Political Interest through the Generations

“There’s nothing we can do about politics,” Silence Chen, an account executive in Beijing says, “So there’s no point in talking about it or getting involved.”

Stephen Elegant of Time Magazine portrayed the apathetic attitudes towards politics of the so called ‘ME Generation’ (covering the ages of 20 to 30 year olds). Describing the materialistic and almost greedy attitudes of the younger generations in modern day China, he explained that ‘one subject that doesn’t come up [in conversation with this generation] – and almost never does…-is politics.’ This lack of interest can be seen to create a wedge between the modern day ‘ME generation’ and previous generations before them whom the author describes as ‘Chinese elites, whose lives were defined by the epic events that shaped China’s past. The writer appears to feel as though the younger generations are ‘tuning out’ the past. However, I feel that this lack of political interest can be more put down to the naivety and contentment of the current generation and their lifestyle.

Born in 1906, Zhou Youguang, unlike some of the younger Chinese generation feels that democracy is ‘the natural form of a modern society’. He doesn’t understand how ‘free thinkers’ can gain respect until they challenge and question the Communist government. However, Zhou too has admitted that his passion for politics has hit him very late in his life. Only once he had retired at the age of 85, did he start to take an interest in the subject.  Let’s be honest, no matter where on the globe you find yourself, many people are just not interested in politics full stop. In particular, younger citizens may be too young to understand politics, never mind pay any attention to it. Perhaps without seeing or appreciating the effects a government and how it is run can have on themselves and on the people around them, causes them to be ignorant to politics as opposed to being apathetic to it.

It is said that there are 300 million under 30 year olds in China and that an investigation carried out by Credit Suisse showed that the incomes of 20-29 year olds increased by 34% roughly between 2004-2007 making this the largest wage increase of any age group. The have been described to possibly become ‘the salvation of the ruling Communist party’ as a result of their ‘self-interested, apolitical pragmatism’. However journalist Stephen Elegant explained that this ‘salvation’ will last only as long as the Communist Party ‘keeps delivering the economic goods.’ The idea is that this ‘ME generation’ is consumed by a world of by material products, self-gain and westernised tastes. They are described as citizens interested only in designer brands, sipping Starbucks coffees and using the latest mobile technology. They are seen to have no or little concern in regards to how the country is run and who should run it, almost as if they have become tools of the Communist government to ensure their continuing power.  Magazine publisher, Hong Huang claimed that ‘On their wish list…a Nintendo Wii comes way ahead of a democracy’. This being said, this generation’s Chinese youths have surpassed previous ones in areas of education and international affairs. Comparing the ‘ME Generation’ to the apparently named ‘Lost Generation’ of the Cultural Revolution, roughly 25% of Chinese citizens around the age of 20 have gone to college at some point in their lives, whereas, in regards to those of the ‘Lost generation’, many didn’t even finish high school. Chinese native and American Citizen, Author and expert of China’s middle class Helen H Wang explained that ‘Twenty years ago, China was a very different place. We had very little information about the outside world’, whereas it is said that in 2007 alone, around 37 million Chinese citizens travelled internationally and that in the coming decade Chinese tourists will outnumber that of Europe and the U.S combined.

Another apparent reason for the apathy of the young generation is that any previous attempts they will have heard from their elders, to stand up against the government have had negative outcomes with those such as The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. This, and the fact these issues were so long ago, the ‘ME Generation’ have accepted that they are growing up in times better than their parents and their grandparents before them. They are probably reminded of this on a daily basis, so they have little motivation to care for politics. All they see is an ever growing strength in China and a flourishing economy and in the words 27 year old of Maria Zhang ‘We have so much bigger a desire for everything…and the more we eat, the more we taste and see, the more we want.’ This being said, there is one political event the younger generation has encountered and this is the incident of Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Zhou Youguang, 106 years old, explained in regards to the massacre of 1989, he feels that ‘one day justice will be done’. This shows that he disapproves of the Governments actions on that day. Nonetheless, to some younger citizens the student protests, if allowed to continue, would have upset the progress the country has made. Vicky Yang, who is 27 and an actuary at a consulting firm, explained her belief that ‘the students meant well’ but felt that the forced end to the demonstrations ‘was needed’. It may simply be that Vicky was only 11 when she witnessed the demonstrations, and perhaps didn’t fully understand the situation. It can also be the fact that perhaps, she is just content with the government as it is and feels change is not necessary. With they’re current economic success; can one really fault this belief? It is difficult to see however, who supports a Communist Government and who is just content with their lifestyle as it is now. Mr Zhou says we cannot say how favourable support for a Communist government really is, as ‘The people have no freedom to express themselves, so we cannot know’.

