China may rule the increasingly ravenous world market for rare metals used to make smartphones, clean-energy technology, guided missiles and bombs.
But Colorado and other Western states also contain significant caches of rare metals - the makings of a modern-day gold rush. Mining companies, the federal government and state agencies are pushing to find out just how much potential new money lies beneath the dirt.
The exploratory work is intensifying because, after undercutting global prices for rare earths in the 1990s, China now mines 97 percent of the world supply. Past mining operations left Colorado with 7,300 abandoned projects that still leak toxic waste into soil and water.
Steelworkers in Pueblo and across the country say Chinese pipe “dumping” forced U.S. layoffs.
Pueblo steelworkers have joined steel companies nationwide asking for government help after layoffs they say were forced by unfair trade practices by Chinese steel competitors. “I have no health insurance now. I don’t understand how the United States can allow this,” said Eddie Barela, 39, one of about 50 workers laid off recently from Evraz Rocky Mountain Steel in Pueblo — the old Colorado Fuel & Iron plant that employed his father for 35 years. This week, federal investigators expect responses from 212 Chinese seamless-pipe factories and China’s government after launching a probe into how allegedly unfair trade practices might have hurt Barela and hundreds of other seamless-pipe steelworkers. A petition filed by Evraz Rocky Mountain Steel and six other companies urges the government to take economic action against China. It accuses China’s government of unfairly subsidizing Chinese production of seamless pipe used in oil and gas drilling and then “dumping” vast quantities on the U.S. market. The dumping forced layoffs of more than 2,000 seamless-pipe workers in Colorado and around the country, union leaders charge.
To some, holding the 2008 Olympics in Beijing will right wrongs; to others, it is just wrong
BEIJING - Red digits on a countdown clock blink out the days
until the International Olympic Committee chooses which country
will host the 2008 Summer Games.
An enormous scroll unfurled from China’s Great Wall recently
proclaimed “Success to Beijing!” and “We will win!”
At bid committee headquarters, architect Steven Gao showed
off his model of a remade Beijing, from Tiananmen Square and the
Forbidden City, where emperors sipped tea, to sparkling modern
The 2008 Olympics, Gao said, will be the “continuation of
traditional China culture.”
Many agree with him that China is a likely bet to host the
Games. Commercial sponsors - primarily U.S. corporations - want
access to 1.3 billion Chinese. Olympic movement leaders want to
take the Games to regions such as China, Africa and South America
that haven’t hosted the Olympics. China lost the 2000 Games to
Australia by two votes.
But China remains relatively isolated despite two decades of
economic opening. And just as campaigning in Beijing culminates
with nationalistic public displays, China faces increasing
conflict with the United States over human rights and military
postures that threaten to turn confrontational.
The conflict gives grist for a renewed debate over whether
China deserves to host the Olympics. China’s communist leaders
bristle. They figured China already has done plenty to win global
New freedoms are allowed here and spreading, said Wang Wei,
secretary general of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Bid Committee.
“China people, now we can comment on government affairs.
That’s a change that has taken place,” Wang said.
And the 2008 Olympics would be a “catalyst” for more change,
Wang said, “for human rights as well.” Changes “will not be as
fast,” he said, if China’s bid fails.
Beijing’s success also could help U.S. interests in hosting
the 2012 Olympics, Wang added.
“It will be very hard” for the U.S. to host the 2012 Games if
Toronto hosts the Olympics in ‘08, he said. “It’s very important
not to let Toronto have it this time.”
Yet, opposition from some Americans is adamant. That is
especially true after last month’s detention of a U.S. spy plane
crew for 11 days and the continuing clash over returning the plane.
Hosting the Olympics “brings a certain status to a city and a
country,” Gov. Bill Owens said. “I don’t think, given China’s
human rights record, that it would be any more appropriate to have
had the Olympics in Cape Town,” South Africa, under apartheid.
Cleaning up Beijing
On July 13, IOC members will meet in Moscow to select a host
for the 2008 Games. Competing with Beijing are Istanbul, Turkey;
Osaka, Japan; Paris; and Toronto. U.S influence is limited, with
four U.S. members on the 126-person committee. Ballots IOC members
cast in a multiround elimination process are secret. Members from
candidate countries can’t vote.
IOC members this month are to receive technical reports from
committee experts who visited and evaluated candidate cities. The
reports are supposed to focus on site preparations - not politics.
And on that score, China has begun an all-out push including
flashy proposals for beach volleyball and other events to be
conducted at Tiananmen Square, site of China’s massacre of
pro-democracy supporters in 1989.
Consider the $12.2 billion Olympic environmental clean-up
Beijing launched after teaming with a Denver-area company.
Some of the world’s deadliest pollution hangs over Beijing.
