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The prejudice, fear and ignorance around Alan Sugar’s – and others’ – views on Chinese labour

So the Chinese work harder than the rest of us,  right? Wrong

Did Ann Winterton miss a trick? In the wake of the tragedy in 2004 when 21 Chinese cockle-pickers drowned off the Lancashire coast, the Tory MP for Congleton shared a topical joke at a Westminster dinner. After prattling on about a shark who was bored of its tuna-heavy diet Winterton delivered the punch line: “Let’s go to Morecambe Bay for a Chinese”. Boom boom. There followed a rapid apology from the MP for the “distress and offence” caused to the Chinese community.

But maybe Winterton should have told her offended critics that she was merely drawing attention to the suffering of Chinese immigrant workers at the hands of tyrannical gang masters. Pull the other one? Maybe. But that’s the kind of defence some have put forward for Alan Sugar’s tweet last week responding to a photograph showing three images of a Chinese baby wearing a cute costume fashioned from a watermelon. In one of the images the child seems to be crying. “The kid in the middle is upset because he was told off for leaving the production line of the iPhone 5,” tweeted the Apprentice star and Labour peer. Cue a complaint of racism, and a police investigation of the alleged “hate incident”.

But the online reaction has been interesting. Amid the usual mosquito drone of “thought police/can’t joke about anything anymore” some have indeed suggested Sugar’s Tweet was actually designed to draw attention to the behaviour of Apple, which manufactures the iPhone. Others said the Labour peer was sticking up for oppressed Chinese labourers, not mocking them.

Now few would probably find such a defence for the Winterton “joke” plausible. Nevertheless, I can understand why people might feel more confused and ambivalent about Sugar’s tweet because “China” and “work” are subjects that have always tended to leave us rather confused and ambivalent.

There’s an entrenched historic view in the West that the Chinese naturally relish hard work. Back in the 18th century a French Jesuit missionary to China, Joseph de Premare, wrote that “it cannot be said in China, as in Europe that the poor are idle, and might gain a subsistence, if they would work”. According to Mark Twain “the disorderly Chinaman is rare and a lazy one does not exist”. The view abides. Last year the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson noted after a visit to China that “the work ethic animates everyone from the wealthiest entrepreneur to the lowliest factory hand”.

All this might sound like an extended compliment to the Chinese. Isn’t it nice to be considered hard-working? But there’s a dark side to this Western belief in an innate Chinese work ethic. In the 19th century Chinese immigrants in America were physically attacked by nativist gangs of unemployed working men, who were incensed by the newcomers’ supposed appetite for toil and willingness to accept lower wages than others. This popular bigotry even persuaded the Congress to ban all immigration from China in 1882. The period between the end of the Civil War and the Great Depression is usually presented as the era when America opened its doors to the world. Between 1870 and 1930 some 25 million Europeans are estimated to have travelled to America to make a new life. Yet few Americans today are aware that the door in this era of mass immigration from Europe was slammed in the face of the Chinese.

Things were scarcely any better for the Chinese in Britain. A crowd of 80,000 people filled Hyde Park in 1904 to object to the import of Chinese labour to work in the mines of South Africa by the British colonial authorities. The objection was that “Chinese slavery” would end up destroying the living standards of the British working classes.

The authorities responded. In the wake of both the First and Second World Wars hundreds of Chinese sailors in the British merchant navy, many of whom had married British wives, were deported. Families were broken up. Half-British and half-Chinese children in ports such as Liverpool grew up never knowing their fathers. Governments readily caved in to the racist lobbying of the union of seamen, who claimed, in a familiar way, that they were being done out of their livelihoods by dirt cheap Chinese labour.

China’s explosive growth over the past three decades has stoked these fears in Western breasts once again. In 2012 the BBC aired a documentary about an entrepreneur from Merseyside attempting to move his cushion factory in China back to the UK. The dramatic tension came from the question of whether the English manual workers would prove the equal of those in China in terms of reliability and cost. “This is the story of one small town in the North of England,” asserted the narrator, “and its attempt to take on the economic might of one of the fastest-growing nations in the world”. The alarmist subtext – one that is all around us now – is that we’re in competition with fiercely industrious Chinese.

For sure, the Chinese themselves often feed this impression. Jin Liqun, the boss of China’s giant sovereign wealth fund, has said of the West: “People need to work a bit harder, they need to work a bit longer, and they should be more innovative. We work like crazy”.

Yet what this all misses is how little self-determination the typical Chinese worker abroad over the centuries has had. Isolated and facing discrimination from employers, they had to work hard or starve to death. When they did try to strike for higher wages – as they did while laying the tracks on the US Central Pacific Railroad in the 19th century, or on British merchant ships during the Second World War – they were quickly beaten down.

The stereotype also misses that China today is changing. It may surprise people to learn that the younger generation today – those born since the country’s opening up in the late 1970s – is often considered lazy. My Chinese aunt in Guangzhou complains that she can’t get young workers for her public relations firm who are prepared to pull their finger out. They tend to flit from job to job, believing that loyalty to a single employer will be exploited.

Chinese factory-workers still sometimes experience terrible conditions, as the crusading China Labour Watch organisation assiduously chronicles. Children are sometimes found working in factories. And it is true that rural workers are prepared to put up with pay and conditions that most people in the West would reject.

But that’s because they want to escape from poverty, not because they enjoy slogging their guts out on an assembly line. And even the rural workers have higher aspirations these days. There has been a spike in the number of strikes over pay and conditions in recent years. Chinese wages – contrary to popular perception – are not the lowest in the world. And recorded Chinese paid working hours are not out of line with those in other developing countries.

We should remember that China is a society in the grip of an epic social transformation. It’s impossible to know how things will turn out in the increasingly connected global economy over the coming decades. But we should certainly take dubious claims about the indomitable Chinese work ethic with a pinch of salt, not Sugar.

Ben Chu’s ‘Chinese Whispers: Why everything you’ve heard about China is wrong’ is published this week by Weidenfeld & Nicolson