Ni Hao! Greetings from Red China! I begin, as promised, another year of informative and hopefully entertaining articles about living and working overseas. My adventures first took me to Korea where I recognized an assembly line style of education, quite different from the United States. Then I journeyed to Turkiye where I noticed a complete and utter lack of interest in education altogether. Now, I find myself in what is probably the most successful communist nation in human history (though they use the term communist very loosely here – look for another article on that topic in the near future), and again I’ve already experienced a certain factory worker approach to education.
For those of you who aren’t already aware, China as a nation doesn’t lead the charge in the fight for human rights. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find another country with fewer laws and regulations about working and living conditions. It’s been a growing problem in recent years, primarily due to the free trade agreements of the ‘90s-00s and the increase in abundance of electronic devices – mobile phones, tablets, flat-screen televisions, laptops, etc – which require the cheapest force of manual labor in existence to drive the operating costs down. You want the newest iPhone 6? And you don’t want it to cost $1,000? Okay, then we’ll make millions of them for you in China and pay the workers about $2.00 per day, work them for 15-18 hour shifts, and house them in dormitories (10 people per 10 square-foot room), and often hundreds of miles away from their families, spouses, and children.
The news first hit U.S. outlets about two years ago following riots outside Apple factories in northern Chinese cities. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, and Reuters (among others) all reported on the riots and the abysmal conditions where the wealthy Americans’ electronics are manufactured. In a population of over 2 billion, do the needs of a few million factory workers matter? Does the ‘red’ government care at all? Yes and no.
It’s true that human rights in 21st century China pales in comparison to its western counterparts; however, China is still a developing nation. Countries like the United States have long since been developed. Look back at our own history to a time when we were developing and you’ll see many more parallels. Child-labor was prevalent in factories as were workdays of long hours. In our contemporary climate of the global marketplace and economy, it feels like too much though.
During the Industrial Revolution, journalists, writers, and activists appealed to the government to add regulations; they urged those in power to protect the needs of the workers. Unions formed. Those advances are coming much slower to China – if at all. In fact, the trickledown effect has migrated these conditions out of the factories and into the schools.
I work for a prestigious (and expensive) boarding school in the rural country-side. The school caters to about 4,500 students in grades 7th-12th. The school has a strict reputation and costs their parents a lot of money every semester. You’d think a private school would implement better and healthier living conditions for their students. You’d think wrong.
Students attend school from 7:00am until 9:30pm during the week, and on Saturdays and Sundays between 9:00am and early afternoon. Evening classes consist of study hall-like sessions with a single teacher proctoring the students, but mostly they simply sit in silence to study (they aren’t even allowed to read, they have to do actual work). The class sizes in the regular school are between 30-40 per room with desks crammed into every possible nook and cranny (they sit on stools without backs to promote proper posture).
Their dorm rooms are no different. Three or four bunk beds line the walls to accommodate six to eight children. Each room has a panel of tiny cabinets (approx. 2 cubic feet) for the students to put folded clothes, books, and other items (no space for hanging anything and neither the lockers nor the door to their room can be locked). Their bathroom consists of a metal trough with some pvc-style pipes that bring in the water. Some are lucky enough to have hot water at the aforementioned designated times, while others (completely luck of the draw depending on which room they’re assigned) get only cold or room temperature water. Twin showers (without doors or curtains) are on one side of the trough while a trio of toilets – nothing more than a narrow gully carved into the floor – lay on the opposing side (again, no doors).
10:30pm is lights out. No exceptions. Security guards, armed with flashlights, roam the campus dorms all night long, shining bright lights into the faces of sleeping students to ensure they’re asleep (and often invariably waking them up again). There can be no talking, eating, drinking, studying, or even going to the bathroom during lights out. Only at 6:00am can the students rise and begin the next day… all over again.
The entire endeavor is run systematically like an assembly line with large groups of students herded to classes, to eat meals, to run around the track, and to go to bed simultaneously. They’re given little room for error and even less for individuality. Nonconformity is out – everyone must fit in, everyone must follow every rule, or else.
Thankfully, the international department (for which I work) is substantially higher class. My students only sleep three to a room and have access to choice meals, less stringent rules, and an overall better quality of life. All this is great for me, because I think if I had to deal with the other students on a daily basis, I’d find myself filling less of a teacher role and more of a social advocate for students’ rights.
Until Next Time…