Monday, June 30, 2008

Green at what cost?

Conrad MacKerron, director of corporate social responsibility at As You Sow, has done a great piece on the "greening" of retailers' policies and its implications for workers rights. He touches on the labor abuses by Toyota mentioned in a new report by the National Labor Committee. "The urgency with which environmental groups, Al Gore, and the media have touted climate change as the defining issue of our time has resulted in related workplace safety and health issues getting brushed aside," he writes. This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart: I believe that we have all become complacent about the human impact of our bargain hunting, even as we worry about the environmental consequences of our water bottles and flights to London. Read his great piece on here.

Beijing Uncensored

Jocelyn Ford, a journalist I've known and admired since I started studying Japanese, has started a fascinating project on YouTube that is well worth watching. The project, called China For Real, tells the stories of the people you won't see on your TV screen this summer during the Olympics - the people who helped build Beijing, among others. Jocelyn is about as swashbuckling and cool as journalists come - she knows everyone, and not just the CEOs and senior officials. She knows the really interesting people: the people inside the migrant's village, the independent thinker who arrives at parties with a 16-person Big Brother entourage. Her video is an eye-opening introduction to the sides of China you won't see on state-censored television. Check it out here.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

If you are unsure whether or not you are a prostitute

I had to include this sign from a restaurant in Shanghai, as reported by Xinhua, the Chinese state-owned news service. All part of China's efforts to be a more rule-by-law country, I guess. Thanks to CSR Asia for pointing it out.

“Zapata’s Mexican Cantina does not sponsor prostitutes at our establishment. If you are prostitute please refrain from entering our garden or restaurant. If you are unsure whether or not you are a prostitute, please ask one of our friendly security guards to sort it out for you. Thanks.”

Access Asia cracks me up

The most amusing people writing about China today have got to be the guys at Access Asia in Shanghai. Paul French and pals never fail to crack me up, often because what they joke about is so true. The latest, from their weekly newsletter, I paste below:

And Finally...
Access Asia Travel Guide...
Looking for Somewhere Relaxing for the Summer?
Then why not opt for somewhere far from the madding crowds, where the traffic is light, there are no soap-dodging goatee-bearded backpackers to annoy you and hardly another foreigner in sight. Yes? Then you should try Beijing this August. Highlights include:

Wonderfully deserted hotels - many with less than 60% occupancy;
Traffic free streets - thanks to bans on cars;
No soap-dodgers - all students kicked out;
Airy, spacious... and completely empty shopping malls for you to enjoy the free air-con thanks to overbuilding;
A good chance of upgrades on flights as unfilled seats line the aisles;
Peaceful nights as all outdoor parties are officially banned.
So, why not get away from all the hustle and bustle and head to Beijing - you don't even need to bring a camera, as your idyllic holiday will be recorded on one of thousands of networked CCTV cameras providing a wonderful souvenir of your stay.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

From London's Tube to China's factories

Metal thefts on railways in London are the second-largest challenge to the British Transport Police after terrorism. That's a fascinating statistic, because it says so much about where the world is today. A lot of the metal - and the cast-iron manhole covers that are disappearing from London streets, road signs in Devon, stainless steel doors - is headed to China. And that's the subject of a piece in the Guardian by Aida Edemariam, which quotes me at length (whoo!). It's an interesting piece, well worth a read here.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Evansville Courier & Press

The China Price has come to Evansville, Illinois. The book gets a write-up in a longer piece about books about China by Pam Locker, manager of Oaklyn Branch Library. She makes the point that "most of us have a very dated and incomplete picture of contemporary China" but that my book and others pull back the curtain on what's really happening in China. Read her article here.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The China Price on The View From Here

Matt Driskill, an award-winning journalist based in Hong Kong who now works in publishing, did an interview with me about The China Price on his blog, The View From Here. Matt's interview was based on a talk I gave at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong recently. He gets great access to interesting people on his blog, which is well worth a read. Check out my interview here.

