What are the similarities between how the Chinese treat their workers and colleagues in Kenya and elsewhere in the world? Quite many, if a new film, American Factory, released by Barack and Michelle Obama on Neftlix, is anything to go by.
American Factory is directed by seasoned filmmakers and 2010 Oscar nominees Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert, and follows the journey of what transpires when a closed General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio, is taken over by Fuyao Glass, a Chinese company specialising in automotive glass. The new plant has majority American employees and minority Chinese, who are there to train the Americans on the Fuyao way of doing things; diligence, simplicity and learning.
As we have seen in Kenya and other African countries, friction arises immediately between the Chinese and their hosts as there’s a big language barrier and an outright clash of the Chinese and host country’s working cultures. In the case of Fuyao, the Chinese are used to working 12 hours or more, the Americans are used to eight. The Chinese take two to three days off a month, the Americans take eight.
In 2018, a Chinese national was deported from Kenya after being caught on tape insulting Kenyans and the President. American Factory also brings out similarities here as the Chinese leadership in Fuyao advises their Chinese colleagues on how to manage American temperaments by handling the Americans like children who “love to be flattered to death”. They advise their fellow Chinese that “donkeys like to be touched in the direction that their hair grows,” and this is how they should treat their American colleagues.
In the documentary, the American workers try to unionise and the chairman of Fuyao, Cho Tak Wong, makes it clear that he will shut down the factory before he allows unionising. He fires the American top leadership he had put in place in favour of the Chinese. Over 3,000 employees come and go. And many of the Americans who unionise are fired.
In Kenya, nearly 1,000 employees were fired by Chinese Communications and Construction Company when they protested, asking for higher salaries and better means of transport in January 2018.
On some Kenyan SGR sites, there were reports last year that Kenyan employees and their Chinese counterparts were not allowed to sit at the same table or use the same transportation. You catch glimpses of this in the American Factory, where the film-makers constantly capture the Chinese holding different meetings all together away from the Americans.
Watching the film, however, it is difficult to miss the ideological battle between the US and China. It is impossible to overlook the fact that Obama, the 44th president of the US, must have had an agenda in mind in picking this as his first release in a multi-film deal with Netflix.
On the film, the close connection between Chinese big businesses and the Communist Party of China is explored, with speeches by the chairman to the Chinese staff about doing their country proud. The Chinese take a small group of Americans to visit Fuyao’s headquarters in Faqin, China, where they learn that the same complex also serves as the Communist Party’s regional headquarters.
The visit to Faqin also offers great insight into the incredible working machinery that is Chinese labour and factories. Before the start of the workday, the Chinese employees sing an anthem and form a military-like parade, where they perform a roll call, complete with unison chants and coordinated claps declaring their allegiance to the company.
American Factory, which was released on August 21, has garnered critical acclaim, with four stars and a 96 per cent rating on film sites IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes respectively. Writing for Rogerebert.com, Peter Sobczynski says of the film, “American Factory provides a snapshot of the struggle between labour and management that is both timeless and distinctively of its time.”
American Factory is now streaming on Netflix and if you do watch it, be sure to wait until after the credits to see a 10-minute sit-down between the Obamas and the filmmakers.
The writer is an award-winning film-maker and the executive producer of TV shows “Young Rich”, “Get in the Kitchen”, “Stori Yangu”, “Our Perfect Wedding” and “Foods of Kenya”.