My Journey to Hong Kong and China


was born in Hong Kong, which I left 19 years ago to come to the
United States. Before I moved here I was a student and labor activist,
witnessing many historic events and transformations in China and
Hong Kong. 

have good and bad memories about China. I wanted to move on, but
it was my destiny to go home to face my past. In January 2004, during
China’s Spring Festival holiday (the Lunar New Year or Chinese
New Year), I returned to witness the changes in my country  and
visit my grandparents in Weifang. 

I had been absent for many years, I maintained direct connections
with many people there. Still, I didn’t expect such deep social
and political changes. As a Chinese friend told me, “No one
wants to go back to the past [the Cultural Revolution period] and
no one can stop the current reforms in China. Anyone who wants to
stop them will be thrown out.” 

In an article from a Chinese magazine titled “Understanding
China,” the author listed eight key facts: 

  1. China has 1.3
    billion people 

  2. China has 900
    million farmers, including 300 million “excess” farm
    laborers who need other jobs 

  3. China has 30
    million people living in poverty 

  4. China has a
    land area of 960 million square kilometers, with rich natural
    resources, but the per capita income is far below the world’s

  5. China has 56
    nations and (according to the article) we cannot allow anyone
    to undermine our national unity 

  6. China’s
    income gap between rich and poor, and between regions, is widening 

  7. China is now
    the sixth-largest economy in the world 

  8. China has a
    5,000-year-old civilization; this is our pride, but also our burden 

trip marked many “first times in China” for me: first
time using the Internet; using a cell phone; driving on China’s
freeways; reading China’s tabloid newspapers; seeing dozens
of foreign TV channels on Chinese TV; and the first time seeing
McDonald’s, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, KFC, and
7-11 stores everywhere.

in China tells me they want to see China be strong, prosperous,
and free from any western power’s control. There’s no
doubt that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Mao Tse Tung liberated
China from imperialism, feudalism, and colonialism; they also created
a modern industrial and nationalist identity. Despite the fact that
many people in China have strong criticisms about the government
and the CCP, most Chinese people still strongly support it and its
definition of Chinese nationalism. While many Chinese express a
wish that the country could be as free and democratic as Europe
and the U.S., they nevertheless oppose any foreign intervention
in China’s domestic affairs. “Look what happened in the
former Soviet Union and what America has done to Iraq,” I was

understand the rapid changes, Weifang, hometown of my grandparents,
offers a good example. Located in the northeastern coastal province
of Shangdong, Weifgang is considered a small city by Chinese standards:
approximately 400,000 in the urban population and another 600,000
in the large rural areas. It’s a town with over 1,000 years
of history, famous for kite making and woodprint posters. Except
for its international kite festival in the spring, foreigners rarely
visit the city. But over the past 20 years, the city has been transformed
into one of the Shangdong region’s biggest industrial and agricultural
centers. Though known for high technology and heavy industry, in
the countryside private farmers with greenhouses grow many kinds
of fruits and vegetables for domestic consumption and for export
all year long. 

like any other Chinese city, Weifang has its social and economic
problems. First of all, the income gap between rich and poor, urban
and rural, is getting critical. For government officials, there’s
a kind of a “trickle-down” argument: in order to develop
the city’s economy (including its rural areas) with limited
money, they should first spend on the development of industrial
parks, roads, highways, and hotels so the city can attract foreign
investment. The thinking is that industrial and urban development
can help absorb the city’s urban and rural labor forces. Economic
development would then help grow consumer demand for goods, sell
more farm products, increase incomes, and eventually develop local

to a local newspaper, one of Weifang’s rural districts has
90,000 semi-unemployed farm workers (“excess family farm labor
forces”) in need of jobs, about 50,000 of whom have become
export laborers traveling across the country, working in the construction,
service, and manufacturing industries. Ironically, there are at
the same time thousands of migrant workers from across the country
coming to Weifang for work. As my grandmother says: “China
has too many people; in all things the solutions are difficult.” 