Congested masses here hack and wheeze as they move through
the corrosive, gray murk. Breathing 24 hours of the pollution from
factories, coal-fired power plants and thickening traffic is the
equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, according to
world health authorities. Beijing is one of several Chinese cities
where, Chinese authorities reported this past decade, air
pollution caused millions of deaths.
China’s government accepted that Beijing’s pollution could
choke the throats - and memories - of visiting IOC technical
experts. So, in 1998, China turned to CH2M Hill.
A 12,000-employee engineering firm based in Greenwood
Village, CH2M Hill has been contracted to clean up messes from New
York’s toxic Love Canal to the Rocky Flats radioactive nuclear
weapons waste west of Denver.
In February, when the IOC experts arrived in Beijing for
inspections, CH2M Hill’s managing director for China, Sarah Liao,
presented the “Action Plan for a Green Olympics”:
Plant millions of fast-growing trees throughout Beijing (pop.
12 million) covering 100 square kilometers - an area the size of
Denver International Airport. The goal: Improve air quality and
shield Beijing from Gobi Desert dust that mixes with smog.
Reduce urban industrial pollution by moving factories away
Double sewage treatment capacity so that most wastewater is
Convert 90 percent of Beijing buses and 70 percent of taxis
to clean-burning natural gas.
Urge every citizen to recycle at least half their garbage.
IOC experts recorded this in detail. Americans and Chinese
involved contend this sort of U.S.-China cooperation could prove
far more effective than confrontation for both countries - and the
world - in the future.
“I think Beijing deserves the Olympics,” said CH2M Hill chief
executive Ralph Peterson, who was in Beijing on business last
month during the spy plane standoff.
Chinese leaders “have made tremendous progress” over the past
two decades, Peterson said. Letting Beijing host the Olympics now
“is a matter of encouraging China’s active participation in the
IOC vice president Dick Pound, one of five contenders to
succeed outgoing IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch in July,
applauded China’s environmental clean-up efforts during a Denver
“I don’t know whether it could win it for them,” Pound said,
“but it would certainly take out of play a major concern that
might otherwise be a question mark.”
Pound won’t vote because he’s Canadian, and Toronto is a
contender for the 2008 Games. But he’s familiar with IOC thinking.
The spy plane incident, Pound said, “is not going to play much of
a role at all. I don’t see that as even being on the radar screen
come July 13.”
But rancorous U.S.-China relations raged anew after President
Bush’s recent assertion that the United States will back Taiwan,
which China regards as a rebellious province, militarily if
necessary. Last week, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld downgraded
U.S. military relations with China, and China warned President
Bush’s proposed missile defense system will set off an arms race
that could threaten world peace. Bush then lashed out at China for
not allowing greater religious freedom, denouncing this as a sign
In the U.S. Congress, lawmakers want to use the Olympics as a
political wedge to punish China. Some 60 House members and more in
the Senate have sponsored bipartisan resolutions that the 2008
Olympics should not be conducted in Beijing unless China releases
all political prisoners and improves civil liberties.
Support is strong, said U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., on
the House International Relations Committee.
“This doesn’t mean we end trade with China,” Tancredo said,
casting the resolution he co-sponsored as political “cover” for
those leery of cutting economic ties. “This is a statement that
needs to be made. China and the world need to see that there is
strong concern in the United States about human rights in China
and the aggressive nature of the regime.”
Whether any of this will make any difference is unclear.
European leaders recently declined to join the United States in
sponsoring a United Nations censure of China. Choosing an Olympics
site is up to IOC members - not Congress.
But the highest-ranking U.S. member - IOC vice president
Anita DeFrantz - said, “I always take very seriously the opinions
expressed by Congress.” She discussed human rights in China
recently with Amnesty International Director William Schulz.
DeFrantz is another candidate to succeed Samaranch, the
outgoing IOC president. As an Olympic rower in 1980, she went to
court to oppose the U.S. government boycott of the Moscow Olympics
to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Yet DeFrantz said her vote in July will depend mostly on what
athletes want, including any concerns athletes may voice regarding
China’s human rights. “I am listening to many arguments,” DeFrantz
The U.S. State Department’s latest assessment describes
worsening human rights in China, including crackdowns on religion
and the Falun Gong spiritual movement, a blend of meditation and
stretching that has attracted millions of Chinese followers. The
report also documents repression of minority groups, such as
Tibetans, and suppression of political dissent.
Some human rights groups are refocusing their campaigns
against China to challenge Beijing’s Olympics bid.
In Denver recently, Students for a Free Tibet, with 600
chapters nationwide, launched a campaign under the banner “No
Olympics for China until Tibet is Free.” College and high school
students sent hundreds of letters to IOC leaders: “Say No to
Beijing 2008.” And Tibetan immigrants across the United States are
mailing white silk “khata” prayer scarves as reminders that China
punishes Tibetans who challenge Chinese rule, said campaign leader
Tenzing Jigme, 32, a Tibetan student at the University of Colorado
“America has so many economic ties to China, people don’t
want to mess around,” Jigme said. “But the Olympics is one area
where you can maybe send a warning.”
