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Social Media: The Overlooked Critical Infrastructure of Chinese Manufacturing

It is no doubt that social media has a hold on people around the world, but it has an especially mesmerizing effect on the factory workers of China’s migrant manufacturing towns.  In a number of formerly rural communities, China has set up large manufacturing towns which have begun to fill with migrants from the countryside seeking a new life working in factories.  China still relies heavily on manual labor and have found it is cheaper to maintain large workforces of laborers than it is to automate factories.  Dismal living conditions lead these workers to escape to an online life where they can express themselves openly.  Any loss of this ability, or any degradation of it, could have significantly negative effects on Chinese manufacturing and in turn their economy.

In these towns, life is controlled by the factories they work for.  The factories that the migrants work for provide for most aspects of their lives. Manufacturers give their workers a place to live and, in many cases, provide their employees’ food through canteens set up in the factories.  Privacy is nearly non-existent and talking openly about your hopes–or things that give you hope–can often lead to ridicule by one’s coworkers.

Living conditions here are cramped and afford little, if any, privacy. Employees often share not only the majority of their living space, but beds as well.  Typically four to eight people will share a room, with 10 to 12 rooms per floor, and only one communal bathroom per floor.  These rooms and their every aspect are tightly controlled by the employer. Something so simple as when lights are able to be turned on is under purview of the company.  The workers only have enough space to keep their personal belongings under their bed or on a small table near their bed. Taking all of these factors into consideration, it is no wonder these workers have found that the only privacy that they may have and the only space they can truly express themselves is online.

To add to the discomfort, many of these workers routinely work 10 to 12 hours a day with very few breaks, all of which are limited greatly in their duration.  If a worker wants to use the bathroom, they must ask permission from their supervisor before doing so.  Even with something as simple as a bathroom break, employees must be careful not to take too long or they risk having their pay docked for missing too much work. All of this while working in factories which typically have very little natural light and strong chemical vapors filling the air.

Many of these workers have come from the countryside looking to join modern China and to have a good life. Many of these migrants they find that good life by escaping online into a cyber world where they can feel closer to achieving their hopes and dreams. The primary location for their self-expression is on the Chinese social media app QQ.  Because these workers have such limited space and privacy, they rely heavily on smart phones for access to the outside world and spend a great deal of their wages on acquiring the best phone that they can.



QQ is similar to Facebook in many aspects. It allows these migrant workers to immerse themselves in a world of their own where they will share photos of places that make them happy; change the look of the profile to reflect themselves; play games; share music that makes them feel good; and read and share articles about career advice, reaching your goals, and emotions.  They call these articles “Chicken Soup for the Soul” after the popular U.S. book series.  In general, QQ allows them to create a world of self-respect where they can create the world that they can only wish to live in offline.

They use this “Chicken Soup for the Soul” to help themselves stay motivated and escape their day-to-day lives.  These articles help keep their hopes and dreams alive.  Interestingly, they will not discuss these sorts of things openly with their coworkers or on phone calls home to their relatives. Most conversations revolve around how much money they have been able to save, if they are able to find a better paying job, if they can find a way to help a relative to find a job, or if their children were accepted into the local schools.  The majority of their offline conversations focus heavily on how to survive, not on their aspirations or what they enjoy.  Discussing the lives that they hope for or their aspirations outside of this online world is considered weird and is essentially socially unacceptable.

Living and working in such dismal conditions is a tough life. Many workers have said that the best way to keep up with the workload is to not think too much throughout the day. Thinking too much can become distracting and cause their hands to slow down and productivity to fall.  This can lead to a worker’s pay being docked for not producing at an acceptable rate.  Some have even described life in these migrant manufacturing towns as unbearable.

If these workers were to lose access to social media, it could cause significant damage to the Chinese manufacturing industry.  Migrant workers’ overreliance on social media to enable personal expression and remind themselves of their goals has become a risk to their society.  Losing the ability to escape to this online world would mean losing their only space for expressing themselves, the ability to talk about their feelings and dreams, and–ultimately–their individual identity.

If a cyber attack were to cripple these online escapes for Chinese factory workers, it would likely lead to a monumental decrease to their moral.  Eventually, this could allow the unbearable nature of their living condition and situation to sink in, leading to grave depression.  This depression would be exceedingly noticeable in their work and the overall production output of these major manufacturing towns.

The focus of many security experts around the world has been on the crippling effects of cyber attacks and cyber warfare on critical infrastructure such as the energy grid or financial sector.

Ruin for a nation can come in many forms, quickly through something like a crippling blow to the energy grid, or a slow attack which is designed to slowly break a strong adversary.  A significant amount of China’s economy is supported through the manufacturing industry.  This industry doesn’t just effect the Chinese economy; many developed nations around the world rely on Chinese manufacturing for their goods.

Demoralizing the workers that drive the machine that is Chinese manufacturing would mean a crippling decrease in production.  This loss of production would likely lead to harsh repercussions on workers, leading to their lives being even more unbearable than with the loss of social media and their escape to their virtual world.  This loss would most likely have a ripple effect, its far-reaching effects causing devastation to the economies around the world.