London Olympic Games made in China

August 10, 2012Beatrice5 Comments, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

From Southern Weekend, Sina Infographic

People across the U.S. are furious over Chinese-made uniforms for its Olympic athletes. Democrats even wanted to ‘put them in a big pile and burn them.’ Behind the farce, however, we’ve found that Chinese manufacturing has permeated various arenas in the London Olympic games, some of which were never expected.

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In April and May, 2012, altogether than 1,900 cartons of fireworks were shipped from Liuyang, Hunan province, to London. Tanghua Fireworks Co., Ltd. is one of the two Liuyang-based fireworks suppliers to the Olympic Games. Three fourths of the fireworks to be set off at the London Olympics and Paralympics are made in this small city in central China.

“The British contractor responsible for the pyrotechnics at the London Games is our old patron. We’ve been working together since 1998,” said Wei Chengyan, manager of the fireworks maker. He said that 90 percent of their products are for exports and have been displayed on a number of international occasions, including the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, New Year Eve’s party at Taipei 101, and Hong Kong Disneyland park celebrations.

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Employees at Tanghua Fireworks Co., Ltd. draw the five Olympic rings with their fireworks. Their products were displayed at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics.

Li Shulin, 21, is one of the very few employees at the factory who has received higher education. His job is to develop and experiment new products. A firework scientist. What he didn’t know is, fireworks they made for the London Games cost only 600,000, or 1/30 of what the Beijing Games paid them for.

“We are not some high-tech industry. We are a labor-intensive industry,” said Wei Dehan, another manager, “Would you please make an appeal on our behalf? We really have hiring difficulties,” he said half-jokingly. The low-paying job at the firework factory can hardly retain employees. On the other hand, ever since the 2008 global recession, there has been much fewer fireworks celebrations, and the number of orders they receive has sharply decreased. Not until this year did they start to see dim signs of recovery.

This less-than-a-million-yuan order from London does little to help them. “On average, we export hundreds of thousands of cartons a year,” said Wei Chengyan, so the London order accounts for only one hundredth of their exports, “As for its symbolic significance, it is really hard to tell.”

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Most employees at Tanghua Fireworks Co., Ltd. are farmers. They come to the factory to work in the evening after finishing laboring on the farm during the day. They feel very proud that the fireworks they make are sold to a foreign country.

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Xinyasheng, a company in Hunan, provided their latest product – a tablet-sized LED displays – to the London games. The display is said to be the world’s lightest and thinnest,  and easy to install.

But few people in London would know this. Even though a total area of 500 square meters of LED displays were installed in London, and tens of thousands watched the images on the display, they couldn’t see any logo of Xinyasheng, “Unless they dismantle it and look inside,” said Wang Shuang, the general manager of Xinyasheng, “This is hardly a successful marketing campaign.”

And it is in fact intended by their business partners in London. They required that Xinyasheng sign a confidentiality agreement, in which it states that Xinyasheng cannot publicize itself as an Olympic Games supplier or publish the name of its contractor. “This London Games is full of ‘made-in-Chinas’, but there is not a single Chinese brand,” Wang Shuang said flatly.

“We are just a labor-intensive enterprise. We have no say in branding,” Wang said. He thinks it is quite normal, “There are more than a thousand companies that make LED displays.”

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On July 30th, 2012 at 7:30PM, Men’s 10 meter air rifle finals game was in full swing at the London Olympics. Meanwhile, spray painter Zou Tiankui’s busy day finally came to an end. He scraped the residual paint off the air ducts in his work station and placed his spray paint gun and molds in their proper positions. In the midsummer, the hot and humid air of the night envelops this small town to the east of Dongguan city. Among the crowd, Zou is one of many to rush to punch out after hearing the bell, which signifies the end of his shift. He is squeezed out of the factory.

The place where Zou Tiankui made his home is the Dongguan Xinda Toys and Gifts Limited and Company (hereafter referred to as Xinda), located in the town of Hengli Metro Industrial District. The factory is 73,000 square meters and is arranged neatly into seven plants and six dormitory buildings for more than 3,800 employees. At the end of 2010, Xinda received authorization to produce souvenirs from Corgi Company, a London Olympic licensed souvenir manufacturer. Thus, Xinda gained public attention for being a producer for the Olympics Games.

This year, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) surpassed Japan’s, becoming the world’s second largest economy – a prediction that has finally become reality. However, in Dongguan city, the enterprises engaged in processing and manufacturing are still in the mid-section of the “smiling curve”, where the value added is quite low.