“We want to vote’
In Beijing, news that anybody opposes Beijing’s bid brought
scowls from residents who overwhelmingly support hosting the
Olympics. Even some democracy advocates contend the Games would
promote positive change.
“There’s room to improve the system,” said Liu Dageng, 33, at
a restaurant with his wife, who was at Tiananmen Square shortly
before China’s 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators.
“We want to vote, of course.”
But denying the Olympics to try to force change misconstrues
the Games “as a kind of gift,” Liu said. That “hurts the
Olympics,” he said. “Keep it simple. This is against the Olympic
IOC officials have conducted the Games in politically
controversial places before - the Soviet Union in 1980, South
Korea in ‘88 when Korea technically was at war and the government
clashed regularly with labor demonstrators, and Spain in ‘92 when
sometimes-violent Basque separatists were active. Some Olympics
leaders say the Games can boost human rights in host countries.
The blotch on that argument is Berlin, in 1936, where the
Olympics gave Hitler a platform shortly before he led the
Holocaust killing of 6 million European Jews.
Now in Beijing, residents eager to impress the world are
trying to help China’s Olympics campaign. They can’t do much about
their government’s approach to human rights and military buildup
with missiles aimed at Taiwan - which many support. But growing
numbers participate in the “Action Plan for a Green Olympics.”
A new Olympics-driven activism is emerging in some areas,
with restaurant operators considering whether to ban smoking.
University students recently debated forest-friendly alternatives
to China’s reliance on wood for hundreds of millions of chopsticks.
In the Chen Shou Yuan neighborhood southwest of Tiananmen
Square, residents planted trees, grass and flowers for an Olympics
Park amid their apartment towers.
Friends played pingpong in the park one recent evening, and
factory janitor Song Yue Ze, 49, laughed about the U.S.-China spy
plane standoff, pounding his fists together. Then he played tour
guide, pointing out how pleasant Beijing neighborhoods can be. “I
want your vote,” Song said.
And Liu Hung Ngor, apartment manager, earnestly taped up a
handwritten sign at the base of a stairwell. The sign urged
residents to go to the apartment office and pick up a new gas
nozzle, free, to attach to their stoves and limit pollution.
“It will be much cleaner,” Liu said. “We want Beijing to be
able to host the Olympics. And by hosting the Olympics, we can
tell the world what we are like. We are proud of our heritage.”
Webb to open office in nation at odds with U.S.
On the surface, Beijing and Washington spar over destroyer
sales to Taiwan, missile defense and human rights.
But behind the scenes, U.S. business and local governments,
including Denver’s, conduct taxpayer-funded courtships of China,
forging closer and deeper relations than ever before.
This week, when Denver Mayor Wellington Webb departs for
China with 47 executives, scholars and city officials, he’ll push
the courtship to a new level by opening the first U.S. city office
Webb lined up a carpeted, bedroom-size sixth-floor office in
central Shanghai to serve as a conduit for business and pro-Denver
buzz. Connecting with China’s 1.3 billion people will propel
Denver “ahead of the curve,” Webb said in an interview, promising
local economic growth and “a relationship that will last long
after I am mayor.”
The City Council approved $160,000 for the China project, and
the eight-day trade mission is expected to cost another $36,000.
Shanghai-based trade representative Roland Tong’s salary will be
$84,000 to serve city interests across China.
An office-opening ceremony is set for Thursday with
Then, after swings through China’s ancient capital of Xi’an
and Beijing, Webb hopes to meet with Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji.
Webb and Colorado Gov. Bill Owens hosted Zhu in Denver two years
ago. Zhu oversees China’s economy and access by foreign companies.
Corporate executives accompanying Webb want to win
construction contracts in China, line up direct flights to Denver,
supply television programs and help China land the 2008 Olympics.
But they’re pursuing their interests as a high-level drama
between Washington and Beijing tilts U.S.-Chinese cooperation
toward competition. President Bush soon must decide whether to
defy Chinese President Jiang Zemin by selling four high-tech
destroyers to Taiwan. A Chinese diplomat last week warned of a
very serious setback if the sales go through. Diplomats also
dicker over Pentagon plans for missile defense, and evidence that
China recently aided Iraq. A new U.S.-backed United Nations
resolution would condemn China for human rights abuses - just as
Beijing seeks the Olympics.
Yet state and city ties to China and elsewhere deepen as
mainstream America connects with the global economy.
Over the past 30 years, states established at least 132 trade
offices worldwide, according to state records. Governors and
mayors also lead more trade missions and typically support
international sister-city links. In contrast, U.S. federal
government representation abroad, with 257 posts, stayed
relatively steady through the 1990s.
Relations with China in particular are growing. China
supplies U.S. families with affordable toys, shoes, clothing and
other merchandise worth $100 billion a year. In China, 15 states
run mainland or Hong Kong offices.