Primark Oped

While I've been on the road the last couple weeks, Primark, a UK discount retailer, announced that they were pulling orders from three Indian factories where the BBC (not Primark) had uncovered the use of illegal subcontractors and child labor. Glad they did that, though the decision to pull the orders without making any allowances for the child workers' education is far from ideal. I called Primark to chat about this, and surprise surprise, I still haven't heard back from them. I also called BHS, another UK retailer. Surprise, surprise, I still haven't heard anything from them, except a promise that they would get back to me as soon as possible. Ditto Reiss, previously one of my favorite clothing stores. Whistles, to its credit, at least tried to get in touch with me, but unfortunately has NOTHING on its website either about supplier conditions. Too many companies are pulling the wool over our eyes by telling us nothing about the working conditions in their factories - and crucially, what they're doing to improve them. Watch Primark's incredibly misleading video on its supplier network here. Read my oped on this issue that ran on Friday in The Times here.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Mr Tiffany, the world's coolest pet

I know this is supposed to be a blog about Chinese manufacturing, but I have to tell one personal story. A couple weeks ago, my fiance Colin and I were coming home from dinner in Hong Kong in the middle of a heavy downpour when we happened upon a blind, newborn rat drowning in the alley near our apartment. He was such a pitiful sight - soaking wet, his eyes still shut, barely able to walk. He had minutes to live, we felt sure, before someone came and stepped on him or worse. We were so moved that we decided to take him in, knowing all the while that he probably wouldn't make it through the night. We brought him upstairs and put him in a Tiffany box that we had lying around, and somehow, because he's a survivor and because Colin has extraordinary parenting skills, he made it through the night. And the night after that. Because we were leaving for the UK, we found a wonderful foster mom in Alainna Wrigley of Human Rights in China, who has been sending us regular updates about our little guy, now known as Mr Tiffany. She just sent us this picture, which I couldn't resist posting. I'm so grateful to Alainna, and to Sharon Hom of HRIC, who introduced us. You have to admit, Mr Tiffany is pretty cute.

Now Public likes the book

A reader from Canada has posted her thoughts on The China Price on a website called Now Public: "It should be read by anyone who buys Chinese made products. That would be all of us." We like it! Read her post and comments here.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The China Price on

Sky Canaves, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal's China Journal, has done a nice, straightforward write-up of The China Price here. As is often the case online, the comments from readers are almost as interesting as the piece itself. The piece points out how The China Price is different from the row of China books on the shelves these days - it's about real people and how their lives have been changed by this modern industrial revolution.

The China Price on BBC's Radio 4

One of the things I keep thinking about is that what is happening in China's factories is a reflection of our shopping habits in the West. In a big chain store in London this morning, I saw three simple tank tops for £10. I don't have any inside information on how those shirts were made, but it did give me pause: could they really have been made under the kind of conditions that would make me feel good about my purchase? What kind of information do I, as a consumer, really have about how those shirts were made? The answer is: I have to trust the company that is selling them to me. Sure, we trust companies to tell us the truth about a lot of stuff: we trust them to tell us the truth about the way they use investor funds, to be honest in their accounting, etc. But there is a standardized framework, and several layers of regulatory bodies, to hold them to account if they lie to us or take unethical shortcuts. There is no such regulatory framework to hold them to their promises on social and environmental compliance. Listen to my BBC Radio 4 appearance here.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Shenzhen raising minimum wage to US$144/month

The city of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, has announced that it is raising its minimum wage to RMB1,000 a month in the center of the city. That's $144 a month or $1728 a year for the most basic factory salary, before overtime and benefits. Paltry, yes, by Western standards, and sure to be inadequately enforced, but quite significant by Chinese standards. I could be wrong, but I think that's the highest minimum wage in China right now. Thanks to CSR Asia for pointing it out.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Thoughts on sloppy reviewers

I had dinner last night with a well-known author who made the excellent point that people who review your book don't always read it. It's been something that's bothered me for a while, ever since The Economist ran a mini-review of my book back in January, apparently WITHOUT EVER HAVING READ THE BOOK. If they had a copy of the book, they had to have stolen it, because neither I nor my publisher, Penguin, gave anyone at The Economist a pre-publication copy. Another pet peeve this author mentioned is that people who review your book sometimes SKIM it. This unfortunately seems to have been the problem with Le-Min Lim over at Bloomberg, who notes that I have neglected to mention the "hub effect" in Guangdong province. It's a shame she failed to read my discussion of the "hub effect", also known as the "cluster effect" on pages 9-10, 251, 280-81, and 282. Read these sloppy reviews and other more thorough ones in the Reviews section on the right.

Boston Globe reviews The China Price

The China Price is "journalism at its highest level", David Shribman writes in the Boston Globe. In a very positive review, the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette calls The China Price "thoughtful and provocative". He reviewed the book in combination with Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World. Read the review here.