People power in China: A slideshow of human feats, feet-powered vehicles and mass action

Alex Pasternack

Alex Pasternack
Living / Culture
May 14, 2009

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Citing China's status as the world's number one emitter of greenhouse gases means nothing without reference to its population of 1.3 billion people. Any populace that large will mean a huge burden on the environment. But for centuries it has also meant an incredible source of renewable energy: human power underwritten by the ingenuity, fortitude and collectivism of the Chinese people. Since the collectivist spirit was codified as political ideology in the '50s, it has undergone significant transformation, and in China's new market-driven economy has begun yielding to a fierce individualism, in spite of government efforts to promote a "harmonious society" and Western fantasies of a "harmonious collective." There may be no better symbol of this than the growing penchant for the automobile as both a mode of transportation and a way of life.

Still, renewable people power is alive and well in China -- not just in the physical sense but, increasingly, in the political sense as well.

Despite a rash of closures due to shrinking demand and the global credit crisis, China's factories remain plentiful and packed full of people paid minimal wages to assemble everything from jackets to iPhones to cars by hand. To many, factory life can be an empowering alternative to village life, as Leslie Chang reminds us in Factory Girls. But the conditions can be grueling. The factory pictured here, which produces coffee makers and irons, relied on 21,000 resident employees when photographer Ed Burtynsky visited in 2005.

Edward Burtynsky. "Manufacturing #18, Cankun Factory, Zhangzhou, Fujian Province," 2005

Feasting Season