Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 28, 2010

Last Train Home

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 8:45 pm

This is the time of year when I am inundated with screeners from the public relations department of both major and minor production companies that are meant to help members of New York Film Critics Online select winners in various categories at our annual meeting in December.

Unlike most critics, I am far more interested in “minor” than “major” when it comes to films. As a reminder of why this is the case, I finished watching “Inception” this morning, an onerous task. It simply amazes me that this piece of garbage received 85 percent “fresh” ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. But then again, this is a country that elects George W. Bush and Barack Obama president.

My approach will be to report on the films in the order that they presumably interest my readers and me. Those who are regular readers will not be surprised that documentaries go to the head of the pack. Today I will be writing about “Last Train Home”, a movie about migrant workers in China and will get to “Waste Land”, “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe”, and “A Film Unfinished” (about a Nazi film made in a concentration camp) later this week. Those are my kinds of movies, not the twerp Leonard DiCaprio bouncing off the walls in a CGI orchestrated dream.

“Last Train Home” is the latest movie that departs from the globalization-is-wonderful ideology of Thomas Friedman, Jagdish Bhagwati, and other prophets of neoliberalism. Some are fictional, such as “Blind Shaft”, a movie about miners forced to work in virtual slavery. Others are documentaries like “Still Life” that depict the loss of livelihood and ties to the land that the Three Gorges Dam posed.

Directed by a Canadian Lixin Fan, whose last film “Up the Yangtze” explored the same issues as “Still Life”, “Last Train Home” focuses on a single family whose life has been torn apart by China’s rapid industrialization.

Changhua Zhan and his wife Suqin Chen both work on sewing machines in a typical export-oriented factory in the Guangdong province. Each New Year’s holiday, they take a train back to their rural village to see their teenaged daughter Qin Zhang and her younger brother Yang Zhang. This is not as easy as it seems since there are far more people trying to get a ticket than are available. The train station is a sea of humanity with cops and soldiers trying to keep order. Although the film does not comment on why this is the case (it sticks to a cinéma vérité format), it strikes this reviewer as the likely outcome of a society that no longer places much emphasis on public transportation as it once did. (There are signs that this is beginning to change recently, but one doubts that it will have any impact on the poorer migrant workers for a while.)

The parents left their children to be cared for by their grandmother, a simple woman who tends to the fields each day. Her conversation with her wards revolves around the need to study harder so that they will avoid her fate and that of her parents.

That advice is lost on Qin Zhang who drops out of high school and comes to work in the same city as her parents, but at another shop. It is obvious that they have no influence on her, having left her as an infant to go off to work in a factory. Before long Qin Zhang quits her factory job and goes to work as a bar maid in a disco. We see her and the other menial workers singing a song about how “the customer is always right”, led by their boss. It is a perfect illustration of how Maoist authoritarianism has been appropriated by the new bourgeoisie to keep the workers in line.

When Qin Zhang returns with her parents during the next New Year’s holiday, there is a bitter confrontation between her and her father. After he begins lecturing her about the need to go back to school, she explodes at him, crying out “I don’t give a fuck about what you want.” He becomes outraged by her profanity and disrespect and begins to beat her. She fights back and the two roll around on the floor to the consternation of the rest of the family and the grandmother. Whatever hold Confucian family values had on such people, it is rapidly disappearing under the hammer blows of capitalism. As Karl Marx once said: ” The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.”

The social relations explored in this documentary have been very much on my mind lately since an article titled China’s Poverty Reduction Gains appeared on the Socialist Feminist blog of Pilipino activist Reihana Mohideen who wrote:

China’s achievements in reducing poverty have been outstanding. From 1978 – when the restructuring of the Chinese economy began — to 2007 the incidence of rural poverty dropped from 30.7 percent in 1978 to 1.6 percent in 2007. The biggest drop took place between 1978 and 1984 when the number of rural poor almost halved, from 250 million in 1978 to 125 million in 1985. During this period the per capita net income of farmers grew at an annual rate 16.5 percent. Urban poverty, measured by an international standard poverty line of US$1 per day, reduced from 31.5% in 1990 to 10.4% in 2005. No other third world country has achieved so much and made such a significant contribution to reducing global poverty, as China has, over this period.

There is no point gainsaying these statistics but one has to do a better job of analyzing their significance or else one will fall into the Thomas Friedman trap. If you look at the example of the family in “Last Train Home”, there can be little doubt that they are a single factoid in the overall equation of upward mobility. By all accounts, the family was on the brink of starvation in rural China and that factory jobs in the export zone provided consumer goods like cell phones and televisions that were never possible before. But at what cost? At the cost of being treated like cattle in a train station? At the cost of seeing a family torn asunder?

