The paper concerns the information contained in Nancy Bonvillain’s ‘Cultural Anthropology’ which relates to the effect of globalisation in China, in particular the effect which neo-liberal economic policies have had on the workforce in the country. This paper will begin by summarising the information which Bonvillain gives, and will then move to considering contemporary information on the subject in order to see how this information may be utilised to augment or change the statements which Bonvillain makes in her work.
Bonvillain begins by noting the rapid increase in trade rates between 1971 and 2006. She claims that this increase was a result of both the growing power of transnational corporations and the world-wide trend in the relaxation of trade controls. In addition, the increase was affected by the encouragement of export goods. The World Trade Organisation and The World Bank are mentioned as institutions which actively encouraged and rewarded the relaxation of trade regulation and the adoption of neo-liberal economic policies. Bonvillain mentions the prevailing opinion that each member of a country would benefit from such economic reorganisation, and then she goes on to directly mention several dissenters of the theory, who claim that class relations are organised in such a way that only the richest in a society would benefit from the re-organisation. Likewise, she noted that the relaxation of laws governing the flow of capital in countries could only result in the increased exploitation of those who work the most in areas in which that capital is present.

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China is used as an example of a country that has seen severe changes in its labour demographics as a result of economic restructuring. Bonvillain notes that after the death of Mao, the government took extraordinary measures to encourage overseas investment in the country. She notes that China’s exports now amount to over three trillion dollars per year, and she notes that it now exists as the third largest trading nation, behind only the USA and Germany. Bonvillain observes that some areas of Chinese society have seen large gains as a result of the re-structuring, but that these gains have been unevenly distributed. It is noted that the government allowed the illegal movement of masses of workers from rural areas to urban areas as a result of the need to provide a workforce for the new industry arriving in the country. At the same time, governmental restrictions remained on healthcare and other rights, which could only be accessed through registration, and as this registration system was deliberately left unchanged despite the large waves of internal migration, millions of people found themselves without access to basic accommodations, hospitals, or child care. Exploitation was severe and working conditions were poor, two factors complemented by extremely low wages (Bonvillain, 2012. 194).

Bonvillain includes a case study which describes the conditions experienced by those working in a factory setting in the area surrounding Hong Kong. The study notes that young women working on production lines were subject to a ‘despotic’ system of control and that absolute compliance was ensured through the docking of pay, which was applied to such infringements as having long finger nails or not conforming to the factory dress code (Bonvillain, 2012. 364).

Bonvillain concludes her section with the observation that the trends related to migration, and in particular, with relation to urban migration, was repeated throughout the world where “export-led industrialisation has accompanied the flow of capital to low wage regions” (Bonvillain, 2012. 369).

According to recent findings and studies, working conditions in industrial areas of China have continued to suffer a result of large-scale corporate production. In 2013, a report discovered that workers in an Apple factory were “standing for 11 and a half hours of work per day, accumulating more than 100 overtime hours per month, three times that permissible by Chinese Law” (Bradshow, 2013). Likewise, a similar study in a Microsoft factory found that workers were working approximately sixteen-seventeen hours per day and were failing to earn more than fifty cents per hour (Huffington Post, 2010).

As well as affirming already expected trends in increased rates of exploitation and a lowering of working conditions, it is possible to use events in China argue that the trend of movement from the country to the city has been far from universal and has, in fact, occasionally reversed itself. One commentator noted that in 2009 that in the early stages of the global financial crisis, Chinese exports fell dramatically and that, as a result of this, many of the people who had migrated from the countryside in search of employment were forced to return to a rural setting as large numbers of workers laid off through factory closures, which resulted in a withdrawal of investment and a decrease in levels of production (Trani, 2009). Although this does not necessarily prevent one from concluding that a definite trend exists in terms of migration, it is possible to problematise the fixed nature of this relation and therefore to see the globalised, neo-liberal condition as one which demands that an individual is placed in state of consistent flux, rather than simply migrating from state of working to another.

In conclusion, this summary has stated that a decline in working conditions is theoretically and empirically commensurate with the implementation of most economic restructuring since the 1970s. However, it has also claimed that this restructuring is rarely fixed and that, even in cases where migration may seem permanent, it is still possible for positions to change and fluctuate depending on growth and investment levels.

  • “Microsoft to Investigate Conditions in China Plant.” Huffington Post. 15th April. Retrieved from:
  • Bonvillain, Nancy. Cultural Anthropology. London: Pearson, 2012.
  • Bradshaw, Tim. “Apple Probes Work Conditions at China Factory.’ Financial Times. 5th September, 2013. Retrieved from
  • Branigan, Trani. ‘Factory to farm: Millions who had enjoyed a taste of city freedom are returning to their villages.’ The Guardian. Sunday 17th May, 2009. Retrieved from: