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‘American Factory’ Sparks Debate on Weibo: Pro-China Views and Critical Perspectives

‘American Factory’ stirs online discussions in China.

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Award-winning documentary American Factory is not just sparking conversations in the English-language social media sphere. The film is also igniting discussions in the PRC, where pro-China views are trumpeted, while some critical perspectives are being censored.

By Anna Wang and Eduardo Baptista

Even as China posts its lowest industrial output growth since 2002, Weibo’s ongoing reaction to Netflix documentary American Factory is rife with declarations of the Chinese manufacturing sector’s impending victory over its US rival. This, however, is not the full story.

The first documentary distributed by Higher Ground Productions, owned by former US President and First Lady, Barack and Michelle Obama, American Factory painted a damning picture of Trump’s protectionist policies.

US manufacturing cannot keep up with the brute efficiency of its Chinese competitors. The story of a shuttering American factory revived by Chinese investment and an influx of Chinese workers, opening up a Pandora’s Box of cultural clashes, paints a telling, but pessimistic, picture of the current strategic conflict between the two superpowers, from the ground-up.

Image via Netflix.

Despite the Great Firewall, Chinese netizens found ways to watch the documentary, that was made by Ohio filmmakers Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert. Temporary links to streaming and subtitle services litter the Chinese Internet, making any accurate count of total mainland viewership nigh-impossible. However, one indication of the film’s popularity among mainlanders was the 259,000 views for a trailer posted on Bilibili.

One likely reason for netizens’ interest is that it neatly plays into Chinese state media rhetoric on the US-China trade war.

The inevitability of China’s rise up the global supply chain (and a corresponding decline on the US side) is a recurring theme in opinion pieces penned by the likes of Xinhua and Global Times, but also an increasingly louder cacophony of bloggers.

 

American Factory shows that the US will probably lose out to China in manufacturing.”

 

One Chinese company (Wind资讯) posted on Weibo that “what Obama means in this film, in a very oblique way, is that anti-globalization will produce a lose-lose scenario.”

The official Weibo account of Zhisland, a Chinese networking platform for entrepreneurs around the world (@正和岛标准) posted a review of the Netflix film titled: “Behind the Popularity of American Factory: Time Might Not Be on America’s Side” (“《美国工厂》走红背后:时间,或许真的不在美国那边了“).

It warns the audience right off the bat to “not assume that this film will promote cooperation between China and the United States. In contrast, it will surely stir up mixed feelings among both audiences.”

American Factory shows that the US will probably lose out to China in manufacturing,” Zhisland writes. The article argues that China will win out due to its lower labor costs, lack of trade unions, and more disciplined managerial styles. “It’s an uneven playing field,” the author continues: “Time may not be on America’s side.”

Toward the end, the author claims: “We are about to enter a new era in which China will gradually become the most dominant player in the global marketplace.”

The fact that many on Weibo shared these kinds of pieces as a reaction to the documentary suggests there is confirmation bias at work here. As is common on Weibo and other social media, comments on the pieces like the above simply rattle unsubstantiated claims, frequently descending into ad hominems.

Another Weibo user (@用户Mr.立早) adds comments when sharing the above article: “The American workers repeat Trump’s mantra, but won’t act on it. They’ve been idling for almost a century. They’re hopeless.”

 

“American Factory tells you: separate the US economy from China, and the US will go bankrupt.”

 

Chinese state media also chimed in on how American Factory proved their most important talking points on the ongoing US-China trade conflict.

Xinmin Evening News, an official newspaper run by the Communist Party’s Shanghai Committee, published an article by Wu Jian called “American Factory Tells You: Separate the US Economy from China, and the US Will Go Bankrupt” (“《美国工厂》告诉你:将美国经济从中国分离,美国会破产“).

In this piece, Jian claims that “in the age of globalization, ties between China and the US cannot be cut. Using high tariffs to force U. S. manufacturing return to the States… is simply not realistic. Separate the US economy from China, and the U.S. will go bankrupt.”

The article was also shared widely on Weibo. Thepaper.cn, an online news site affiliated with Shanghai United Media Group, published a review titled “American Factory: The Things that Are Spelled Out and the Things that are Implied” (“《美国工厂》:那些说出来的,和没有说的“).

The author, Xu Le, writes: “What struck me most about the film was the look on the faces of the American workers. All of them … had the same burnt-out expression… Their faces reminded me of photos of people in the late Qing Dynasty. That dull expression reflects a civilization in decline.”