There was a reply to Mohideen’s article in Links Magazine by Michael Karadjis who had some relatively minor criticisms of her data but questioned how exceptional China’s performance was:

Third, while China certainly should be congratulated for cutting poverty from 30% to 10% over 1990-2005 (indeed from much higher than 30% if we go back further than 1990), this is not entirely a unique achievement, especially in Southeast Asia. It certainly contrasts fabulously with the only other very large country China is comparable with in size, capitalist India, and indeed with most countries in Africa, Latin America and South Asia. However, countries such as Vietnam, but also capitalist Thailand and Indonesia, have had huge successes in poverty reduction (not to mention the more historically exceptional cases of Taiwan and South Korea). Based on the international standard, Vietnam reduced its poverty rate from over 75% before 1988 to 16% in 2005, probably the world record, and this in a country that in 1990 was in ruins, close to being the poorest country on Earth.

The reduction of poverty in China compared to other countries was also the subject of a November 23rd NY Times article titled Life Expectancy in China Rising Slowly, Despite Economic Surge by David Leonhardt who wrote:

A quick quiz: Which of the following countries has had the smallest increase in life expectancy since 1990 — Bangladesh, China, Pakistan, South Korea or Sudan?

The answer is not war-torn Sudan or tumultuous Pakistan. It isn’t South Korea, which started from a higher level than any of the others. And it isn’t abjectly poor Bangladesh.

It’s China, the great economic success story of the last two decades and the country that inspires fear and envy around the world. Yet when measured on one of most important yardsticks of all, China does not look so impressive.

From 1990 to 2008, life expectancy in China rose 5.1 years, to 73.1, according to a World Bank compilation of United Nations data. Nearly every other big developing country, be it Brazil, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia or Iran, had a bigger increase over that span, despite much slower economic growth. Since 2000, most of Western Europe, Australia and Israel, all of which started with higher life expectancy, have also outpaced China.

The moral? Economic growth makes almost any societal problem easier to solve, but growth doesn’t guarantee better lives — or better health — for everyone. That’s been true for centuries. The rate of growth and the kind of growth both matter.

China can sometimes look like the economy of the future, having grown stunningly fast for almost 30 years now, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But it, too, has real problems. Above all, its growth has been uneven. The coast has benefited much more than the interior. Almost everywhere, some aspects of life have improved much more than others.

Whether China can switch to a more balanced form of growth, as its leaders have vowed, will obviously have a big effect on the rest of the global economy. Yet it’s worth remembering that the biggest impact will be on the one-sixth of the world’s population who live in China. And arguably the best example is the fact that the country has grown vastly wealthier but only modestly healthier.

There is an intriguing parallel here to the Industrial Revolution. The eminent economist Richard Easterlin has noted that longevity and health did not improve much when economic growth took off in the early 19th century.

With rising incomes, people could afford better food, clothing and shelter. But they were also exposed to more disease because so many of them were moving to cities. The combined effect appears to have been “stagnation or, at best, mild improvement in life expectancy,” Mr. Easterlin has written.

The Mortality Revolution, as he calls it, did not occur for almost another a century. It depended on relatively cheap investments in public health, like sanitation, and on the spread of scientific methods.

Similarly, in today’s China, many more people have acquired indoor plumbing, heating, air-conditioning or other basics. Other aspects of the boom, however, have pushed in the opposite direction.

As in the Industrial Revolution, many people have left the countryside and poured into crowded cities. Accidents have become common, like the Shanghai fire last week or a series of workplace tragedies in recent months. Obesity is rising. Pollution is terrible.

I recently spent some time in China, and despite everything I’d heard in advance about the pollution, I was still taken aback. The tops of skyscrapers in Beijing can be hard to see from the street. Breathing the smog can feel like having a permanent low-grade sinus infection. For the Chinese, cancer has displaced strokes as the leading cause of death, partly because of pollution, notes Yang Lu of the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.

Leaving aside the matter of measurable qualifiers of well being such as life expectancy, there is another more fundamental question for socialists. The general picture of life in China is one in which the individual has no control over his or her fate, except in the most atomized fashion of “getting ahead” in the individualist, libertarian sense. Not only is it a society in which family ties have been torn asunder, the state has lost the confidence of the masses and operates through a combination of bribery and violence.

