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Chinese Billionaire at Heart of Obamas-Backed Movie “American Factory” Responds to Criticisms

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The Obamas’ first film for Netflix continues to stir controversy, almost a month after its initial release. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s Higher Ground Productions-supported documentary American Factory is an engrossing, humanizing look at the issues caused by “globalization,” and one that has sparked debate in both the US and China.

We highly recommend you go and watch it, but here’s a brief synopsis: an old General Motors factory in Ohio is apparently given new life when Chinese firm Fuyao Glass takes it over. Cue lots of fanfare about rejuvenation and new jobs for the community. But of course there’s a “but” — culture clashes, complaints about differing work ethics, and ultimately an attempt to form a union (very much against the wishes of Fuyao management) follow.

Now, Fuyao’s billionaire founder Cao Dewang — a key character in the documentary — has shared his views on the film and its fall-out in an exclusive interview with Beijing News (link in Chinese).

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The Beijing News article highlights some of the lighter moments from the film, such as when a visiting American worker is clearly moved at Fuyao’s Chinese New Year celebrations, and chokes back tears to say, “We are a big planet, a world that somehow got divided, but we are one.” (Cynics may argue there was some baijiu at play here, but it’s a nice scene.) But it also questions Cao about one of the documentary’s central issues: attempts to form a union at the plant, especially in the wake of work practices which many of the American staff consider unsafe.

In between some strongly nationalist points about all Chinese people working for the motherland and some softer messaging about wanting to “promote mutual cultural understanding between the two countries,” Cao lambasts the idea of workers’ unions.

“The first time I saw it was with our management. They were terrified and worried it would cause more union disputes,” Cao tells Beijing News, before clarifying that he personally thinks the main point of the film is that it shows China’s prosperity has been achieved by the Chinese people, and that it’s not merely bluster.

He goes on to say that, “the role of European and American unions is actually to protect those who do not work hard and disguise them from being found out. The US trade union system is no longer suitable for the development of the manufacturing sector […] It can be said that the decline of US manufacturing has been caused by [the power of unions].”

In China, labor unions have to answer to the government-backed All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) and attempts to form independent organizations are cracked down upon. Strict labor laws exist, but are not always adhered to.

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Despite some strong criticisms of the working conditions and of the company’s tactics to oppose unions depicted in American Factory, Cao remains unapologetic. “I suggest that if Chinese companies encounter unionization overseas, they should run away and not touch such a situation,” he says in the interview.

Cao does however, admit that he initially liked the idea of doing a documentary because otherwise attempting to introduce America to Fuyao would “cost a lot of money and probably still not be successful.” It certainly seems like a lot more Americans know Fuyao now, though maybe not all with positive connotations.

Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for publications such as South China Morning Post and the Financial Times.