“We’re a family at Fuyao” American workers listen to a rosy speech from their new bosses.

In the film, When American foremen visit a factory run by glass manufacturer Fuyao in China, they are alarmed to see Chinese workers picking up glass shards without safety glasses or cut-resistant gloves.

A Chinese worker picks up glass shards with minimal safety equipment, shocking his American co-workers.

Xu comments: “Why is it that Chinese workers are able to put up with even more drudgery while being paid far less than their American counterparts? This is something we Chinese are very familiar with.”

 

“Are you the glory, or are you the cost of the glory?”

 

Qin Hui, professor of history at Tsinghua University, once argued that China’s economic growth isn’t because of economic liberalism or government oversight, but because of China’s refusal to guarantee certain basic human rights.

In Maoist China, the state stripped the underprivileged of all political power in the name of the greater good dictated by socialist dogma. Post-Mao China continues to exploit the underprivileged, but now for monetary gain. He called it China’s “advantage” of “low human rights.”

Despite the nationalism sentiment fanned by American Factory, it has also provoked reflection on China’s advantage of low human rights summarized by Qin Hui.

Weibo user ‘Zhi21’ (@ZHI2i), a recent college graduate, writes on Weibo: “I just finished an internship at a factory. I worked 12 hours a day. More than 11 hours of every shift was spent on my feet without stopping, just to keep up with the assembly line. It didn’t make sense to me. After watching American Factory, I feel like American workers are lucky to only work 8 hours a day. That’s why the production costs are higher in the States. They pay too much attention to whether or not workers are comfortable.”

Another Weibo blogger (@GhostSaDNesS) notes that “in American Factory, Fuyao employees believe that to work is to live. They defend the interests of capitalists while they are actively exploited. Unions in the West chose human rights, Chinese capitalists chose profit, and Chinese workers have no choice at all.”

Some of these posts were apparently censored; threads that displayed as having over 200 comments only showed 12, and users complained that their posts were being deleted or made invisible to other users by Weibo censors. “They didn’t give any explanation,” one blogger wrote: ” I only expressed that I felt sorry for the people at the bottom. I didn’t question the system. I didn’t ask to change society.”

Views like that of @Crimmy_Excelsior (“I was confused. Which country is the capitalist one and which country is the socialist one?“) are apparently sensitive enough to be taken offline – they touch upon the tension between the CCP’s espousal of Marxist-Leninism and the plight faced by hundreds of millions of Chinese that have their working conditions driven down by capitalist markets.

Many users don’t buy into nationalist interpretations of the film, and argue that economic gain achieved at the expense of human rights is shameful. @陈生大王 raises a poignant question: “This is a glorious time for China, but I hope this film inspires you to think about who you really are as an individual. Are you the glory, or are you the cost of the glory?”

“The cost of the glory” is derived from a quip popular on China’s internet. The Chinese government often urges its citizens to rally together, using the rhetoric, “We must win this trade war at all cost.” Some netizens then twisted the phrase, saying, “We must win this trade war at all cost, and we later find out that we are the cost.”

 

“China’s prosperity did not just happen overnight – Chinese people worked hard to make it happen.”

 

Even among those in favor of China’s controversial work ethics, there have been concerns over the status quo. Earlier this year, engineers in the tech industry publicly aired their grievances about their “996” lifestyle. The term refers to a high-pressure work schedule of 9am to 9pm, six days a week. This is the kind of life workers in Fuyao are living, with no hope of improvement – they are that the company would find a replacement in no time, making any form of complaining moot.

Recent events in mainland China only increase the credibility of this representation. Factory workers at Jasic, a maker of welding machinery in Shenzhen, attempted to start a union last year. All those involved were fired. A number of college students and activists who actively supported the workers were detained and persecuted.

According to the “China Labor Movement Report (2015-2017)” by China Labor Bulletin (a NGO based in Hong Kong that promotes and defends workers’ rights in the People’s Republic of China) “intensification of social conflicts, including labor-capital conflicts, has crossed a tipping point, and directly threatens the legitimacy of the regime.”

More conspicuously, there are netizens that don’t buy the narrative that Chinese workers are innately “tougher” than their American counterparts. As user @胡尕峰 observes: “(In the film), a new Chinese CEO explains to his fellow Chinese that Americans have been encouraged too much growing up, and can’t take criticism. Chinese born after 2000 have been raised the same way! In my circle of friends, some mothers nearly faint when their babies are finally able to poop. Is China going to end up the same as America?”