In spite of the previous comments of the so called ‘ME Generation’, there is still proof that change does lie on the tongues of some of Chinas youths today.  As society modernises in China, many citizens take to the internet to communicate with each other. Apparently a new blogging language is starting to emerge in which the bloggers are said to ‘ridicule the government, poke fun at Communist Party leaders, and circumvent the heavily censored internet in China’. They have also been named by China Digital Times as part of the ‘resistance discourse’. For example the government’s claims of trying to maintain ‘harmony’ within China, is mocked by internet users who use words and mild insults which are almost homonyms of the Chinese word for harmony, and these represent suppression. This is proof that many feel dominated by the Communist government and this could be the beginning of an age directed more towards free thinking. In the words of Marc Macdonald of IHT, ‘To be harmonised, these days, is to be censored’, however to disallow these mild insinuated criticisms online would inevitably contradict the ‘harmonious society’ that the government is claiming to sustain. So it is as if, in the belief of Chinese writer Yu Ha, that ‘harmony has been hijacked by the public’.

Zhou Jiaying, a young school girl describes her opinion of China as she sees it saying, ‘On the surface China looks luxurious, but underneath it is chaos…Everything is so corrupt’. This is proof younger citizens do show interest in politics, beginning even at a young age. Her teacher on the other hand feels that ‘Just because they’re [the younger generations are] curious to see something doesn’t mean they want it for themselves…Maybe they will try something—dye their hair, or pierce an ear—but in their bones, they are very traditional’. This creates the thought that on some level, it may be that a general misunderstanding between the young and their predecessors. The idea that China’s younger generation does not share an interest in who runs the government is not really true. No matter where you are in the world there are always those who are not interested in politics; however it is unreasonable to mark a whole generation with this label. Perhaps this misunderstanding between generations is a result of the rate of such drastic change, forcing a wider gap between them. For it can be seen, despite all the condemnation of the youth of China, this ‘we want more’ generation is communicating political views in new and innovative ways from very young ages. It has been reported that working class riots and protests in the more rural areas are already increasing as the government continues to cater mainly for the middle and upper classes and although these sorts of political statements may be lacking in the satisfied middle class it is certainly not true that this so called ‘ME generation’ lacks concern in political matters. Naturally as the country flourishes economically, a political revolution is not logical. As it is, China as a country is doing very well for itself, and the public see this. To call this social contentment politically apathetic is ridiculous. Political interest is within the youth of China and it’s always been there and grows with them. One just has to look for it.

Haggling in Britain and China

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During today’s lecture Jonathan brought up the topic of haggling. Normally tourists are not used to the idea of haggling over prices for products and are often embarrassed to attempt it. Venders in China put up their price up to 5 times over the normal price offered.

Britain uses a fixed price system in retail even though the prices are actually just the companies suggested price. We are happy to search around for offers or spend that little bit more for new possessions. A shop with an item on sale can retract any sale price and charge more for it because the sale price is just a low price for the customer to haggle with. It doesn’t normally happen like this. There are people who haggle for prices in independent retailers. Many independent stores are happy with this because it means you get a returning customer who is willing to pay more for the higher model then they would normally go for because they can get money off it.

