China Diary, 1988: 5 Yuan for Parts, 5 Jiao for Labor

In 1987–88, the Far Outliers, with their two-year-old daughter in tow, spent a year teaching English at a new community college in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, China. The following is one of a series of articles I wrote in 1988. I sent them to a Honolulu newspaper, but they were not interested. So now I offer them as a retrospective on coastal China twenty years before hosting its first Olympics. At the same time, I am scanning in a lot of our old China photos and uploading them to my Flickr account or to my WordPress blog to illustrate this series.

China undoubtedly has the world’s largest reserves of rubble. Unfortunately, natural and man-made disasters have helped create a glut of rubble on the world market, so these reserves have little export value.

Of course, China also has the world’s largest supply of cheap labor, with considerably greater export value. Chinese who emigrated as cheap labor in the past remain an important source of much-needed hard currency to China today. And many Hong Kong companies invest highly desired capital in China just to take advantage of the readily available labor.

The overabundance of labor and the relative shortage of capital and resources in China help explain the ubiquitous piles of rubble. Much of it consists of brick, mortar, plaster, gravel, sand, cement, bamboo scaffolding, pipes, and metal frames intended for eventual use or reuse.

Worker hut atop the city wall, Xian, ChinaIn China, labor is “cheaper than bricks.” Bricks are hardly scarce, but the demand for them is very high during the present construction boom. They are the major component of most buildings and most rubble. It isn’t just the bureaucracy that throws up brick walls; virtually every factory, school, office complex, and construction site is surrounded by brick walls. Even temporary buildings and walls are made of brick.

Demolition proceeds brick by brick, each one cleaned of dried mortar and carefully stacked. If you had a dollar for every brick in China you could pay off the U.S. national debt and still have a bit of pocket money.

While China’s conservation of valuable resources at the expense of cheaper labor helps create mountains of recycled rubble, the West’s conservation of expensive labor at the cost of cheaper resources helps generate mountains of unrecycled garbage.

In everyday terms, cheap labor means:

  • The butcher charges nothing extra to trim or slice the meat you bought.
  • The sales clerk spends 15 minutes, at no charge, replacing a broken electrical plug with an 80-cent new one.
  • Labor accounts for only 25 percent of the monthly daycare bill. The rest is for food, supplies, and medicine.
  • A streetside vendor makes a living just refilling and repairing cigarette lighters.
  • The profit from selling 25 pounds of oranges is enough to make it worth the vendor’s while to carry them to town and sit beside them most of the day.
  • It is cheaper to get someone to retype a page of text to mimeograph handouts for class than it is just to make 30 photocopies of the original.

New homes under construction, Shiqi, Zhongshan City, GuangdongThe abundance of labor means that many more things in China are made, assembled, or installed by hand: brooms and mops, doors and windows, cabinets, wardrobes, tables, chairs, and beds. Westerners who pine for the days of pre-assembly-line craftsmanship could learn a valuable lesson there. Our two-year-old learned the ritual explanation “that’s not made very well” or “this doesn’t close very well.”

  • Cabinets come with leftover shavings inside, and doors that refuse to shut properly.
  • Mirrors have to be individually cut to fit the frame on the wardrobe.
  • House doors have handles and latches at different angles and heights and usually need planing to fit the frame.
  • Every large piece of furniture requires wedging to level it.
  • Wiring and piping is installed after walls are finished, leaving a residue of drilled-out plaster, brick, and mortar on the floors.
  • Arc-welders work on-site, often without masks, drawing current from the residential master circuit and flickering the lights–even blowing out major appliances–as voltage drops and surges with each arc.
  • The one-by-two-inch ceramic fuses at every household outlet are often not interchangeable, but anybody with a screwdriver can easily replace the fuse wire.

Reroofing, Xian, ChinaSo while standardized, prefabricated components reduce construction costs in the West, much Chinese labor and material is expended retrofitting and repairing. With so little standardization, designers also find it hard to estimate exactly how much material a particular job will require. As a result, construction sites contain many more primary ingredients and often many more leftovers than comparable sites in the West, lending even newly finished buildings a just-renovated and rubble-strewn look.

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Filed under China, economics

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