Among cities, Houston, too, is considering an office in China.
“If China is our strategic competitor,” Webb said, “one of
the ways to address that is to find areas where we agree, and
where we disagree. … It’s better to trade and tie your economies
together than have military buildups.”
But even proponents see risks.
A risk that China won’t open up. China agreed to lower
tariffs as a condition for its expected entry into the World Trade
Organization this year. Currently, Colorado-based ConAgra Inc.
faces 40 percent tariffs to sell beef in China. In Fort Morgan,
sunflower seed entrepreneur Mike Erker, whose sales to China
topped $1.5 million last year, pays 32 percent tariffs that he
suspects back-channel seed sellers from Taiwan avoid.
A risk that strife between between Beijing and Washington
could stifle business. Englewood-based Jeppesen-Sanderson, which
makes navigational charts for airlines, can’t obtain coordinates
for some Chinese runways because Chinese military officials
object, chief executive Horst Bergmann said. “The political
climate is important for the business climate,” Bergmann said. “If
Washington would open up, I think China would possibly be more
A risk that even if China does cut tariffs and bureaucracy,
companies from Colorado still won’t be able to compete. U.S. trade
with China is increasingly imbalanced in favor of China. The
United States recently posted a record $83.8 billion deficit.
In the Rocky Mountain region, imports from China topped $883
million last year, up from $32 million in 1990, according to U.S.
customs data analyzed for The Denver Post by federal trade
specialists. The region includes Colorado and parts of Wyoming,
Idaho, Utah and Montana. The specialists said state-by-state
import statistics aren’t available but that the bulk of the
regional imports probably went to Colorado.
Meanwhile, exports of Colorado goods and services to China
were valued at just $164 million, up from $41 million in 1996.
Mainland China ranks 14th among Colorado trading partners. If
exports to mainland China are combined with the $233 million to
Hong Kong and $196 million to Taiwan, the “Chinese Economic
Region” looks more promising. Colorado’s top trade partner is
Canada, which bought goods and services worth more than $1 billion
last year, followed by Japan.
Human rights concerns
Beyond the risks, critics question whether cities and states
should deal with China, a communist dictatorship, on principle.
“China has the most repressive government on the planet,”
said Denver Councilman Ed Thomas, who tried unsuccessfully to
block public funding for Webb’s venture. “I don’t think we should
be over there shaking their hand.”
Thomas lambasted Webb for courting China when Webb previously
led city efforts to boycott South Africa under apartheid.
“People are setting themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square.
How much more odious do you want to get?” Thomas said. “You can’t
justifiably shut the door on South Africa and then offer an olive
branch to the government in China, where people are setting
themselves on fire in demonstrations.”
Chinese dissident Harry Wu, an author and lobbyist in
Washington, D.C., contends China’s treatment of political
dissidents, religious believers and labor activists is worsening.
Denver taxpayers “have to stop courtship like this,” Wu said.
“This is using the common people’s money for business, business
associated with a communist government. Why do you want to set up
all kinds of relations with this regime? You never wanted to do
this with the former Soviet Union because it was the “Evil
At least Webb should “strongly raise concerns,” said Jie Sun,
a Chinese immigrant in Denver devoted to the Falun Gong spiritual
movement, which China’s government has banned.
“To sacrifice human rights for a good trading relationship is
to sacrifice the American value of freedom of belief.”
In Washington, conservatives press for a harder line on
China. U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Littleton - a House International
Affairs committee member who opposed granting China permanent
normalized trade relations last year - denounced Webb’s overtures
as “ridiculous, naive at best. This will only increase our trade
imbalance with China, not improve it. There will be these little
sops they throw. We’ll get a contract here, a contract there.”
Yet Webb is adamant. He says human rights in China is a
serious issue but that economic engagement will increase U.S.
leverage and improve human rights and labor conditions.
Cheap labor beckons
And China with its 1.3 billion people - many of them willing
to work for 20 cents an hour - entices. More Colorado
businesspeople attend programs on China than on any other country,
said Jim Reis, chief of the Denver-based World Trade Center and an
architect of Denver’s trade mission.
For them to profit from China, veteran U.S. diplomats say,
support from political leaders helps.
Politician-led trade missions “have reasonable paybacks”
though generally nothing immediate, said Craig Johnstone, a
retired U.S. ambassador now serving as president of the U.S.
Chamber of Commerce Center for Corporate Citizenship.
“Very few are boondoggles,” he said. “It’s a shame more
public officials don’t do more of this.”
Most of the 30 or so businesspeople accompanying Webb already
have connections in China. They represent large companies such as
CH2M Hill, the Gates Corporation, Harza Engineering and RNL
Design, and a few smaller firms such as Chi Investments and Revis
Few see Webb’s help and a trade office as crucial.
