“Behind China’s growth”
These raw images reveal the behind the scenes of China’s economic growth. The worker and the machine. These men and women, whom Pierre Bessard and Eric Meyer encountered, are the real muscle power of the Chinese economy. They embody the force of the new empire, which gives rise to much fascination as well as a little fear. However, in these pages you won’t see staged scenes of workers trying to overthrow the old world, nor will you see a melancholic ode to a proletariat supposedly exploited by the new capitalists of Beijing. “Behind China’s Growth” is a sober testimonial; a rare encounter with the people who work in the huge factories situated on the outskirts of Beijing and Tianjin, in some of the country’s largest industrial estates. Men and women, who convey their hopes and their fears.
During a pause, at lunchtime, or later on while having a beer, they would agree to discuss what mattered most to them: family life, money and also the workplace. There are the favoured ones, born in the big cities, far from the medieval countryside. They are lucky to hold the proper “hukou”, a sort of interior passport that governs people’s lives. Obsessed by the control of the population and their economical plans, the communist authorities established, in 1958, this document which designates an individual’s residential and economic status. Marked as either “Rural” or “Urban”, this little brown booklet contains information on people’s family, religion, ethnic group, as well as workplace. Although the “hukou” became more flexible in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, so that the new workforce could support the growth of cities in the eastern part of the country as they were gradually discovering capitalism, it was never abolished. It still provides social advantages, but only in one’s region of birth. Wu Qinxin, a crane operator in Beijing, can’t get benefit from his hukou. Coming from the countryside, he is still considered a “foreigner” by Beijing public services. Because of this, he is unable to obtain any financial aid for education. He also has to pay more taxes than his colleagues from the city. For the same reasons, his colleague Ye Qisheng has to live far away from his wife and daughter.
At the factory, the family is the subject of many a conversation. Many are obsessed by their only child, struggling to build them a better life than their own. Several workers admit to having a second child. Some confess that they had to move away and change their job to keep the youngster. Wu Yifang, a welder from Tianjin, even abandoned the idea of having a child. She says she does not regret it. The writer and the photographer don’t question this, they do not judge, they are simply seeking the truth. There is no drama in their pictures or in their words. The black and white of the pictures can be misleading: it has not been used to suggest any pity or to convey a rusty image of Chinese industry. Using an original technique to rework the Polaroid negatives, Pierre Bessard wanted to create a timelessness with his subjects.
These photos were not created using special effects, artificial light or fixed poses, but taken simply in a fascinating setting, made possible for the first time by Alstom and its Chinese partners.
In the huge workshops of French-owned Alstom Beizhong Power and Tianjin Alstom Hydro, all the employees build electricity turbines and generators. Their order books are full, as the country and its 1, 3 billion inhabitants require increasing amounts of electricity. Since Deng Xiaoping launched the “open door policy” in the mid 1980s, China has been undergoing a new revolution. When Mao died in 1976, the country accounted for less than 1% of world exports. In 2005, it has 7% of all exports. With 5.5% of the world’s GDP, China has just overtaken France and Great Britain to become the world’s fourth economic power. To keep up with this pace, Chinese authorities launched a large investment plan in order to upgrade their electrical infrastructures. Between now and 2020, they are planning to put in place 530 GW of energy capacity. All available resources will be used: coal, which still produces 70% of the all energy, natural gas, nuclear power and also hydraulic electricity. All the men and women photographed in this book are part of this ambitious scheme.
In Tianjin, thousand of workers assemble and weld some of the biggest hydraulic turbines ever made, capable of generating 800 MW, similar to a small nuclear power plant.
Since the joint venture’s creation in 1995, turbines, pumps and generators produced in Tianjin have been used in every major Chinese electrical project, in Huizhou (Guangdong), Bailianhe (Hubei) and Baoquan (Henan). Some parts will integrate the giant Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, to be completed in 2009. More recently, the joint venture with the Beijing Heavy Electric Machinery Works Group finished making its first 600MW steam turbines and generators for the Pingwei, Dabieshan and Longshan power plants.
These huge machines appear in these photos but only in the background. The workers are the focus of this book; their portraits show that China is not a heartless place, only obsessed with production and its export figures.
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