The Broken Hopes in ‘American Factory’

The 2019 documentary American Factory is about a Chinese glass company that opened a factory in the United States. The film is good enough to be, well, lacerating at times.

When a GM plant closed in 2008 in Dayton, 10,000 people lost their jobs. The repurposing of the plant by Fuyao Glass offered hope for a thousand workers and was part of the $180 billion in Chinese investments in the U.S., from 2005 to mid-2019. (Before 2008, such investment was “almost invisible,” the American Enterprise Institute says, and has “plunged” again due to screening and tariffs.)

As the film opens, an American spokesman for Fuyao explains to prospective employees that the company has 70 percent of the world market in auto glass.

“Is this a union shop?” a man in the audience wants to know.

“We are not. It is our desire to not be,” the spokesman says. Later a manager reminds new hires that two years earlier “this facility was a very dark and very stark reminder of the greatest economic downturn in American history since the Great Depression,” and how hard that was on local families. It is a kind of threat.

Significantly, despite talk of bringing two cultures together, a separate orientation is held for Chinese workers in the American plant. They look glum. The Chinese presenter tells them, in Chinese, “Since you’ve arrived in America, I believe you’ve found many things different from life in China. We need to get to know Americans. America is a place to let your personality run free. [furrowed brows] As long as you’re not doing anything illegal, you’re free to follow your heart. You can even joke about the president. Nobody will do anything to you.” He criticizes American dress, our lack of subtlety, our obviousness, and our inability to think abstractly.

“Time is limited today,” he says, “so I won’t keep going. The list here is really long.”

When the plant fails initially to meet quota and quality benchmarks, Chairman and Founder Cao Dewang makes an appearance. His countrymen call him Chairman. He has a giant socialist-realist painting of his own well-fed head in his office. Chairman smiles a lot and represents, we come to understand, a kind of sweatshop mentality, writ large, that one American politician at a union rally refers to as the thing we defeated 70 years ago with the labor movement.

Chairman’s workers in China provide fealty with 12-hour days, 28-days a month. Some see their children or families only once a year. Salaries are not discussed, but some live in squalor. Chairman’s Chinese supervisors in America can be away from their families for two years, and they work all the time, sometimes with no lunches or breaks. The Americans are a problem.

“I am pairing an American with a Chinese,” one of the Dayton plant managers, who is Chinese, tells Chairman. “The American is the main operator, with a Chinese supervisor by their side. They’re pretty slow. They have fat fingers. We keep training them over and over,” he says.

Chairman addresses an audience of his Chinese employees in Dayton, who look devastated when he says they have not met their goals.

“We are all Chinese,” he says, smiling hugely. “We were born of Chinese mothers. No matter where you die, or are buried, you will always be Chinese. The motherland is like a mother. This is eternal. Today, Chinese come to the U.S. to operate factories. The most important thing is not how much money we earn, but how this will change Americans’ views of the Chinese and towards China. Every Chinese person should do things for our country and our people. It’s down to every one of you here.”

Then he jets back to China, intoning in voiceover, “American workers are not efficient, and output is low. I can’t manage them. When we try to manage them, they threaten to get help from the union.”

Back in China, one of Chairman’s workers says, “We work whenever we’re asked by our leader.” American workers flown in for the Fuyao plant tour in China find workers squatting in hills of glass shards, sorting colors for recycling.

“Holy shit,” the Americans say. “They don’t have safety glasses on or nothin’.” “Unbelievable. Those aren’t even cut-resistant gloves.” “Man, that is nuts.” “You gotta be kiddin’ me.”

A sign at corporate headquarters greets the men with, “Be Alert, United, Earnest, and Lively.” Inside, Chinese executives sing, “Noble sentiments are transparent / For the sake of transparency / We’ve gone through difficulties / for the sake of transparency / We’ve struggled every bit / Fuyao holds up / a transparent world / China is filled with spring / and happiness is everywhere / All the blessings from Fuyao / are transparent.”

The Americans also watch a platoon of workers have a “meeting” more like a platoon formation, and go to a year-end corporate event where couples are married in a mass ceremony.

Back at the plant in the States, there are terrible injuries. Workers deal with 200-degree rooms and unsafe demands. The Chinese pour chemicals down the drain. Pay is less than half what it was in the GM days.

“Can we force them to work overtime?” a Chinese supervisor asks. It is mandatory in China. “The Americans … I don’t give a shit what they think.”

The American president of Fuyao America is fired, and the new Chinese president tells his Chinese workers, “We need to use our wisdom to guide them and help them. Because we are better than them.”

The Americans try to organize, but the company raises wages $2 an hour and spends one million dollars for a labor-relations company to run anti-union sessions that employees must attend. Union sympathizers are fired after being identified by company spies. Ultimately the union vote fails.

“We want to build the best employer in this town,” the new president says, relieved but unrepentant. “But in return, work hard, work longer. Our team here: we can do the same job as in China.” He finishes with, “We need to create success forever. Let’s make American [sic] great again.”

And that is about the time, it seems, American workers begin to be replaced with robots. A Chinese manager tells Chairman on his next visit that the workers in front of them will be gone within weeks; he says it in Chinese, so they do not understand. It is painful to watch. All American supervisors and managers are replaced with Chinese management.

Chairman is disappointed in the experiment. “I think they [American managers and supervisors] are hostile to Chinese,” he says.

The documentary has been getting attention because it premiered at Sundance, went straight to Netflix, and was distributed by the Obamas’ production company, which I did not even know about until this film. American Factory also speaks to our fears of who will come out ahead in the tariff wars and by supranational corporatism.

But the most interesting thing in the documentary to me is an unguarded moment with Chairman, near the end. He lights incense at a temple, rides away in his limo, and apropos of nothing says the truest thing we hear from him.

“The China of my youth was poor and undeveloped,” he says. “I feel I was happier then. Now I live in a new era of prosperity and modernity, but I have sense of loss. I miss the croaking frogs and chirping bugs of my childhood. The wild flowers blooming in the field. In the past few decades I have built so many factories. Have I taken the peace away and destroyed the environment? I don’t know if I am a contributor or a sinner. But I only think that way when I’m unhappy.”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.