“We probably don’t need it as much as maybe some other
companies,” said Jim Nelson, vice president and general counsel
But Nelson and others said Webb, if effective, could boost
Colorado business by opening doors. In China, government approval
is required for just about everything, and building relationships
with ministry officials is seen as crucial. Often there’s no
occasion to do that without politicians and pomp - supported by
Going to China with Webb will give “access to people and
resources that you would not have going alone,” said Michael
Burke, vice president for Startek, a supply chain management
company with offices in Denver, Greeley and Grand Junction.
Some executives also hoped to get a better feel for the human
rights climate in China. It’s not a matter of questioning
government policies but rather understanding project-level
procedures such as how Chinese partners would treat contract
“If we can’t agree on certain principles, it would be
impossible for us to work,” said Dean Nelson, vice president of
Mortenson Construction, a top U.S. contractor that built Denver’s
Pepsi Center and Coors Field and is exploring opportunities in
“From the humanitarian side, I think there are issues
everybody has trouble with,” Nelson said. “How are we going to
control safety for these people? … We simply couldn’t accept a
project or work under conditions where we would put people at risk.”
The businesspeople met with city officials last week - a
session city officials closed to reporters.
They also received guidance from Hai Yan Zhang, an
interpreter and cultural consultant who grew up in Beijing. She
said she always dreamed of building bridges between Colorado and
Her advice to Webb and crew: Avoid the impatience, arrogance
and ignorance that often plague Americans in China. And pay
attention to image. Denver’s sixth-floor office in central
Shanghai - adjacent to a Ritz Carlton hotel in an
internationalized district with a Starbucks Coffee outlet - sends
the appropriate signal. A basement office would give “no face, no
status,” she said.
“In China, who you are and what you are doesn’t matter. It’s
what people think.”
Low wage workers fuel world economy
LOTUS MOUNTAIN, China - The shiny blue and maroon fabric that worker No. 0391 guides into a Chinese factory sewing machine could be on your back this winter.
The worker, Lu Huikun, makes ski jackets, including this U.S. Ski Team model, for Colorado-based Spyder Active Sports. The jackets cost up to $529 in Denver-area stores.
Lu is paid 31 cents an hour if she keeps a brisk pace at the rattling machine.
A 36-year-old mother of two, she considers herself lucky. Bulldozers making room for factories scraped away her family’s rice field 12 years ago. Lu’s job sewing sportswear for Spyder, Adidas, Champion and other companies helps sustain her family.
“May you all be champions,” she says to those who would buy her jackets this fall.
But Lu’s eyes are tired from overtime shifts. Her thin legs tremble as she pedals her bicycle down People’s Road. More overtime lies ahead.
Lu’s daughter is gradually going blind. She needs special glasses that cost $250 - five months’ wages. When Lu reaches home, crosses a brick courtyard and bends to pump water, the 9-year-old clings to her leg, frightened by a world growing cloudier each day.
Behind many of your possessions - and goods you may buy in the holiday shopping blitz that began Friday - are desperate laborers like Lu in low-wage countries worldwide.
They are the invisible backbone of today’s world economy. But their presence increasingly raises policy questions in corporate boardrooms, spawns riots at trade summits from Seattle to Prague, ruffles consciences of some shoppers in malls.
This report will show you how these workers - in most cases the only people to touch your possessions before you - count on your purchases to survive. Still, they lack many things Americans take for granted.
And in the corporate drive for flexibility and low-wage efficiency, some are treated in ways Americans won’t tolerate at home.
A Denver Post examination of the system traced the origins of products into China, where U.S. firms farm out production of everything from ski coats to computers. Many companies try to shield this information from the public.
Once, such products might have been labeled “Made In USA.”
But today if you buy one of those trendy collapsible scooters, odds are it was made in China. Same with many skateboards, snowshoes, inline skates. The fireworks you shoot on the Fourth of July? Made in China. Your child’s school backpack or the one you wear hiking? Stitched and inspected in China.
The Post gained access to eight factories and interviewed dozens of workers and managers. Compulsory overtime here is the norm. Uniformed guards patrol gated factory compounds, where up to eight workers reside in dormitory rooms. Workers are paid based on quotas that punish any lapse. Wages in China vary, but 30 cents an hour is common; factories producing for Americans typically pay roughly minimum wage. Sometimes workers can’t leave factory compounds. Police on motorcycles cruise industrial zone streets looking for factory workers who cause trouble.
China’s central government requires 40-hour weeks, limits overtime to no more than three hours a day or 36 a month, and bans workers under 16.
Yet with tens of millions fleeing rural areas to seek work, factory managers say the labor law is seldom enforced. Workers often don’t receive extra pay for overtime and can’t refuse to stay late, said Kent Guo, a U.S. Foreign Commercial Service officer posted in Guangzhou.
“The employers say, “If you don’t want to work overtime, I’ll fire you.’ Or they find another reason to fire you.”
