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How Foxconn Changed a Small Chinese Town

Chances are pretty good that the folks at Foxconn had something to do with at least a part of whatever device you’re reading this post on right now. The Taiwanese company is massive, and with plants all over China, its effect in some parts of that country has been profound.

The National Business Daily has a long feature story about the effects of one Foxconn plant in Xinzheng, Henan. The plant, which has been in operation for two years, has boosted Henan’s economy to the extent that Foxconn operations now account for 48 percent of the province’s total exports. And Foxconn plants have helped Henan’s international exports grow over the last two years even as the larger trend in the region is flagging international numbers.

But it’s not all about the macroeconomics. The National Business Daily took a look at Mengzhuang township, a collection of villages with about 40,000 total residents that’s about 30 km from the Xinzheng Foxconn plant, and found that Foxconn had had a deep impact on the lives and mental states of Mengzhuang’s denizens, not to mention the local economy.

Mengzhuang is known Xinzheng’s chief provider of jujubes, and in fact is praised in promotional materials as “the first home of China’s jujubes.” The villages there have been growing jujubes for centuries, and one local garden boasts hundreds of trees that are more than 500 years old. People in Mengzhuang grew jujubes; that’s just the way it had always been.

Then, almost exactly two years ago, Foxconn came to town, recruiting and training for their new operations in Henan. One Mengzhuang resident we’ll call Zhang Jian (not his real name) described the company as being like ‘a giant magnet’ that sucked up all the labor force in the area. Foxconn has been recruiting heavily in Mengzhuang since it first arrived in September of 2009, and shows no signs of slowing down.

Of course, nobody was forced to work for Foxconn. Given the choice to follow the path of the traditional farmer or become a factory worker for a modern industrial giant, most folks chose the latter. This has had an adverse effect on the jujubes. “If you go to the jujube fields now, the grass is very long,” said Zhang. This may destroy Mengzhuang’s reputation as the home of China’s best jujubes, but most Foxconn workers aren’t interested in coming back. They can make more — sometimes a lot more — working for Foxconn. And salaries there have just gone up again.

Chang Hong (not his real name) is a young villager from a small village near Mengzhuang. He’s also a Foxconn worker. “Many of my friends worked at Foxconn,” he said of his decision to join the company. “Although the overtime is exhausting, a step forward is a step forward.” For Chang, Foxconn’s salary advantages are compounded by the fact that he doesn’t have to become a migrant to work there. Like other Mengzhuang residents, he can live at home and take the bus. “Foxconn’s biggest impact here is that Mengzhuang farmers simply aren’t willing to farm jujubes anymore,” he said.

And of course, work at Foxconn is steady and unaffected by the weather. When salaries change, it’s because they’re going up. Farming can be a risky prospect; Chang Hong lost nearly 7000 RMB (more than $1000) one year when excess rains ruined the majority of his jujube harvest.

It would be easy to read this as a story about Foxconn coming into a small community and destroying its essence, and indeed, Mengzhuang’s essence as the home of the jujube may be dead. But such a perspective — not uncommon to hear, especially from Western commentators — also romanticizes “traditional” farming. Living year-to-year at the whims of an increasingly vengeful mother nature is not something most Western commentators would be willing to do themselves, and while Mengzhuang residents may be proud of their heritage and sorry to see it go, it’s not at all difficult to see why Mengzhuang’s labor force is now making iPhones rather than growing Ziziphus zizyphus (the jujube).

Mengzhuang may be as good a microcosm as any for the negative and positive effects of industrialization on rural China. There are towns like it all over the nation, and farmers are becoming factory workers with remarkable speed in some areas. This is changing China, and while it may not always be for the better, most of the workers are never looking back.

[National Business Daily via Sina Tech, Image via Sina Tech]

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