Hong Kong 


Kong is a socially and culturally modern, commercially and bureaucratically
vibrant city of seven million people. Although a world class financial
center, the key airport hub of the Far East, and home of the world’s
biggest cargo port at Victoria Harbor, the city is smaller than
the San Francisco Bay area. 

the night lights of downtown and the harbor, which give Hong Kong
the nickname “Pearl of the Orient,” the city has always
been one of the key organizing centers in the modern Chinese labor
and revolutionary movements. From Sun Yat Sen’s revolution
of 1911 to the creation of the Republic of China (ROC), through
the Communist and trade-unionist movements of the 1920s and 1930s
and the famous year-long general strike of Hong Kong and Guangzhou,
to the communist revolution of the 1940s and the formation of the
People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, Chinese activists
in Hong Kong have played a key role.

left in Hong Kong generally advocates Chinese nationalism, pro-labor
and anti-imperialist platforms (the last two items are getting weaker),
and has strong working class support. During the 1960s and 1970s,
those who fought for workers’ rights and represented Hong Kong’s
poorest working class were the left-wing trade-unionist movements.
Influenced by the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, they
were very militant and anti-colonialist. The colonial government
responded by labeling many of them “terrorists,” arresting
them and deporting them to China. 

in Hong Kong there is a wide spectrum of political affiliations,
from wealthy leftists (so-called “red capitalists”) to
poor right-wingers living in Hong Kong’s pro-Taiwan ghetto,
as well as many non-partisan working class and middle class. The
fight over preserving status quo economic relations is between the
Hong Kong elite and middle-class communities on one side and the
left on the other; it’s fundamentally a political/ideological
fight between the pro-British/anti-China community and the pro-China/labor

result of this political struggle will determine the future political
destiny not just of Hong Kong, but of China. Why? At least half
of the Hong Kong population is involved in international trade and
export manufacturing with China and with the rest of the world.
At the top are those who happily identify themselves as the “elite”
who created the “economic miracle” of Hong Kong. They
own factories in China and around the world. Enjoying a toil free
lifestyle courtesy of their Filipina maids, they claim to have never
heard the term “sweatshop.” 

Labor in Hong Kong and China 101 


existence of sweatshops in Hong Kong is directly attributable to
the Cold War. After World War II, at the height of the Cold War
and during China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s-1970s,
millions of migrants fled to Hong Kong from China for economic and
political reasons. Hong Kong needed more jobs and the Tai Pans needed
more money, so the colonial government started a push for industrialization
—mainly light and labor-intensive industries such as toys,
garments, and cheap electrical appliances. 

like the post-WWII Marshall Plan in Europe, the purpose of which
was to create a “rich” Western Europe versus a “poor”
Eastern Europe/Soviet Bloc, so too in Asia the U.S. created several
showroom “democracies”—wealthy pro-western countries
like Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong (the so-called
Four Little Dragons)—to compete against the poor and “totalitarian”
communist countries—China, North Korea, and Vietnam. Hong Kong
and Taiwan, by historical accident, were perfect pawns for the West
in this game. 

the 1970s, working conditions in Hong Kong’s factories were
horrible. In order to keep costs down and raise output, the factories
sent their work to subcontractors and even sub-sub-contractors (usually
as a family unit). It was common for a family of 6, living in a
150-square-foot house in a slum, to get a work order from a factory
to “process their work.” This was low-paid work assembling
flowers, silk labels, etc. The entire family, from young children
to the grandmother, would work overnight to finish the job and then
send it back to the factory. They could not stop because this was
usually the family’s only income. 

colonial government and the industrial elites didn’t like unions,
especially the labor movement organized by the left. So the colonial
government’s propaganda created general social attitudes favorable
to the wealthy elite as justification for labor exploitation. To
the poor, this translated as: 

  • You are poor
    because you are uneducated 

  • You have problems
    and this is the only job you can (or deserve to) perform 

  • You got this
    job because we are doing you a favor 

  • Work hard and
    don’t complain and some day your life will be better; someday
    you can live like us