Compound-restricted workers proudly build “gliding boards’
Inside the Circle Skater Corp. factory - about two hours north of Hong Kong near Dongguan - 1,500 workers run by Taiwanese managers produce many things sold in America.
It’s a typical factory, a gated cluster of three-story buildings. The workers are migrants who live at the compound where, as at many factories, room and board is provided. Normally they’re allowed out three times a week, factory manager Circle Yan said. A team of 30 ex-soldiers in blue-and-white uniforms patrols 24 hours a day, registering who comes and goes.
The factory supplies sporting goods including skateboards, beginner snowboards bearing Bugs Bunny and the Time Warner logo, plastic snowshoes and inline skates, elbow and kneepads. One of the hottest products made here for U.S. consumers, Yan said, is a silvery collapsible scooter. The Chinese call these “gliding boards.”
Factory sales of all products top $23.6 million a year. You can find stuff made here in Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney, and Toys ‘R” Us among others, Yan said.
Soon after receiving an order, he mobilizes assembly lines that roar, hum and shake as workers rivet, glue, hoist and haul. Workers seldom speak in the process.
Boxed products roll out of workshops on conveyor belts leading into shipping containers mounted atop trucks. The trucks travel new concrete highways to Hong Kong for shipping to the United States. The journey from Chinese factory to Colorado store can take as few as 14 days.
Workers earn an average of 20 cents an hour, Yan said. That’s based on a quota tied to how much and how well they produce. The official work week is eight hours a day for six days - more days than China’s law allows. About 12 hours of overtime is typical, he said - again, more than permitted.
The workers are restricted in leaving the compound, Yan said, because he needs them close to respond quickly to orders from the United States.
“We are very busy. Most of the time they work.”
The restriction breeds bitterness.
“Here there’s a lack of freedom,” said 19-year-old Huang Changbin, a migrant villager diligently assembling scooters.
“We can’t go out when we want. I want to go out and play.”
Huang and his crew of 60 workers assemble 2,000 scooters in 12 hours, a foreman said proudly. Each scooter retails for about $75 in the United States. That’s about $150,000 worth of scooters for U.S. retailers. The workers combined, at 20 cents an hour each, earn about $144 for their part - one one-thousandth of the market value of their products.
Like many here, Huang migrated from a village in western China after completing junior high school. “There was nothing to do,” he said. He paid $25 for a third-class train ticket, a huge burden for his subsistence-farming family, and rode for 36 hours to Dongguan.
This Pearl River Delta region in South China - where Lu Huikun works too - draws millions of migrants into what may be the world’s biggest industrial zone. From Lotus Mountain, a 1,000-foot-high knoll in the middle of it, gray-black factories splay out spewing noise and smoke into a thick acid haze.
Here, Huang can earn up to $50 a month. “My family will save it for when I return,” he said. “I wanted to see the world, what’s going on here.”
He shares a room with seven others. Homesick and confined to the compound, he devotes off hours to writing letters to his parents and 16-year-old sister Changyan.
His advice to his sister: “Stay at home. Study. Read more books.”
But he’ll gut this out.
He’s worked as much as 70 hours in one week. He wants more, maybe a better job sewing. “I can get more money.”
He characterized his life as “not very good, not very bad.”
There was one high point.
He got to try out one of the “gliding boards” he assembles. He smiled as he described zipping across a factory floor on the scooter. Supervisors waived company rules for that test ride.
Back assembling handlebars, Huang takes consolation imagining he is an instructor for young riders in America showing them how to set up the scooter, watching them glide down a street.
“I know American little friends will enjoy playing with this,” Huang said, looking up from the factory line. “Let them play happily.”
U.S. companies try to respond to labor concerns with codes
Few U.S. corporations that sell things made in China allow scrutiny. Many won’t even identify who makes their products.
Wal-Mart spokesman Tom Williams declined repeated Denver Post requests to visit any Wal-Mart supplier factory, saying locations of factories are a closely held secret because “everybody watches everybody else and where they buy.”
Target spokeswoman Susan Eich said “we don’t have any such list” of supplier factories in China.
Kmart, too, counts on China. Chinese suppliers of electronics, bicycles and other products are required “to notify us of who their subcontractors are,” said Dale Apley, Kmart’s public policy director. But he wouldn’t give details or allow a visit.
Colorado-based corporations such as bicycle maker Schwinn, ski clothing company Obermeyer, and Crazy Scrubs - colorful medical wear - take a similar approach.
Meantime, public concern is growing about globalization hurting human rights. Street riots that shut down Seattle during World Trade Organization meetings last year were motivated in part by a sense of injustice in factories abroad.
“We get dozens of letters every month. A lot are form letters: “We want you to stop exploiting children,’” said Tim Lyons, spokesman for J.C. Penney, which sells products made in China at 1,100 stories across 50 states. The ideological anti-corporate tenor of some critics is such, Lyons lamented, that “you can’t win.”