In the past 16 years, the company, which specializes in production of alloy and plastic toy, has steadily expanded and established good relationships with some of the world’s leading toy companies. They have created a “Wenlock” souvenir, [a mascot of the London 2012 Olympic Games], which requires a seven-step process including: casting, burnishing, plating, airbrushing, printing, assembling, and packaging. During this period of time, nearly 470 workers were involved in the said processes in the workshop. Among them, Zou Tiankui was responsible for spraying the half-finished figurines with gold, sky blue or dark red paint.

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Workers at Xinda in Dongguan, Guangdong province. They made the official London Olympics souvenirs and gifts. 

Sitting under a fluorescent light for 24 hours, Zou Tiankui holds a spray paint gun in his right hand and a stencil for one of the many production models in his left hand, in addition to lightly tapping on the on/off switch to spray the paint.  Zou’s daily job consists of this repetitious movement. In accordance with the usual speed, Zou Tiankui will spray paint about 2,500 to 3,500 figurines per day. Aware that long-term exposure to paint fumes is hazardous to one’s health, he wears a safety mask all-year long. Although a mask reduces the risks, it does not completely eliminate the dangers of the job. This measure of safety, however, allows him to gain an additional 35 Chinese cents (US$0.05) per hour on top of his salary.

He states, “Even though I do not like the smell of paint, I am reluctant to part with the extra money I make per hour.” Zou Tiankui was hired by Xinda in 2008. The 42-year old man today feels that his years are catching up with him and that time is running out.  His ability to labor is dwindling. Thus, he feels quite satisfied with his job.

26-year old Peng Yong is one of many assembly workers in the workshop. He has been working at Xinda since April of 2011. Peng was involved in making the Olympic souvenirs and recalls that the Olympic Torch model was particularly easy to assemble – the majority only had two to three pieces.  However, he claims that the London Bus is especially complicated, comprising of more than ten components.

Some workers involved in the early stages of the manufacturing process cannot even recall their own contributions to the world’s largest sports event.  41-year old factory worker, Liu Yuxia, cannot accurately describe the shape of the mascots and souvenirs she has produced, and simply said, “It’s been quite a few months. It’s just that I’ve handled too many toys to remember all of them.”  Printing shop worker Gan Dezhi can only remember that he “printed one large eye on many spare parts.”

Xinda manufactured Wenlock, one of the two mascots for the London Games. However, some workers can only recall having printed one large eye on many spare parts.

By July 31, 2012, the Chinese Team’s gold medal count had already reached 10. And Zou Tiankui still had not watched a single match. His wife and a few colleagues were playing mahjong. He stood under the light in the hallway eating an ice popsicle that cost 1 yuan.

After watching his wife play mahjong, he felt sleepy.  When the reporter from Southern Weekend newspaper told him that each “small figure” he painted costs 9.5 British pounds (GBP), or approximately 100 Chinese yuan, the usually taciturn middle-aged man let out a sudden “Ahh” in amazement. He would have to paint 4,500 items to make this amount of money.

After contemplating it, he murmured, “Too expensive.”

Co-author: Jing Gao

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5 comments to “London Olympic Games made in China”

  1. Mark | August 11, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    Why did you post the worker images without blurring? You put their lifeline-their job at line just for your article to be effective. I do support what you said here but you should put workers and average people in trouble but just corporate.

  2. Sea_Horse_Mirror | August 11, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    Cue people crying that this is taking away jobs otherwise people in their own country would think themselves to high to take. After all, someone must be the top producers of ping pong tables and fireworks. Souvenirs are always to expensive -.-

    Good article, but it stills just tells us what we already know. China has the population, income rate, and technology to sustain a cheap labour source for people to outsource to. Hence everything is made in China.

  3. east2west | August 13, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    Many things are made in China, because labor cost is low. Many of the people who work at these manufacturing companies and on construction sites are not covered by medical insurance or worker’s compensation. Check out this interview of a construction worker from Hebei Province:

    http://hopewelljournal.com/2012/07/profile-migrant-construction-worker-li-tiezhu-in-search-of-a-better-life/

  4. Parigi | August 18, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    I don’t care whether the Olympics products are made by Chinese or by Martians as long as the workers’ rights are respected.

  5. P.Lee | August 28, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    It’s not just the direct cost of labour, medical insurance (don’t need any in U.K anyway as we have the NHS) but all the over bureaucratic rules, regulations and red tape in the West (U.K in particular) that helps make us uncompetitive. I mean when you need to send staff away on training courses to change a bulb, use step ladders safely and clean the toilet what hope have we really got?

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