American Factory, the first film of the Obama’s higher ground new production venture, is a fascinating tale of Capitalism and Globalization, tracing Chinese automotive glass manufacturer Fuyao as it takes over a defunct GM factory in Dayton, Ohio. It is, in particular, a rare tableau of cross-cultural challenges at the work place; including the issues of differing values, management styles and teamwork across cultures as well as operating within different legislative frameworks.
These cultural encounters provide some funny moments in the film; like when an American team is sent to Fujian, to partake in Fuyao’s Chinese New Year Celebration replete with a dozen or so 4-year olds on stage waddling about in chick costumes and a number of sexy female workers bellowing out company slogans in military fashion. (The Americans also end up on stage, performing a less than polished version of YMCA). There are also many sobering moments, especially as some of the American staff start cracking under the draconian working conditions. In one scene a middle-aged worker recounts how he got fired for taking 2 minutes to download a document from a computer.
As teams from China arrive at the factory to train the American workers, a Chinese Fuyao representative delivers some priceless “cross-cultural” coaching sessions. In one session, he briefs his audience about American Freedom. “America is a place to let your personality run free” he says: “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…”. The Chinese employees stare back with an expression of partial disbelief.
Indeed, the film charts different takes on the value of freedom, from workers freedom to organize and have their own voice (which a number of the American employees at Fuyao want), but also the freedom to work and provide for one’s family, which was arguably given back by Fuyao to the workers, many of which were unemployed for years as the American rust belt went into decline.
In another session, the Chinese rep coaches his trainees on the American worker and how to motivate them: “The American worker is lazy”, he says, “they have been told since they were small how great they are and so are over self confident” … “But you need to stroke the donkey in the direction of the growth of its hide”, he adds, otherwise they will kick you”.
The American workers have a need to know the reasons for what they are doing and object to Chinese management commanding them about against their better judgment. They sense a lack of respect in the Chinese, Confucian-flavored paternalistic leadership. In a poignant scene a black woman is in tears, protesting the harsh and unreasoned commands of her young Chinese manager. The new Chinese GM that is brought in when his American predecessors are fired thinks that a Christmas meal and a raise of $2 an hour for all employees will do the trick and bring workers back into the fold. The disenchanted faces in the audience he pep-talks tell a different story.
An interesting character in the film is Cao Dewang, Fuyao’s founder, or “the chairman”, as everyone calls him. Typical to many Chinese CEO’s of his generation, he comes across as personable, almost avuncular, but actually rules with an iron fist and tends to micro-manage. He waltzes into the construction site of the factory in Dayton and changes every little architectural detail in the building, (amongst other, reconfiguring the direction of a Hangar door, ostensibly for Feng shui reasons), all to his American manager’s dismay. The latter trails behind the Chinese party, mumbling about legal requirements, while he gets reprimanded for his shortcomings like a child. Cao expects absolute loyalty and obedience from his team, and eventually fires the American top management on suspicion of disloyalty rather than for incompetence.
On the other end of the spectrum is the likeable Wang. A sort of modern day Leifang who exemplifies a breed of self-sacrificing worker, laboring a continent away from his young family for years on-end to provide for them, showing nothing but the most sincere dedication to his company and to his American co-workers. He creates true friendships with American colleagues like Rob, a furnace manager, and the Sino-American band of five or so they form practices shooting, fly-fishing and ride Rob’s Harley, in some of the more hopeful moments in the film.
At the end the film’s strength is in its balanced, highly human portrayal of both sides of the cultural divide, which earned it accolades both in the West and in China, and provoked reflection and debate on China’s social media about workers conditions in China and the place of China in globalization. Such nuanced and granular depictions of the cultural outfall of globalization are especially timely in the age of trade-war tinted hyperbole.