealth transfer in China will eventually impact all regions of the globe because of how central the Chinese economy is to the rest of the world. There are few places in the world that do not have some type of trade relationship with China, and Chinese businesses are eagerly spreading their tentacles across the globe in search of the raw materials necessary to manufacture things like silicon chips. China is ” is no longer just a country for low-cost manufacturing. It is also an increasingly attractive destination to do business,” (Kermeliotis, 2011). Doing business in China — setting up branches of Starbucks or opening a new restaurant — means understanding Chinese culture and Chinese business culture. One mistake that many Americans make, as Change (2009) and Kermeliotis (2011) point out, is viewing China as a monolith. China is a large and highly diverse society. There is no one Chinese culture, or one Chinese experience. The stories of migrant workers from different parts of China shows how diverse the nation is, and what that means for businesses.

Identifying market trends in China is not what Factory Girls is about. However, the book does forecast some trends in Chinese society. The rapid upward social mobility taking place in China is a direct result of people like those profiled in Factory Girls. As more Chinese people accumulate wealth and possess disposable income, the more able those individuals are to participate in the market as consumers. Those individuals may very well go on to own the means of production themselves, participating fully in the capitalist marketplace.

Capitalism in China has a unique stamp. It may not be the American model, but it remains capitalism nonetheless. Factory Girls is more about social and political issues than about business concepts, although the book does directly pertain to core concerns related to the interface between politics and business. Moreover, Chang (2009) addresses business concepts related to leadership and organizational structure as she details the ways factories operate and how workers achieve their personal and professional goals. Chinese business, like most aspects of Chinese culture, is complex. Chang (2009) also urges a long-term view of China vis-a-vis the factory workers, because this particular stage in the evolution of business entities in China will change eventually. Just as American factory workers now enjoy entitlements and rights, future Chinese workers might be able to depend on the same. Those changes will take a long time, not least because they are expensive changes to make. Yet it is not just the cost of doing business that might hinder a more rapid shift from current working conditions to improved conditions. Businesses in China are structured on an organizational model that has become largely outmoded in the West — a model that has deep and immovable hierarchies. Leadership is less about charisma and more about authority; relationships are developed differently and with different terms; and gender is treated differently too. The women in Factory Girls highlight the importance of upward social mobility for women in particular. Empowering half of Chinese society by ensuring the future financial independence of women is bound to have positive impacts on future generations of Chinese workers.


Chang, L.T. (2009). Factory Girls. New York: Random House.

Chang, L.T. (2012). U.S. misses full truth on China factory workers. TED/CNN. 1 Oct, 2012. Retrieved online:

Kermeliotis, T. (2011). Doing business in China: Five tips for success. CNN. 21 Oct, 2011. Retrieved online:

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