An ‘American Factory’ in the Era of Global Capitalism

What a new documentary can — and can’t — tell us about the challenges faced by the workers of the world.

In the two weeks since “American Factory” hit Netflix, the documentary’s depiction of a Chinese-funded factory in America’s industrial heartland has caused a stir on both sides of the Pacific. Despite not yet having a Chinese distributor, hashtags related to the film on Twitter-equivalent Weibo already have more than 13 million views combined, and it has an average score of 8.4 on the country’s most popular review site.

“American Factory” tells the story of Chinese billionaire glass magnate Cao Dewang and the automobile glass factory he opens near Dayton, Ohio, in 2014. The factory, a subsidiary of Cao’s Fuyao Group, employs more than 2,000 locals, many of whom lost their jobs when the town’s General Motors plant closed in 2008 after decades of operation.

Optimism quickly turns to disillusionment, however, as the local workforce chafes under Chinese management, while the latter bemoans the laziness of American workers. Much of the film centers on Fuyao’s attempts to crush a worker-led unionization drive.

A screenshot showing He Shimeng, chairman of the Fuyao Workers Union, giving a tour of Fuyao’s Fuqing factory. From Douban

On the surface, the conflicts between Chinese managers and American workers are about the differences in factory management practices in China and America, as well as the clash between these two cultures. However, the documentary also suggests that workers in both countries, and indeed around the world, face a common challenge: In this neoliberal era, they have become dispensable. First capitalists turn people into machines, then, when the machines mature, they abandon them.

About 40 minutes into the film, Fuyao flies several of the factory’s American managers to Fuqing in Fujian province, southeastern China, to visit its plant. There to learn how to increase efficiency, what they find is eye-opening not only to them, but also to Chinese audiences unused to unflinching depictions of factory life in mainstream media.

Life in Fuyao’s Fuqing plant revolves around a mixture of traditional, “feudal” paternalism, nationalism, and the vestiges of socialist collectivism. Continue to read the full article here.


– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.