All this reminded me of a day when I was working in a small camera shop in Portree on The Isle of Skye. A Chinese man came in looking to buy a camera. He saw a Sony Alpha 300 in the window and indicated that that was the one he wanted. I quickly became aware as he started passing me an iphone that he couldn’t speak English. On the phone was his friend in Hong Kong who spoke some English, he explained his friend in the shop wanted to buy the camera but wanted me to explain what it came with and the price to him so he could act as translator. After all the translation and a few more questions he started to haggle the price down. I told him that the camera was at a fixed price but he carried on to explain he didn’t have enough money on him to buy it at full price. The price was haggled up until he was £10 away from the set price. His friend explained he would have to digitally transfer the money to the man in the stores account.

The camera shop was owned buy a family friend who was a freelance photographer on the island. The shop was mainly just an extra source of income which before the domination of digital cameras had been very successful developing and printing film. The price mark up was very high on SLR cameras because we were the only place within 100miles that sold SLR’s. During tourist season we would sell out our stock of high range camera within a week so we could easily afford to put the price up.

After checking with my boss I sold the camera to the man for £10 under the asking price. He was very polite and shook my hand afterwards. I came to me that a British person trying to haggle would most likely come across rude and dismissive. I worked in Comet over the Christmas period and the people who tried to haggle were all like this. Perhaps its the culture of spending money at large retail businesses where you know everything is not marked at a realistic value that makes people behave like this.

Is a fixed price created by the retailers better then a haggling system?

Here’s a link I found about how to haggle in China for anybody thinking of traveling there.

http://www.wikihow.com/Haggle-in-China  

Because it’s cheap!

I am currently studying jewellery design, but I will not be writing about beaded necklaces that are made for Mardi Gras. Actually, we do not celebrate it in Europe in the same way that it is celebrated in the United States. I am mostly going to express mine and others opinions about daily life and how we deal with jewellery and clothes shops in Dundee, the UK, France, and Europe.

In order to find the opinions of other people, I sent out a questionnaire to teenagers, workmen, students, unemployed, and retired individuals. I tried to ask people from different social classes to find if money made a difference. The questions I asked were simple and were based on questions that I was curious to find the answers to. After the answers I received, I also came up with a few more questions to ask.

The first question I asked was, “When I say ‘Made in China’, what does that mean to you?” The replies I received were very similar, ranging from “huge factories, poor people working, children workers, rapidity, profitability, cheap goods, bad quality”.  Almost everyone thought the same thing, more on a negative side. The question is, “do people continue to buy Chinese items even if they criticize it?” I found that people do still continue to buy items despite what they know.

Even as a jeweller, I admit that I buy cheap jewels that are made in China (Claire’s, Topshop, New Look, Primark). These jewels are the kind that are easily breakable, lost, cheap, and are not important.  I always check the labels of things I buy out of curiosity, including clothes and jewellery. Honestly, I know where and how the stuff I buy are made when it says “Made in China”, but out of habit I still continue to buy it. It seems wrong, especially when I am aware of the bad conditions, pollution, and other factors. Why don’t I change? It is probably because it’s a habit. I’m still a student so I always try to find the cheapest deal when I buy clothes and jewellery. Many people I interviewed do the same. Even though we are aware of what is happening, we live too far from the reality of the other side of the world and are more concerned about the money in our purse.

I’ve asked my friends and myself the reasons as to why we continue to buy cheap things all the time, especially when we don’t need it. Why do we not keep our money in order to buy something of better quality, made in Europe in good working conditions, but more expensive? The response that came up was quantity. Our society is a consumer society. The fashion society will tell you what to wear and say that what you are currently purchasing will be outdated in a few months! We do not want the expensive brand made by a fashion designer. Instead we prefer similar clothing just for the attitude and look. Most people don’t have the money to buy designer brands, unless they are from the upper class! You can just ignore that and try to buy “ethical” clothes and jewellery that was made in better working conditions or go to second hand shops. I try to do that sometimes, but I find that things made in Europe are too expensive to buy all the time or items in second hand shops are not “fashionable”.  I received similar responses from my panel. Some people are not interested in buying second hand clothes, but more to try less but Asian goods.