78    Z MAGAZINE JULY/AUGUST 2004         

If you want to understand Hong Kong’s culture of labor exploitation,
you need look no further than the tens of thousands of Filipina maids
working in Hong Kong. They are “permitted workers,” hired
from employment agencies in the Philippines and sent to Hong Kong
on contracts. Currently, there are approximately 100,000 Filipina
maids in Hong Kong. If one assumes an average Hong Kong family has
four members, that means one in seven families in Hong Kong has a
full-time maid doing tedious housework like cooking, cleaning, baby-sitting,
and even helping her employer’s business, for an average of HKD
$3,700 per month (USD $475), around half of the lowest wage job in
Hong Kong anyone is willing to take. 

days Filipina maids in Hong Kong have become a hot issue, with fingers
pointing at those “foreigners” stealing jobs and money,
with some rhetoric suggesting that they be expelled. Some argue
they should receive only half of their current wages. 


the late 1970s, when China’s Deng Xiao Ping began to call for
economic reform, the Chinese government, hungry for foreign investment
and desirous of opening the door to U.S. trade, reduced regulations
to allow private, capitalist Hong Kong manufacturing and tourism
industries to invest in China, mainly in the border region of the
Pearl River Delta, whose cities include Shenzhen, Guang- zhou, Dongguan,
and so on. 

the next 25 years, the Pearl River Delta become the world’s
most important light-industry center and, along with Fujian (light
industry) and the Shanghai and Beijing areas (heavy and high-tech
industries), it is now one of China’s major export industrial

Hong Kong and Taiwanese entrepreneurs moved their entire assembly
lines to the Delta to cut labor costs. However, they also brought
their culture of exploitation with them—since they never allowed
unions back home, they weren’t going to allow unions in China
either. Today, there are thousands of factories in the Pearl River
Delta, mainly owned and run by Hong Kongers, Chinese Americans,
and Taiwanese. Their products are mainly exported to the U.S. and
Europe. If you go to K-Mart, Wal- Mart, or Target and buy a product
made in China, it was most likely made in the Pearl River Delta. 

there are over 8 million Ming Gong (migrant workers) in Shenzhen
and another 4 million in Dongguan just 50 kilometers away. This
doesn’t include another several million in nearby cities and
towns. They come mostly from the poor rural areas of central and
western China. 

of the biggest U.S.-owned semi-conductor companies in Shenzhen is
located in an industrial park in the Baoan district, 25 minutes
from downtown Shenzhen. It employs 1,600 workers, with a labor breakdown
as follows: low and mid-level technicians are Chinese college-level
students; most upper-level technicians and managers are overseas
Chinese from Taiwan, Malaysia, and so on. The workers on the assembly
lines are Ming Gong hired from across China. The majority of them
are women in their early 20s. The working conditions in this factory
are considered good. Like most companies who hire Ming Gong, they
provide food and housing (eight people per room). 

to one of the Chinese managers, the average monthly pay for a production
line worker is between 600 to 800 RMB ($75 to $100 USD). Chinese
technicians get 3,000 RMB ($375 USD), but managers from outside
China receive $3,000-$4,000 USD per month, plus private housing,
child education tuition (for the foreign student school in Shenzhen),
and other allowances—up to another $5,000 USD. 

Labor in Hong Kong and China 201 


factories in China the employer generally provides free food (lunch)
and housing for the workers (the housing and factory are always
next to each other). This is an established part of Chinese labor
culture, and one of the ways employers attract workers to come to
work for them. It is a plus because as long as migrant workers have
jobs, they will not go hungry or homeless.

labor problems, the environmental problems, and such cultural problems
as Taiwanese businessmen getting mistresses are troublesome issues
to be dealt with, but the sense is that eventually it’ll all
work itself out. Overall, people tell me the companies run by the
Westerners (Americans or Europeans) treat workers better then the
companies owned by people from Taiwan or Hong Kong, the worst ones
are generally run by small family-owned Hong Kong businesses. 

unions are another issue. Contrary to the common notion, China is
a highly unionized country. Most government employees, state or
collective enterprise (semi-state/private capital) workers, and
employees of major joint-venture companies whose Chinese side is
owned by the state, have all joined a union backed by the All China
Federation of Labor Unions (AFLU), which is controlled by the Chinese
Communist Party. 

