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In Obama’s “American Factory,” Chinese viewers glimpse their own labor problems

Cao Dewang, founder of Fuyao, accepts a road sign named after Fuyao glass in the US.
Cao Dewang, founder of Fuyao, accepts an Ohio street sign named after the company.
By Echo Huang
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

This story contains spoilers.

“Can we force them to work overtime?” A Chinese worker for Fuyao, an automobile glassmaker in Ohio’s Dayton asks in the documentary, American Factory. The response is shrugs and laughter from other Chinese managers.

The manager’s question, an unimaginable one for many working in the West, seems a pretty natural one to his Chinese peers. Years of mandatory intensive work schedules put China on the high-speed train of economic growth. But China’s audiences are now seeing the price of that economic growth in 110-minute-long documentary about a Chinese-owned factory in the US that premiered on Netflix on Wednesday (Aug. 21).

“Americans have fought and that’s why we have 8-hour days and weekends off. China invents ‘996’ and is trying to export this to the US,” one user wrote on social media plaform Weibo today (Aug. 26), where the film has been widely discussed since becoming available on Netflix. The term “996” refers to a work schedule common at many Chinese firms of 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week. It’s unclear how viewers are watching the film in China, where the streaming site isn’t available.

Backed by former US president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground, American Factory tells the story of Chinese company Fuyao Glass’s venture in Ohio, a state that’s part of the “Rust Belt” that has seen the decline in US manufacturing. Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert, the directors of the film, spent three years producing the film about Fuyao’s factory in Dayton.

Founded in 1987, a decade into China’s economic opening up, Hong Kong and Shanghai-listed Fuyao became China’s largest automotive glassmaker by supplying not only to domestic car makers, but also to foreign brands including Ford Motor and General Motors in the US, and German’s Volkswagen. In 2013, it took over GM’s factory in Dayton, which had closed in 2008—less than two months after Obama’s election and in the midst of the global financial crisis—after nearly three decades of operations. Fuyao spent around $450 million and three years to convert the factory during a period when China’s investment into the US soared, and officially opened just a month before Donald Trump was elected president on a platform of bringing back jobs from China.

The film perfectly captures the escalating workplace cultural divides between the American workers and their Chinese managers during those three years, especially over the question of unionization.

“We don’t want to see the union developing here,” Cao says in a meeting with management at the factory in the documentary, “If we have a union here it will impact our efficiency, thus hurting our company. It will create a loss for us. If a union comes in, I’m shutting down.” On his way back to China, the chairman worries about the factory’s low output.

A glass inspector who was formerly at the GM factory, remembers making nearly $30 an hour—at Fuyao she makes $12.84. For their part, the Chinese management is worried the factory’s quality and speed won’t be up to the usual mark.

Then comes a trip the company organized for American management to Fuyao’s headquarters in southeastern Fujian province, where a slogan urges workers to, “Be united, alert, earnest, and lively.” The American floor supervisers are somewhat shocked at what they see—uniformed Chinese workers start the day by standing to attention and doing a call-and-response exercise, a type of motivational ritual that is common in corporate China. They also see a worker picking up broken glass without the kind of safety gear he would have in the US. One manager, after watching factory workers on the floor of the Chinese plant, says to himself, “nonstop.”

A Chinese worker asks a visiting Chinese-speaking US colleague if workers in Ohio really get eight days off a month, telling him workers in Fuqing production lines only get one or two days off a month, and work 12 hours a day. Meanwhile, the “workers’ union” at Fuyao in China is headed by the chairman’s brother, who describes the union and the company as “two gears rotating together.”

The US supervisers try to take home some of the team-building tactics—for instance, the Chinese-speaking manager asks his team’s workers to stand up for a brief morning meeting, but it doesn’t really take off. American workers also don’t always warm to their Chinese managers—and express increasing concern on their approach to safety. “The Chinese really don’t help out, they just walk around and tell the Americans what to do,” an American employee complained in the film. During a tour for the chairman, a Chinese manager tells Cao they have been trying to train the American workers to work faster, but says their “fat fingers” slow them down.

The movie prompted some China’s viewers to reflect on the country’s labor practices. “The so-called Chinese speed comes at a cost—how much does it cost in human rights and freedom to get that? The most terrible thing is we are so accustomed to it. We are tired but we are used to it. When I see the militarized management in the Fuqing factory, I don’t know what to feel about it—proud or depressed,” user Fen Fen Da wrote on Chinese movie forum Douban last Friday (Aug. 23).

“Look at how far China’s capital has gone, yet Chinese workers still don’t understand how to defend their own interest, or more put it more accurately, they aren’t allowed to defend their own interest. It’s really worrying,” Pian Shan Xu, another Douban user wrote today. In one scene, the Chinese workers brought to Ohio listen quietly or nod as managers tell them why a union’s a bad idea.

One viewer said he hoped to see more documentaries on Chinese firms—especially its tech giants.

“I really appreciate this great documentary which allows us to explore a lot about Chinese factories, workers, and company culture. I hope there will be more follow-ups on the new ‘factories’ of China’s transition—Huawei, Alibaba, JD, Jinritoutiao, and Sina to get a sense of what’s going on there,” Weibo user Luo Zhiqiu wrote today. The latter two firms are social media businesses.

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