As Chinese Wages Rise, Hunt For Cheap Labor Lands In Vietnam

With the era of cheap Chinese labor over, international manufacturers such as Samsung, Canon and Foxconn have relocated major production plants across the southern border to Vietnam.

Delivering the goods in Hanoi (emilio labrador)
Pierre Tiessen

MONG CAI – The traffic rarely moves freely on the road which links the northern Vietnam city Mong Cai to Nanning, the capital of Guangxi province in southern China. Trucks rumble at high speed on this 150-kilometer-long stretch of road, which was repaved a few years ago. These trucks are carrying loads of clothes, shoes and bottom-of-the-range supplies destined to be sold in the region, but also in Guangdong, the neighboring province.

A local Chinese businessman explains: in Vietnam "everything is cheaper, since the workforce in China is getting more and more expensive." Across the border, he adds: "doing business is still worth it." China – the world's second-largest economic power – is no longer a manufacturing engine where blue-collar workers slaved away in factories in return for low wages.

In the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, workers went on strike, picketing in front of the factory gates of foreign-owned companies. "But things have been getting better," says Qiang Li, founder of China Labor Watch (CLW), an American non-governmental organization. He estimates that in those factories, 85% of workers got a pay raise in 2010.

Qiang Li says pressure put on wages has had a "noticeable" impact: factory workers earn $141 a month, a 21 percent pay hike over one year. Still, Li thinks that "the working conditions are often unacceptable."

Rice fields paved over

More and more Chinese and international companies have been turning to southeast Asia, Vietnam in particular, in search of cheaper labor. In Vietnam, the minimum wage does not exceed $85 a month in the large manufacturing zones.

To witness this relocation trend, all you have to do is going to Bac Ninh, a city 40 kilometers north of Hanoi. A few years ago, there used to be large rice fields, but now they have been replaced by multinational companies and their local subcontractors.

Samsung's Bac-Ninh-based factory is its largest worldwide, employing 9,600 workers. Canon employs 8,500 workers, whereas Foxconn, a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer, employs 5,600. The latter is the world's largest maker of electronic components and the largest private company in China, employing 420,000 people.

"Vietnam has become a very competitive and dynamic country," says a media consultant working at Foxconn's headquarters. Since 2000, Vietnam has been experiencing rapid industrial growth, which has exceeded its GDP by 6 points on average. However, it is impossible to know the exact number of Chinese companies which have recently relocated their factories in Bac Ninh or in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's largest economic region.

One thing is sure: long dormant trade and investment between China and Vietnam is suddenly starting to take off, says an European expatriate who is in charge of quality control in factories in the region around Hanoi. In January 2011, China invested several million dollars in two projects. The latter is currently the 8th largest investor in Vietnam.

Thanks to the China-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) free trade agreement, which was implemented in early 2010, Vietnam has increased exports to China by 49% over the past twelve months, even though the trade deficit with China was close to 9 billion euros in 2010.

The small and medium-sized Vietnamese businesses are those taking greatest advantage of this boom. In Dongxing, a Chinese city located near Mong Cai, large streamers are hailing the free trade agreement reached between China and Vietnam. They have announced the construction of Asean's largest cross-border market was finally finished. This 52-hectare-large site cost 200 million euros, and will soon allow for businesses and merchants to sell and/or buy all the products that Vietnam can produce at a low price.

Chinese companies are gaining an increasingly strong foothold in the Vietnamese market: the state-owned giant in the infrastructure and public works sector, the company CSGEC, has been building huge industrial complexes in Mong Cai. Many middlemen from Guangdong also have their own offices there.

The Renminbi, China's official currency, is used as a benchmark whereas the Dong, Vietnam's official currency, was devalued last Februar, the fourth time in the past fifteen months. Local observers warn that Vietnam is increasingly falling under China's sphere of influence. China is indeed Vietnam's top importer, as well as an important supplier with industrial equipments, electronic products, steel and oil products.

"Our local market is full of Chinese manufactured goods," says Vietnam News, the Vietnamese Daily, in 2011.

Vietnam is now trying to stop importing 15 000 kinds of products, including wine and certain manufactured goods. Local observers have noticed that the customs levied on some products have been on the rise. Finally, in early 2011, the Vietnamese government launched a public awareness campaign to encourage people to buy Vietnamese-made products.

Read the original story in French.

Photo - emilio labrador

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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