non-state or non-collectively owned enterprises have a very low
unionization rate. According to the AFLU, as of 1998, only 7.3 percent
of the non collectively owned enterprises and just 4 percent of
privately owned companies had labor unions. There is almost no union
representation in export-oriented factories owned by overseas Chinese
from Hong Kong or Taiwan. Although the AFLU and many other government
officials repeatedly complain about the private companies’
violations of labor rights, they don’t seem to be able to suggest
any good solutions. 

many cases, the company fires workers who try to organize a union.
In other cases, pressure from workers allows a union to form, but
the leadership is controlled by management. I asked a Shenzhen labor
official, while he was complaining about foreign companies keeping
workers from joining a union, why the workers cannot form their
own independent union if the major unions didn’t help them.
The official replied, “It’s a violation of Chinese law;
we do not allow the formation of unauthorized unions.” 


on my observations, there are many myths about Chinese migrant workers
preventing activists from correctly understanding labor conditions
in China:  

Most Ming Gong in China do not work for foreign-owned factories
in coastal cities: rather, most of them are working in construction,
transportation, domestic manufacturing, mining, and service industries
all across China, and have nothing to do with export business. An
estimated 20-30 percent of migrant workers do work in foreign-owned
factories—including sub-contractors for Western brands—generally
owned by overseas Chinese from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the United
States or Canada. 

Not all migrant workers are young females: it depends on the industry.
While female workers dominate the manufacturing and service sectors,
male workers pre- dominate in the construction, transportation,
and mining sectors. 

It’s still about the money. It’s common knowledge that
Western-owned companies and their large projects in China, or large
Chinese state-foreign joint ventures, generally have the best working
conditions; next come the large Taiwanese-owned companies in the
Shanghai area, and then the Chinese state-owned industries. Farther
down the line, in the Hong Kong- and Taiwan-owned factories (and
in small family-type companies) that subcontract for western brands,
the problems are generally low pay, hazardous working conditions,
poor industrial safety, and sexual harassment. 

The worst sweatshops in China are generally run by Chinese private
businesspeople. For example, in the construction and mining sectors.
They generally have nothing to do with the export business. Especially
in the private coal mining sectors, the owner of the mine will typically
pay bribes to local officials to ignore safety violations, causing
many tragic accidents and resulting in hundreds of deaths every

to the recent government census, in 2001 the highest paying companies
were foreign-owned major manufacturing industries (such as General
Motors or Honda auto factories in China). Their workers’ annual
wages were 15,358 YMB (USD $1,970), 46 percent higher then state-owned
workers in China, 10,515 YMB (USD $1,348); subcontractors for western
brands owned by over seas Chinese, 11,039 YMB annually (USD $1,415).
Chinese-owned private companies, on the other hand, only paid their
workers 7,740 YMB annually (USD $992). 

what are the key areas of labor struggle in China? Based on different
reports, it is concentrated in the following four areas: 

of labor laws:

The subcontractors in privately owned or foreign-based
companies generally don’t give any benefits or worker securities.
In addition, they force workers to work overtime without pay, with
enormous working pressures, serious violations of health and safety
codes, sexual harassment, while preventing workers from joining
a union: all violations of Chinese labor law. 

many cases, when workers are injured or even lose a hand or finger
due to an industrial accident, they lose their jobs without any
financial compensation. Some Taiwanese factory owners recently told
the newspapers they refuse to pay compensation or medical bills
because they accuse the workers of “deliberately injuring themselves
to blackmail the company for money.” 

in some high-profile cases, the government generally does not actively
help workers and, without unions or public/media pressure, they
don’t have enough power to demand collective bargaining. 

and food

: Traditionally, Chinese workers live in a dormitory
provided by the factory and eat at the factory’s cafeteria,
both for free. Some subcontractors try to force workers to pay their
housing and food, but “It’s a violation of the law, and
also another way to cut their wages,” the official says. 