American Factory’s objective portrayal of cultural shocks between American and Chinese workforces clearly generated thoughtful reflections and incisive criticism from a sizeable number of netizens, while also being another reason for Chinese state media to highlight the rise of China in the global market.

The chairman of Fuyao Group, Cao Dewang, made headlines this week with the quote: “China’s prosperity did not just happen overnight – Chinese people worked hard to make it happen.” “We indeed worked hard for it,” some commenters agreed: “That’s definitely true.”

By Anna Wang and Eduardo Baptista

Edited by Eduardo Baptista

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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Movie “Sister” Stirs Discussions on Traditional Family Values in China

The movie ‘Sister’ has sparked online discussions on whether or not personal values should be prioritized over traditional family values.

Manya Koetse

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Mainlaind Chinese drama My Sister (我的姐姐, also known as ‘Sister‘) was just released in theatres and is sparking online discussions on family relations and the role of women in China.

After the hit movie Hi, Mom (你好,李焕英) received praise earlier this year for focusing on the role of mothers within Chinese families, this film zooms in on the role of older sisters.

My Sister, directed by Yin Ruoxin (殷若昕), revolves around the story of An Ran, an 18-year-old daughter who is unexpectedly facing the major responsibility for her 6-year-old brother after the tragic loss of their parents. While trying to find her own path in life, she suddenly has to step into the role of caregiver for her younger sibling. But does she want to take on this role?

Actress Zhang Zifeng (张子枫) is playing the main lead in this movie, which touches upon the issue of dealing with traditional family values and personal dreams and ambitions. Sister reveals the difficulties women face within the traditional Chinese-style family structure and the sacrifices they make for their parents, their children, siblings, and their husbands; and how the roles and tasks that are expected of them also clash with their own ideas about happiness and fulfillment.

For An Ran, the relationship with her little brother is troublesome. As a young girl, she had to pretend to be disabled in order to allow her parents to have a second child, preferably a son (under the One Child Policy, families with children with disabilities were allowed to have more children). Now, as a young adult, she once again has to sacrifice her own individual freedom in order to let her brother thrive.

The renowned Chinese sociologist Li Yinhe (李银河) dedicated a lengthy post to the movie on her Weibo account, where she called the film “fascinating” and “thought-provoking.”

Li suggests that multiple social issues play a role in this film. First, there is the conflict between individual-oriented values and traditional family-oriented ethics. While traditional Chinese ideas about family require An Ran to put her brother first and move personal self-fulfillment to the backseat, An Ran is a young woman who grew up in a rapidly modernizing China where women are more empowered and independent. Why should she sacrifice her personal education and career in order to devote herself to raising her brother?

Another social topic that plays a major role in this film is the deep-seated cultural preference for sons over daughters. An Ran literally had to make herself weaker in order for her brother to be brought into this world – and in doing so limiting the possibilities for her future career, – with these patriarchal practices prioritizing the thriving of sons over the happiness of daughters. An Ran’s anger and resistance show that traditional ideas about male superiority clash with modern-day Chinese society, where profound changes within gender relations are already taking place.

“Sisters do not dislike their little brothers,” one Weibo commenter wrote: “What they dislike is the hidden meaning behind their brother.”

Another female blogger responded: “Within my family, from my grandpa’s generation up to myself, it is actually the women who discriminate against women. I think these are deeply rooted ideas that can’t be changed. Look at my second elder aunt; she had seven children, all girls, and only four were left. The others were given away. However, my grandfather has always been good to me, and has never made me feel any less than the boys. Yet my grandma and my mother sometimes make me doubt about my life.”

Under the hashtag “How to Evaluate the Movie My Sister” (#如何评价电影我的姐姐#), which attracted 150 million views on Weibo, many ask the question of what they would do if they were An Ran. Would you take care of your little brother? Or would you leave his care up to other family members and choose your own path in life?

“If it were me, I’d raise my brother. Although it’s actually the parents’ problem, the little brother is innocent.”

“If it were me, I wouldn’t raise him,” another commenter writes: “Although the little brother is innocent, I wouldn’t want to sacrifice my life for him. And it might be a better choice to leave him with other family members than with me.”

These discussions also triggered the hashtag “Should Personal Values Be More Important Than Family Values?” (#个人价值必须高于家庭价值吗#). One top commenter raised the issue of ‘what if this was about a little sister instead of about a little brother,’ again provoking the idea that existing gender roles and the preference over sons play a major part in these discussions.