In order to understand how such societies operate, there is a need to transcend simple quantifiers such as life expectancy and per capita GDP. If one is to compare China to Europe during the industrial revolution, it is necessary to use the same tools that Friedrich Engels did in Conditions of the Working Class in England. Engels captured the slum life and working conditions of people who had just left the farm in the same way that the family in “Last Train Home” did. This is a fairly representative passage:

But the sacrifices which all this has cost become apparent later. After roaming the streets of the capital a day or two, making headway with difficulty through the human turmoil and the endless lines of vehicles, after visiting the slums of the metropolis, one realises for the first time that these Londoners have been forced to sacrifice the best qualities of their human nature, to bring to pass all the marvels of civilisation which crowd their city; that a hundred powers which slumbered within them have remained inactive, have been suppressed in order that a few might be developed more fully and multiply through union with those of others. The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels. The hundreds of thousands of all classes and ranks crowding past each other, are they not all human beings with the same qualities and powers, and with the same interest in being happy? And have they not, in the end, to seek happiness in the same way, by the same means? And still they crowd by one another as though they had nothing in common, nothing to do with one another, and their only agreement is the tacit one, that each keep to his own side of the pavement, so as not to delay the opposing streams of the crowd, while it occurs to no man to honour another with so much as a glance. The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest, becomes the more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together, within a limited space. And, however much one may be aware that this isolation of the individual, this narrow self-seeking, is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere, it is nowhere so shamelessly barefaced, so self-conscious as just here in the crowding of the great city. The dissolution of mankind into monads, of which each one has a separate principle, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme.

One has no way of knowing whether Lixin Fan has ever read Engels’s classic but his movie certainly channels its outrage.


  1. Just on “Blind Shaft”.
    I saw this film 3 times.It’ a very good film.I learned chinese for some years,was in China some times during the last years to understand the situation of the chinese working class establish grass root connections between left workers and unionists.I’m a blue collar worker myself in a car plant.
    It never occured to me that this film is about “miners forced to work in virtual slavery”.
    The main characters are 2 miners who make a small fortune in killing colleges,pretending it happened in an unsave pit as an accident,and extort money from the owners of the pits for not reporting it to the authorities.
    So the film shows how in the transition to a capitalist economy in China even the life of a fellow worker can become a commodity to his colleges.but this crimes are not a typical chinese phenomenon,I guess.
    Dear Louis,I think You sometimes idolize the workers and demonize the situation of workers in China too much.the workers there are not only victims.

    Comment by Theo Voelkl — November 28, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

  2. I got the opportunity to see this film at the San Francisco International Film Festival last May. It personalizes the incredible demands that the globalization process places upon people and their famiies in China very effectively. My favorites in this genre, though, are Jia Zhangke’s 24 City and Still Life, with Wang Bing’s trilogy, Rust, Remnants and Rails, about the unraveling of the “iron rice bowl” in Fenming an extraordinary accomplishment.

    As for the lack of significant improvements in the social life of people in China as a result of market liberalization, I recall an article in the New Left Review within the last 3 or 4 years that set this out in terms of progress in regard to education, health care and life expectancy in relation to other lesser developed countries. Not surprisingly, progress was more rapid until Mao than under Deng and Jiang, with progress rather slow in the post-Mao era.

    Comment by Richard Estes — November 29, 2010 @ 6:24 am

  3. I don’t know anything about conditions in China. But thanks to doing some editing on a couple of dissertations the last couple of years, I know a little about the definition of poverty in the theory of development.

    Successful self-subsistence outside markets counts as absolute poverty, since it involves no cash income. Any cash income, regardless of actual improvement in the conditions of life, counts as reduction of poverty just because it is cash.

    The kinds of numbers quoted above to buttress the claim of Chinas’ success clearly document the spred of commodity relations. Any claim about standards of living or quality of life requires other evidence.

    Comment by Chuckie K — November 29, 2010 @ 11:16 pm

  4. […] Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:36 pm Joining the previously reviewed Restrepo and Last Train Home, three documentaries were sent to me by various studios to be considered for a 2010 NYFCO award: […]

    Pingback by Three 2010 documentaries « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 6, 2010 @ 8:36 pm

  5. Good review of a good documentary. One small point: the nearly impossible travel conditions we see in the film are typical of China and of other Chinese-majority countries during Chinese New Year. The same is true of Tet. Even countries with excellent public transit would get bogged down during a holiday when a large percentage of the population travels. This is especially true in densely crowded countries like China and Vietnam and is true to a lesser extent in Asian countries with large Chinese minority populations.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — December 6, 2010 @ 10:06 pm

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