Many corporations have responded. Target, Kmart, Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney officials say their suppliers must agree to obey local labor laws, pay prevailing wages, and ban child or forced labor.
Some companies such as Nike and Levi Strauss established elaborate codes of conduct that are posted on factory walls. Some firms hire auditors to review supply-chain conditions, sometimes visiting factories unannounced and conducting off-site interviews with workers.
In Colorado, Spyder this fall began negotiating a code of conduct with 24 suppliers in Asia. Chris Okazaki, formerly with Nike, is helping lead Spyder’s effort.
Fireworks industry an example of raw capitalism of China
Still, shoppers eyeing foreign-made products generally can’t tell from packaging the conditions in which those products were made.
And tracing products to specific factories “is probably one of the toughest things you could ever try to do,” said John Colledge, the U.S. Customs chief of forced-labor investigations. “We need substantive information to tie the product back to the factory. That’s what the consumer is going to need too.”
A 1930 U.S. law prohibits import of products made with forced labor. U.S. investigators say access in China in particular is so restricted that they’ve resorted to offering money over the Internet for tips.
And even inside factories in China, the source of a product isn’t always obvious.
Just as U.S. companies farm out production to factories in China, many big factories in China farm out work to smaller and smaller factories down to informal village-level “cottage” labor.
U.S. fireworks companies such as Rocky Mountain Fireworks in Denver rely on factories in China. Rising labor costs and safety regulations forced closure of factories at home, said Bill Stonebraker, president of Rocky Mountain Fireworks.
And demand is growing. U.S. consumers bought $625 million worth of fireworks in 1999, a figure that increased by about $25 million a year through the decade, according to Julie Heckman, director of the American Pyrotechnics Association.
One of the emerging new suppliers handling orders from Stonebraker and others is Brothers Pyrotechnics, based in Beihai, in a rural area near Vietnam along China’s southern coast.
Much of China’s fireworks industry is struggling after a series of explosions at factories. Most recently, an explosion July 1 at a plant in Guangzhou killed 40 workers, and central government officials shut down factories nationwide.
But by mid-September, Brothers was up and running. U.S. industry safety inspectors stationed in Beihai give the company high marks.
In charge is Garry Wang, 38, the son of a fisherman turned into flamboyant entrepreneur. Relying on a network of 20 rural Chinese factories, he sells $20 million worth of fireworks a year to Stonebraker and others.
Wang lives in a mansion with marble floors in Beihai. Recently at midnight, he strolled outside across his manicured grounds, fountains burbling, to practice golf.
Gardeners teed up balls and Wang swung away. A day later, he sat beneath a full moon by his swimming pool with two old friends, after a feast and footrubs, and addressed the matter of U.S. sensitivity about working conditions in China. The capitalism emerging here is raw, he said, like in the United States last century, with huge rich-poor gaps and also huge opportunity.
“Comparatively speaking, I think the United States is more important to China than China is to the United States,” he said. “Imagine what would happen if Americans stopped buying all these products. So many Chinese people would lose their jobs.”
Indeed, workers at Wang’s supplier factories said they were grateful for their jobs.
But some doubt they’ll ever get ahead.
“I know people enjoy these,” said Mou Qijuan, 30, piecing together a golden cardboard “Mighty Dragon” firework in a room at one factory with a dozen other women. The Mighty Dragons, which when lit roll around spitting sparks, sell for $3 or so at U.S. fireworks stands. Silently she and her co-workers folded, twisted and glued labels on hundreds of small fireworks every hour. Mou said she earns 15 cents an hour if she works at top speed.
Life for Mou is “just work, nothing exciting.”
She does a lot better than the cottage-worker villagers who make cardboard tubes for fireworks outside factories. They earn the least of all.
As Mou and her colleagues worked, she allowed that “sometimes my back hurts.” She added: “No rest.” Still, any overtime work was welcome. “If I am paid more,” she said emphatically.
The problem, she said, is that she isn’t paid enough.
Now that her son Lu Tiehua is 6, she said, she pays $12.50 a month - half her earnings - for child care so she can work. Not to mention money for food, and medicine when he falls sick.
“How can you save?” Mou asked indignantly.
As she spoke, Zheng Daji, 41, the factory manager, looked on. He’s run this compound with 2,200 workers since 1985.
Zheng acknowledged the plight of his workers. “If we don’t have orders for more fireworks, we have to ask people to leave,” he said.
He often hears complaints, usually about money. ” “Can you pay more?’” He always says no, fearing others would make demands too. He said he’s worried about growing unrest. “I’m afraid it will happen.”
But Brothers assistant business manager Judy Zhu, who accompanied Zheng as an overseer of his factory, hastily downplayed this. Jobs are too scarce, there are too many workers, she told Zheng. “I don’t think it will happen.”