I’ve asked some people the reasons why they want to stop buying jewellery and good “made in China” and they reply, “ because Made in China items are destroying western jobs, factories, and the economy.” When I ask them about the working conditions, people are aware of how the products are made and feel guilty, but most of them admit that this is not the first thought that came to mind.

A few friends have argued that products “Made in China” are everywhere, so it’s kind of hard to boycott it. We can’t really do that because China has such a large export industry worldwide and it’s probably not a wise thing to do either. Europe is in a huge crisis and people are very aware of their money and how much things cost. We may tend to blame China, but actually they are just making what we want and ask for: cheap, consumable, but a detriment in quality and working conditions.

We tend to blame China for many reasons, but goods produced from other Asian countries like India and Bangladesh, South America and Turkey are all made in poor working conditions. The quality for products from these countries is similar to Chinese goods and pollution from clothing factories is quite harmful. A large number of jeans are made in Turkey and sadly workers in textile factories have serious health injuries. The public tends to turn a blind eye towards these issues. Why do we only really focus on what happens in China? I asked this question to my panel and gave them information about jean factories in Turkey as a comparison. Some people came up with interesting responses. They said that China is one of the most powerful countries in the world, western people and westerns factories are possibly afraid of that. They try to make China the black sheep because they were able to increase their economy so quickly. Chinese made goods quickly and at an affordable price in large quantity, due to the large numbers of workers they have! Westerns try to use the guilt factor with consumers in order to keep their economy alive.

It’s China’s World We’re Just Living in It

Edel Rodriguez was born in Havana, Cuba in 1971. He majored in painting at Pratt Institute (BFA) and Hunter College (MFA). His work has appeared in five picture books, on stamps for the U.S. Postal Service, and on posters for films and Broadway shows.

This is a series of illustrations for  Newsweek magazine by Edel Rodriguez.  The article is titled “It’s China’s World We’re Just Living in It” and is online here.

Working Conditions for Chinese Factory Workers

For most consumers (the ones I’ve spoken to anyway), where something is made is usually an after thought. The purchase is made and taken home then those who are interested enough will check the label.
So most people really aren’t too bothered where something is made as long as they get the product they want for a price that they are willing to pay. Yet when you ask people how they feel about manufacturing being outsourced to developing countries the response is usually along the lines of ‘it’s terrible, these people work for pennies in appalling conditions’ and that they would never willingly support it. So what are conditions actually like for the average Chinese factory worker?

Let’s start by looking at what laws the Chinese government have in place to protect their workers. The PRC labour laws of 1995 are surprisingly comprehensive. Some of the main areas they cover are; minimum wage, working hours, overtime pay, health and safety, child labour and labour disputes. There is a maximum workweek of 40 hours, minimum wages are decided locally to cover the cost of living, overtime must be paid at a fixed rate, workers must have at least 1 day off per week and wages must be paid on time without deductions (without good reason). Sounds good enough does it not?
In reality these laws are rarely followed. The problem is that whilst the labour laws may be adhered to for the local residents, a huge majority of Chinese factory workers are migrants coming from rural China. These workers can expect to work much more than 40 hours per week, have just 1 or 2 days off per month, be paid just £50-£70 per month and have money taken out of their wages for breaking trivial rules which the factory has set (such as talking whilst working or having too many bathroom breaks). It is also common for the factory to withhold their employees first 2 months wages as a ‘deposit’ which they receive when leaving – making it hard for migrants to move onto a better paid job (which often come up unexpectedly and must be taken almost instantly before the chance disappears) or leave without consent of the factory owner (which is not always given). One of the main problems is that the migrants are generally looked down upon by local residents and government officials and therefore treated as second-class citizens to whom the ‘rules’ do not apply. It is also usually the case that migrant workers don’t actually know their rights under the PRC’s labour laws of 1995.