“These traditions no longer suit this era of a developing society. Let me ask you this question: would the little brother also take care of his sister once she grows old?”

“Personal values should always have priority. If you are not happy yourself, how could you ever take care of your family?”

“I have the perception that the family-oriented concept is deep-rooted. Although there consistently are new values and personal-oriented viewpoints, when it comes to real problems, most people will still be family-oriented.”

One commenter wrote: “What are ‘values’? What is the family in modern-day society? What does it mean to prioritize something? If we don’t first clarify this, the discussion becomes meaningless.”

Meanwhile, all the online discussions on Sister have boosted the film. By now, the movie has already become a box office hit and defeated the American Godzilla vs. Kong.

By Manya Koetse

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China Celebs

Female Comedian Yang Li and the Intel Controversy

A decision that backfired: Intel’s act of supposed ‘inclusion’ caused the exclusion of female comedian Yang Li.

Manya Koetse

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“How to look at the boycott of Yang Li?” (#如何看待抵制杨笠#) became a top trending topic on social media site Weibo on Monday after female comedian Yang Li was dismissed as the spokesperson for American tech company Intel over a controversial ad campaign.

On March 18, Intel released an ad on its Weibo account in which Yang says “Intel has a taste [for laptops] that is higher than my taste for men” (“英特尔的眼光太高了,比我挑对象的眼光都高.”)

The ad drew complaints for allegedly insulting men, with some social media users vowing to boycott the tech brand. On Sunday, Intel deleted the ad in question from its social media page and reportedly also removed Yang from her position as their brand ambassador.

The commotion over the ad had more to do with Chinese comedian Yang Li (杨笠) than with the specific lines that were featured in it.

Yang Li is controversial for her jokes mocking men (“men are adorable, but mysterious. After all, they can look so average and yet be so full of confidence“), with some blaming her for being “sexist” and “promoting hatred against all men.”

Since she appeared on the stand-up comedy TV competition Rock and Roast (脱口秀大会) last year, she was nicknamed the the “punchline queen” and became one of the more influential comedians in present-day China. Yang now has nearly 1,5 million fans on Weibo (@-杨笠-).

Yang Li’s bold jokes and sharp way of talking about gender roles and differences between men and women in Chinese society is one of the main reasons she became so famous. Intel surely knew this when asking Yang to be their brand ambassador.

In light of the controversy, the fact that Intel was so quick to remove Yang also triggered criticism. Some (male) netizens felt that Intel, a company that sells laptops, could not be represented by a woman who makes fun of men, while these men are a supposed target audience for Intel products.

But after Yang was removed, many (female) netizens also felt offended, suggesting that in the 21st century, Intel couldn’t possibly believe that their products were mainly intended for men (“以男性用户为主”)? Wasn’t their female customer base just as important?

According to online reports, Intel responded by saying: “We noted that the content [we] spread relating to Yang Li caused controversy, and this is not what we had anticipated. We place great importance on diversity and inclusion. We fully recognize and value the diverse world we live in, and are committed to working with partners from all walks of life to create an inclusive workplace and social environment.”

However, Intel’s decision backfired, as many wondered why having Yang as their brand ambassador would not go hand in hand with ‘promoting an inclusive social environment.’

“Who are you being ‘inclusive’ too? Common ‘confident’ men?”, one person wrote, with others saying: “Why can so many beauty and cosmetic brands be represented by male idols and celebrities? I loathe these double standards.”

“As a Chinese guy, I really think Yang Li is funny. I didn’t realize Chinese men had such a lack of humor!” another Weibo user writes.

There are also people raising the issue of Yang’s position and how people are confusing her performative work with her actual character. One popular law blogger wrote: “Really, boycotting Yang Li is meaningless. Stand-up comedy is a performance, just as the roles people play in a TV drama.”

Just a month ago, another Chinese comedian also came under fire for his work as a brand ambassador for female underwear brand Ubras.

It is extremely common in China for celebrities to be brand ambassadors; virtually every big celebrity is tied to one or more brands. Signing male celebrities to promote female-targeted products is also a popular trend (Li 2020). Apparently, there is still a long way to go when the tables are turned – especially when it is about female celebrities with a sharp tongue.

By Manya Koetse

Li, Xiaomeng. 2020. “How powerful is the female gaze? The implication of using male celebrities for promoting female cosmetics in China.” Global Media and China, Vol.5 (1), p.55-68.

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