“The disorderly Chinaman is rare and a lazy one does not exist”. So wrote Mark Twain in 1872. Fast forward 143 years and we have Jeremy Hunt suggesting to the Conservative conference that the government’s cuts to tax credits will help make Britons as hard-working as those industrious Chinese. The language is more politically correct of course, but the sentiment endures.
Mr Hunt’s comments are inane on several levels. First by peddling the ancient Western stereotype of the Chinese work ethic he demonstrates an ignorance of the fact that (as groups such as China Labor Bulletin have shown) the long hours put in by young rural workers in China’s southern factories are often not a free choice but the result of management exploitation.
Second, the Health Secretary’s crass remarks show no awareness of the fact that, more broadly, the image of China as a country of cheap and docile labour is increasingly out of date. The number of illegal factory strikes has been rising in recent years. Chinese wages are actually being forced up as incomes rise and people aspire to more than sweatshop wages.
Perhaps most worrying of all Mr Hunt seems to have no clue what actually drives a country’s prosperity. It’s not long hours that generate higher living standards but smarter hours. China has an average level of output per head that languishes far below that of the UK. That’s why the typical Chinese person is still far poorer than the typical Briton.
Lectures about the need to work harder from Mr Hunt would be more credible if he’d done some homework of his own before sounding off.
Ben Chu is the author of “Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve Heard About China is Wrong”
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