Why, then, are thousands upon thousands of migrants arriving at these ‘factory cities’ every year? Why does China’s cheap labour force and cheap manufacturing industry continue to thrive? For most migrants the appeal is the independence, the chance of a new way of life – leaving behind their parent’s small farms and quiet rural settings. Most migrants are young and see it as a chance to travel and ‘see the world’ – although this may seem confusing to us as they don’t actually leave China, the average rural dweller in China would rarely leave the small group of villages in which he or she was brought up. With so many young people from all around China arriving at the same places it’s also a great chance to meet new people. So it’s not all bad, there also the accommodation provided by the factories. Most factories will provide a place for their workers to live whilst working at the factory and although this is usually very basic, with up to 10 workers sharing one dorm style room, it gives the workers a secure and steady place to live.

Of course, not all factories are the same, not all factories ignore the rights of their workers. One such factory is the EUPA factory in southeast China. EUPA has a massive complex, housing 17000 workers and pumping out tens of millions of domestic products per year. Factories such as this one; do comply with the maximum working hours per week, pay their workers a fair wage on time and on top of this provide them with many benefits. The workers live there, they eat there (in one of their 5 different themed cafeterias which are subsidised by the company to keep the cost of meals down), their children go to school there – they can even get married on site! There is also opportunity to move up the ranks, if you’re good enough at your job and you work hard you can be promoted to line manager and continue to work your way up. Being promoted comes with the benefits of better pay and more spacious accommodation. One of the main reasons that EUPA can afford to treat its workers so well is the size of it’s operation which in turn means that it has consistent, reliable orders from its customers.

conditions in the majority of Chinese factories are not what many of us in the west would consider acceptable although there are some exceptions to this rule. Yet we also have to take in to account the fact that the majority of the people who are migrating to these factories are choosing to do so in the hope of a better life – lifting themselves and their families out of rural poverty

Country of Origin

The manufacturing industry is driven by demand. The demand for cheap products is higher than ever and China’s supply of low cost labour and raw materials mean it can capitalise on the growing potential of the budget market. Because the emphasis is moving more towards value for money, a product’s origin becomes less important to us, and we’ve gotten to the point now where many of us barely know anything about where our belongings came from. Despite this, China maintains its reputation as a global power in mass-production.

A survey was set up to ask students about the origins of products in their homes. It was immediately clear that it was a matter of guesswork. Electrical products and plastic items were generally thought to be made in the East, while furniture and musical instruments were assumed to have been made somewhere in Europe. The brand name on the item was also a factor – brands like Sony and Fender have strong connections with the countries they were founded, but they both own manufacturing plants in China. This leads to confusion about where the item actually came from.

The majority of items in a room had been bought from chain retailers. These shops promote their products’ value for money, which is the often the main focus of the student shopper. Deluxe items often use the country of origin as a selling point, usually to help promote a product’s quality, which is often considered not as important. Because cheaper products are of generally lower quality, a cheap product’s country of origin isn’t used as a selling point, so the consumer never finds out where the product was made.

It’s becoming cheaper to make things, especially in Eastern countries where cheaper labour and resources are available. Because of this, many countries such as Vietnam, Taiwan and China gain a reputation for producing cheap, low quality items. There are questions about the ethics of some factories in the East, but the whole industry is built on consumer demand for cheap products and China is at the centre of this movement. The Made in China label appears on a huge range of items but in the survey, China wasn’t always guessed as the country of origin.

China was mostly guessed for electrical products, clothing and plastics. It is the world’s largest consumer of copper, which is used extensively in the production of electrical appliances, and cotton which is used in the textile industry. Another issue is that fact that many products a labelled as being made in China, but were actually only assembled there. This leads to further confusion. Basically, a lot of us don’t know where our belongings were made, but it doesn’t matter to us because stuff is so cheap, and China is happy to sell it to us.

 

Home Made Produce or Value for money imports?

When buying products, especially online, a large percentage of the British public are concerned about the ethics and morality of the product if it is manufactured in a foreign country.

