Just before Christmas 2008, after Wall Street’s Ponzi artists drove the global economy off a cliff, General Motors shuttered its Moraine assembly plant outside Dayton, Ohio, throwing a thousand out of work and the middle class.
Today the facility is humming again courtesy of Cao Dewang. The billionaire Chinese industrialist, who also goes by Cho Tak Wong, barely survived as a labourer during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Then he founded what has become one of the world’s largest makers of glass for cars and trucks, the Fuyao Group.
The company anthem touts a fierce belief in transparency. “For the sake of transparency we’ve gone through difficulties…we’ve struggled every bit,” employees dutifully sing. In light of a new documentary, American Factory, this seems to be more than just a bad pun on Fuyao’s product.
Cao gave filmmakers Stephen Bognar and Julia Reichert surprisingly fetterless access to himself and his employees, both Chinese and American, as they launched Fuyao Glass America. The result, now streaming on Netflix, is the first offering from Barack and Michele Obama’s new company, Higher Ground Productions.
What inspired Cao to invest half a billion dollars in the US rust belt is never made quite clear. There is no commentary in this fly-on-the-wall film. But to judge from his pep talks to Chinese staff seconded to get the new factory up and running, his love for what he calls “the motherland” was a factor.
“The most important thing,” he says, ”is not how much money we earn but how this will change Americans’ views of Chinese and towards China. Every Chinese person should do things for our country and our people.” Profit looms larger as a motive the longer it takes Fuyao America to start making one.
There is a defeated quality to the locals who find work at the plant. They look out of shape physically, especially next to the trim Chinese who talk about the “fat fingers” of their American co-workers. Many are no longer young. They have struggled since GM went away. They’re grateful for the job Fuyao is offering, even though they’re taking home less than half of what they used to make.
Quite quickly, the strangers they welcomed as economic liberators start to feel like occupiers, especially after Cao cans the Americans he’d hired to run the plant and replaces them with executives from headquarters back in Fuqin. “We hired Americans to work as our managers and supervisors”, he tells his team. “Our expectation was, we could trust them and pay them a high salary and they would serve the company. Why didn’t they? I think that are hostile to the Chinese.”
At various points in the film, Cao seems to despair of his investment. “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 a union.” The new Fuyao America president urges managers in an all-Chinese meeting to “use our wisdom to guide them and help them, because we are better than them.”
Things get really ugly when the union drive picks up. “I know there are some union activists here because I have people who spy for me,” says a Chinese supervisor. He holds up a photo on his cell phone. It’s of him and an African-African co-worker, looking like good buddies. “Here is one…Look, we get along pretty well. You won’t see him here in two week’s time.”
The film ends with Cao touring the plant with one of his senior people who proudly points to all the robots he’s having installed and give a running tally of the workers they’ll be replacing. Output will improve dramatically, he promises. “We can’t get the work done now. They’re too slow.”