Back in Colorado, Stonebraker at Rocky Mountain Fireworks said conditions that look harsh to Americans must be seen in the different context of China. He suggested U.S. consumers, not human rights groups, should guide how the United States handles standards in the global economy.
“It’s what you are going to pay for that product that governs what the manufacturer has to do,” Stonebraker said.
And for Chinese people “their recreation is work, more than in the United States. We don’t know what work is anymore. These people are happy in their way of doing things. We need to leave them alone. They do well by themselves. And they are advancing themselves at a pace they can stand.”
Villagers chase dreams with assembly-line jobs
Many villages offer Chinese workers little opportunity beyond subsistence farming.
In western China’s impoverished Yellow River Basin, landowner Hou Jianguo, 46, found growing crops in the dry clay soil of Gansu Province too hard. The family barely survived, eating almost all that they grew.
So in 1997, Jianguo decided to move his family. He, his wife and 19-year-old daughter rode a train for three days and two nights to China’s eastern coast south of Shanghai.
He found work burning holes into nylon pullstraps for Colorado-based Samsonite at a factory the company owns in Ningbo.
He calls his $112-a-month wages “very good.” He lives apart from his wife and daughter. His daughter works and lives at a garment factory nearby. His wife lives with a relative in town taking care of children while the relative works.
Jianguo’s family will endure the separation, he said on the Samsonite assembly line, because eventually they’ll attain their dream: returning to Gansu and opening a small tailoring shop.
“I’ll work until I’m old,” he said looking down at a stack of nylon pullstraps he’ll prepare for “Worldproof” suitcases. “Then I’ll return to my hometown.”
Similarly, Yiana Zhenghai, 24, left her village near Ningbo when she had a son in hopes that he might live more like American children. Her mother watches the boy each day while Yiana works in a backpack factory.
Workers there recently were stitching up wallets for Esprit and “America’s No. 1″ backpacks for Jansport. Manager Sunshine Gui walked across the factory floor picking up odds and ends from the floor. Workers at sewing machines eyed her nervously as she passed.
At the end of the line, Yiana inspected every stitch. She and the others amaze manager Gui with how intensely they work for piecework wages. During lunch break many continue to work, she said, to earn a little more money.
“Of course I will spend the money I earn on my son,” Yiana said.
Despite the economic lure, the factory system also traps workers such as 22-year-old Zhang Youyan.
Now tending a juice shop near Dongguan, she made clothing for export since age 14. The juice job is easier but a dead end.
“People like me,” she said, “we just live one day at a time. We don’t think about the future. … It’s not that I don’t dream. I do dream. I just don’t have the opportunity to make it.”
Consumer group aspires to “fair labor’ labels
While the laborers churn out consumer goods, a growing debate about corporate responsibility is taking a new twist. Beyond street protests, a fledgling movement aspires to give U.S. consumers information about how products are made in hopes they’ll discriminate carefully. Leaders of the effort contend workers bear disproportionate burdens and that Americans would respond if they knew.
“If you believe that you are your brother’s keeper, you have some obligation to the people who are the least advantaged in the world,” said Sam Brown, director of the Fair Labor Association in Washington, D.C. “If your prosperity is built on the backs of people who are being exploited, then you have an obligation.”
Brown said retail discount giants in particular are perpetuating a shameful global “race to the bottom.” Within two years, he said, companies that adhere to humanitarian standards will be able to put “fair labor” labels on their products and gain a competitive boost.
But manager Yan at the scooter factory figures codes of conduct and labeling won’t amount to much. It’s window-dressing for image-conscious companies, he said, sitting in the office where he receives orders.
U.S. executives “only care about good products,” Yan said.
“They don’t care about human rights. They are businesses.”
Worker sadly, proudly toils to earn glasses for daughter
Lu Huikun and her colleagues at the sportswear factory doubted Americans who buy their products think about factory workers.
Even if Americans did care, they “can’t do much to help me,” Liang Qianzhen said, finishing some Adidas trousers. “There are too many people in this country.”
The best hope is that Americans consume as much as they can while workers here toil as fast as they can, Lu said. “I just want more work from you so I can make more money.”
She’s given up travel plans she and her husband, a delivery motorcycle driver, once shared. Now, instead of imagining a family vacation in Beijing, she thinks of her daughter’s future, and worries about her impending blindness.
Her daughter is bright and talks of becoming a doctor or teacher. “Mommy and Daddy save money,” the girl says.
Doctors insist there’s no cure. “Sometimes my daughter feels bad that she can’t see clearly,” Lu said. “When that happens, I tell her: “Don’t think too much about this problem. You were born with it.’”
So Lu toils and saves for special glasses. Tears streaked her face as she spoke. She sees no end to her struggles for her child.
And making things for Americans probably won’t meet her needs. She sat silently at her machine for a moment. But rather than dwell on consumers far away, she resumed sewing.
“I’ll try,” she said proudly, “as hard as I can.”