Foreign imports are a regular sight, be it in a popular brand store like Topshop, or whether it is online. But does the public actually consider where the product was made? Considering Topshop, the company does not state on website the origin of the product, but says is displays it on ‘most’ items of clothing aside some for which it is not ‘relevant’. Asos is another brand, which does sell items imported from China, but does so under strict guidelines that include;

  • Compliance with local laws
  • Employment is freely chosen
  • Freedom of Association and the right to collective bargaining are respected
  • Working conditions are safe and hygienic
  • Child labour shall not be used
  • Living wages are paid
  • Working hours are not excessive
  • No discrimination is practised
  • Regular employment is provided
  • No harsh or inhumane treatment is allowed
  • Environmental protection
  • Communication and supervision

But does this all matter? In a students case, the answer of course is no. Value for money rises above all other criteria, as agreed with by an anonymous interviewee who said, “I work and work and work, but all money goes to numerous sources, such as bills and rent. That leaves little enough money for fashion without having to fork out over the odds for British home made products.” This is a resounding factor in the relevance of where our products come from. The following question was proposed on my personnel blog;

The results, although only a small scale, show a large swing towards the opinion that the public would like to see where products originate from because they feel anxious about certain destinations.  The rest of the results are fairly spread. Two students further commented on the matter;

  • · Mike Skillings says:

Don’t care where they are made. As long as the product is made well and employees treated fairly it shouldn’t matter which country they are being produced in

I completely agree with Mike – the quality of the product and the employees’ conditions are a lot more important. Maybe websites should focus on emphasising these instead?

The question just asks more questions rather than provide a clear view. Questions like, if products are still made in the same way – and look the same, taste the same and smell the same as a result – does it matter? Would a mere change in ownership mean you’d stop buying a product you love? Would you want to undertake the jobs the likes of the Chinese workers are doing – repetitive labour, underpaid, cramped conditions? (There a few who set a higher example than this.)

One certain issue that is becoming very pressing is the economic situation. For every £999 Britain spends in imports from China, China spends £1 in imports from Britain. This is one of the many reasons China is becoming such a world power, as her level of self production becoming increasingly high. As a developing country, they have cheap labour as a major resource. Developing countries typically export a large quantity of relatively low value mass-produced goods. As a developed nation, the UK has a skilled and a rather more expensive labour force as its major resource. We export less in volume, but we export higher value, and generally higher technology goods, such as satellites or even folding bikes!

To help boost Britain’s economy, a campaign has been set up by Stoves to increase the sale of home made goods, and is backed by UK manufacturers and MPs. The ‘Made In Britain’ Logo has been designed, and to qualify, companies must say ‘the majority’ of their production or manufacturing takes place in the UK with companies certifying their own eligibility. So far over 100 manufacturers have applied for the logo, including Samuel Heath (Bathrooms), Roman Showers, The Pure H2O company, Ultima Furniture, Chalon (Kitchens), Big Bale Transtacker, Taylor Bins, Anglia Kitchens and Bathrooms LTD, Perrin and Rowe (Taps), Bartuf (Retail display manufacturers) and Primisil Silicones LTD. The logo can be seen below.

According to the research carried out by Stoves’, over one third of British consumers say they would buy British more often if it were easier to identify British products. It’s a noble sentiment, but would it still hold once consumers saw the price tag of a 100% British manufactured product? Some foods and drinks already carry Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) labels that let consumers know that foods are made according to tradition and in the designated area. Surprisingly, the UK only has 16 registered PDOs, compared with France’s 82 and Italy’s 143.

Only time will tell whether the Made In Britain campaign has any affect. It is battling against a public stuck in a struggling economy, and a mentality to get the best value for money possible. Although issues still surround the foreign factories that produce our imports, many are beginning to improve their working conditions, such as the EUPA factory, and this will ease the publics mind. On the other hand there are many who will stand to the end to help the small time, home made companies battle on and convince the British public that buying their goods is more beneficial than imports. With China’s increasing rise in power, everything we own may soon come from China. And, as a student, that may not be all bad.