income inequality

: Although overall income for factory workers
is rising, some Hong Kong and Taiwan subcontractors are “forced”
to cut workers’ wages in order to win contracts with foreign
firms such as Wal-Mart. It’s a much discussed issue at the
factories in the Pearl River Delta region. The workers blame greedy
factory owners, while factory owners blame U.S. companies and too
much competition in China willing to work for less. One typical
example: Chinese-made microwave ovens sold for $30 last Christmas
season in stores across the U.S. The factory owner claims that in
order to meet the less then $10 manufacturing price, he needs to
slash worker’s wages, require overtime without pay, and take
almost no profit on the ovens.

to a recent government report, in 2003 the per capita income of
urban residents (35 percent of the Chinese population) was 8,472
RMB ($1,033 USD), an increase of 9.0 percent from the previous year;
whereas for rural residents (65 percent of the Chinese population)
per capita income was 2,622 RMB ($320 USD), one-third of urban incomes
and only increased 4.3 percent from the previous year. As more wealth
is concentrated in the cities and the middle-class (which, depending
on the definition, ranges between 10 and 30 percent of the Chinese


: According to the news reports, there are up to 17 million
workers whose employers, primarily from Chinese owned private companies,
owe workers back wages. Estimated amounts are in the range of 10
billion YMB. ($1.25 billion USD). Some employers even owe workers
over three years’ back pay. The “deadbeat wages”
issue creates huge tensions between local government, employers,
and workers. Every day in the Chinese press, you’ll read many
stories about “deadbeat wages” and how local government
officials fight to get money for the workers from the deadbeat bosses,
so workers can go back home for the holiday. 

End Notes 


has been months since I returned from my trip to Hong Kong and China.
Recently, the Bush administration rejected the major U.S. labor
unions’ request for trade sanctions against China. It was considered
good news in the Chinese media because it’s a victory for China’s
fight against what it sees as racist protectionism from the United

a labor activist, I have mixed feelings from the trip. Most U.S.
labor activists do not understand China. For instance, most pro-“democracy”
right-wing activists in Hong Kong are members of Western supported
groups, getting U.S. funding and clearly serving U.S. anti-China
interests.Yet many U.S. activists go to Hong Kong and only meet
with these U.S. front groups. 

are a complex socio-political phenomenon. More than a simple economic
exploitation, they are also a product of the Cold War between East
and West. The economies of most U.S.-backed right-wing military
governments in Central America and the Caribbean, such as Haiti,
El Salvador, Panama, and Nicaragua, rely on the sweatshop factories
invested in and operated by Korean and Taiwanese companies. 

countries in turn maintain diplomatic relationships with Taiwan.
Thus, Central America is the region where Taiwan maintains most
of its alliances with countries who help it to continue its U.S.-backed
breakaway from China. 

Chinese believe that Taiwan is part of China and there’s no
compromise possible with this issue. Ordinary Chinese are angered
by the Taiwanese government’s use of economic tools (sweatshops)
to keep diplomatic relationships. China, in turn, also tries to
win support from Chinese across the world by supporting their economic
needs and their businesses, which in practice means supporting sweatshops. 

my trip, I again returned to my work in a sweatshop in downtown
Los Angeles: hope, disappointment; more hopes, more disappointment
again. My godmother (in the U.S.) always tells me: “Never say
never, never give up the hope. People come and go, the true one
will always stay.” I think the same about anti-sweatshop and
anti-globalization movements—we need to believe there’ll
be hope and love at the end, otherwise, there’s no reason to
keep doing this. 

of the missing links in the sweatshop struggle is a focus on the
Hong Kong and overseas Chinese who run sweatshops. Most export factories
in China, other parts of Asia, Saipan, and Central America are owned
by Chinese from Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United States, and Canada.
Without putting the Hong Kong and overseas Chinese owners into the
equation, we’ll never be able to find the faceless workers
in China, Indonesia, and El Salvador who make the products, the
invisible hands that make it happen.


Lee Siu Hin is
an organizer from ActionLA and a reporter for KPFK-Los Angeles.