600,000 Dead Chinese Workers

Chinese Factory - Robert Scoble The Consumerist is, according to a popular ranking, the #1 personal finance blog. I am not sure that it fits cleanly into the personal finance category but there is no denying that it is a monster in the blog world, linked to by 8,865 other sites. (For context, this blog has 89 inbound links.) I read it every day.

A post last Friday, written by the Consumerist’s managing editor, ~600,000 Chinese Die Making Our Shiny Toys caught my eye. To save you a click, here is pretty much all of it, links included.

Let’s expand our foreign language vocabulary! Can you say, "guolaosi"? It’s a Mandarin word meaning "death from overwork!" The word describes the phenomenon of Chinese workers falling dead on the spot as they toil in sub-Dickensian conditions so you can save a dollar on your next laptop!

China Daily, an English-language state-run publication, says an estimated 600,000 Chinese workers die each year in this fashion, sometimes falling "off their stools bleeding from the ears, nose and anus," as left-leaning mag The Nation reported in 2007.

A reasonable reader might assume that the first link was to a China Daily item explaining how guolaosi does in 600,000 hapless workers a year. I clicked on it to find, instead, an opinion piece from the UK newspaper The Independent.

That item, by one Johann Hari, is essentially a longer version of the Consumerist post, telling us that “We’ll never know the names of all the people who paid with their limbs, their lungs, or their lives for the goodies in my home and yours.” And, indeed, it tells us that “China Daily estimates that 600,000 people are killed this way every year, mostly making goods for us.”

But that is where the trail goes cold. There are no links in The Independent’s version of the story, nor was there a link in the version on Hari’s own website. I went to China Daily’s website and could not find anything about 600,000 annual deaths. In fact, a search for the term guolaosi returns no hits at all. Google was no help. I sent Hari an email asking for a citation two days ago. He has not yet replied.

I am not saying that Hari made up the 600,000 number, but it is pretty clear to me that somebody did. Because it is yet another example, and a pernicious one, of what I like to call numerical fiction.

To be clear, I do not know how many Chinese workers actually die from guolaosi each year. I doubt anybody does. Nevertheless, any thoughtful and appropriately jaded observer ought to be able to work out that 600,000 is at least several orders of magnitude too high.

I did manage to find another, even higher, estimate of the annual guolaosi toll. On the site of what appears to be far-left Indian organization (it also contains a large collection of 9/11 conspiracy theory reports) there is an article that tells us that “at least one million people in China currently die from overwork each year.”

But that same article lists six specific cases of death from overwork culled from Chinese media reports over three years. If it was a phenomenon so common, why would it be necessary to cite anecdotes going back several years? More to the point, if it was so common, why would the Chinese media consider a single case to be news?

Of course, there is, as far as I know, no such medical diagnosis as death from overwork. But in Japan it is recognized as a legal concept, that is, a person’s heart attack or stroke can be attributed to overwork, which entitles his survivors to compensation. Karoshi, as it is called, is considered a social problem that gets significant Japanese media attention. Yet the scale of the problem is four orders of magnitude lower than what is claimed for China. In 2007 147 Japanese deaths were attributed to karoshi. China is bigger than Japan, but not 4,000 times bigger.

As longtime readers of this blog will recall, Curmudgeon’s Law of Numerical Fiction says that in order for a non-factual number to be accepted as truth it must have three properties. 1) The number must reinforce previously held beliefs. 2) It must be remarkable, i.e. newsworthy, but not so extreme as to be utterly unbelievable. 3) There cannot be an organized body that would have the interest and wherewithal to correct it.

600,000 annual guolaosi deaths qualifies on all three counts. But it is the first one, that it feeds into what we already believe and assume, that is most damning.

Outside of East Asia, death from overwork seems to be utterly non-existent. Americans and Europeans never say that one of their own died that way. I think it is fairly clear that this is merely cultural difference in the way certain deaths are attributed. Some non-Asian young people kill themselves over work or school related stress and some non-Asian middle-aged professionals die of heart attacks on the job. But we do not call these cases of death from overwork.

Yet when we read stories of goulaosi or karoshi we do not say to ourselves that if it happened here we would not call it overwork. We accept the implication that this is something that could only happen to an Asian. Because only they are capable of the robotic dedication necessary to work themselves to death. 600,000 Chinese working until they drop every year? Sounds about right.

Which feeds into the inchoate ideology of the anti-globalist. Asking Americans to compete with Chinese workers is inherently unfair because the Chinese, for whatever reason, are willing to put up with sub-Dickensian conditions. It is not that we are losing a fair fight, they are winning because of unfair advantages.

Of course, the picture that gets painted is of Chinese factory workers as the victims of our own greed for shiny toys. If only we could bring ourselves to go without so many Chinese made things these poor people could stop working so hard in factories. Then they could return to the countryside and the idyllic peasant life they once knew. Because nobody ever heard of a Chinese peasant dying from overwork.

[Photo – Robert Scoble]

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