From 1985 to 2005, the U.S. trade deficit with China rose from $0 to $202 billion a year. Clothing sales account for a large percentage of that imbalance, and America’s textile manufacturing industry essentially vanished during that time. On paper, China won that economic battle, but the victory did not extend to the country’s workers.
In the beginning of China Blue, Jasmine Lee, a sixteen-year-old girl from rural China, travels to the city of Shaxi to find work. She gets a job at a clothing factory and looks forward to sending money back to her impoverished family. But the slogans Jasmine heard in school about China’s “new era” of opportunity soon ring hollow. She and the other workers live in crowded quarters on-site and work up to twenty hours a day. Jasmine earns about six cents an hour and the factory’s owner, Mr. Lam, holds back pay and makes deductions as he sees fit. Though Chinese law officially bars children under sixteen from the labor force, Jasmine meets a fourteen-year-old coworker. Interspersed with scenes from the factory are comments by Dr. Liu Kaiming, an expert on Chinese labor issues, who provides useful context on the exploitation of young workers in China.
To obtain access to the factory, the director/producer, Micha X. Peled, told Mr. Lam that the film was about him and his style of entrepreneurship. That tactic paid off, because Lam let his guard down and became increasingly comfortable sharing his delusions of grandeur. At one point, he expresses pride in the inspirational signs that he posts for the workers to see. “We shape their basic thinking, like Jesus did,” he remarks. Lam must own a bad translation of the Bible, because instead of the Golden Rule or the tale of Jesus and the money-changers, his signs say things like, “If you don’t work hard today, you’ll look hard for work tomorrow.”
The main problem with the film is the fact that some portions were clearly staged. Peled acknowledges that three of the girls were paid and that some of the scenes were re-enacted by different workers. He says that the re-shoot was necessary because the authorities seized some footage and at least one of the workers stopped cooperating. It would have been far better to stick to the real footage, since the staged scenes cast doubt on the veracity of the others. It is easy to see why the filmmakers would want to pay these exploited workers. However, the payments open the possibility that the girls acted as they believed the filmmakers wanted them to act—even in instances where there was no intent by Peled’s team to influence their behavior.
Despite the film’s problems, there remains little doubt about the brutality of the factory system created by Chinese industrialists and western buyers. Dr. Kaiming offers this chilling assessment of Lam’s sweatshop: “the factory in (this) film is better than most.” -Chris Pepus (Teddy Bear Films, 690 Fifth St., SF, CA94107; [email protected])