China Initiative postdoctoral fellow Na Fu explores the shift from mass production to mass customization

China Initiative postdoctoral fellow Na Fu is documenting the political, social and personal costs of the shift from mass production to mass customization in the Pearl River Delta region of China.

China Initiative postdoctoral fellow Na Fu comes to the Watson Institute's China Initiative from the New School for Social Research where she completed her Ph.D. in comparative and global politics in the spring of 2023. At Watson, Fu is researching a topic some might consider pedestrian — shoes. More specifically, she is documenting the political and social effects of changing modes of production in Chinese shoe manufacturing.

Watson Institute and China Initiative director Edward Steinfeld praised her choice of subject, "Some people might say, 'Who cares about shoes, I want to study semiconductors,' but Na's work is important because it relates to something very basic that's used all over the world and is produced in globalized supply chains. And there have been big shifts in the way that's being done. We've moved from mass production toward mass customization."

Fu described the shift, "When you buy shoes at a shopping mall, under the mass production model, every part of the production process — from design to manufacture to distribution — happens before the buyer even sees the product. With mass customization, the pair of shoes made on the assembly line is destined for a specific owner who has already paid online. It generates a sense of ownership and creates the impression the shoes were made just for you."

Fu is studying the political, social and personal costs of this transformation as it pertains to shoe production in the Pearl River Delta (PRD). In conducting her research, she did 14 months of ethnographic fieldwork between 2018 and 2021 in factories and workshops across urban and rural regions of China, including time spent working on an assembly line in one of the factories.

Fu said the kind of factory needed to produce mass-customized products is very different from the mass-production model. "By following the one shoe model in production, there are about 160 steps involved in making a shoe," she said. "Under mass-production during the 1990s and 2000s in PRD region, most of those steps happened in one big factory with 20,000 workers or more. With mass-customization the factories are much smaller and fragmented across urban, urban village and rural regions, employing anywhere from 200 to less than 20 workers." These smaller factories and workshops provide flexibility for assembling the final product, often within 24 to 48 hours.

Another change is that more factories are being built in the rural parts of China today. "In the past,” said Fu, “people would leave rural areas to work in factories." But, because they require fewer workers, small custom factories can be built in less populated parts of the country, eliminating the need for workers to relocate. 

With this shift in production, the workers' relationship to the factory has also changed. "In my fieldwork, I talked to couples who worked for a Taiwanese factory for more than a decade between the 1990s and 2000s but decided to work as 'shared' labor starting in 2010." "This practice creates a lack of attachment between laborer and factory, where the worker gets paid daily and the couple often moves between workshops every couple of months," said Fu. "Today, more extreme cases happen with the younger generation, who can work one day at shoe production, produce an iPhone the next, and work as a delivery person the following day," she said. 

While this arrangement allows for greater flexibility, Fu says it comes at a cost.

"You can see a different mentality on the assembly line," she said, "People don't really talk to each other anymore, there is no sense of community." Job security is also lost. "The companies like having that flexibility, because they can tell the laborer to leave at any time."

“ It's really hard to see the impact this transformation has had on laborers. You see everyone working so hard and trying to make their lives better, but the reality is they are just part of the supply chain. ”

Na Fu China Initiative Postdoctoral Fellow

The work is also difficult and hazardous. "I was given one of the easiest jobs, putting buckles on shoes," Fu said. "And after three days my fingers were hurting very badly. I asked other workers about this and they said 'You'll get used to it.'" 

But Fu said the worst part of the job was dealing with the "very toxic" glue used to assemble the shoes. "The smell is really horrible and it's everywhere, you can't avoid it," she said. "And after about two weeks on the job, I realized that my hair was falling out. I lost a lot of hair." 

"It's really hard to see the impact this has on laborers. You see everyone working so hard and trying to make their lives better, but the reality is they are just part of the supply chain," she said.

Steinfeld had high praise for Fu's research, "What is impressive about Na's work is how she is examining something many people would view as nonpolitical as a window to understand how people relate to their society, and how production changes create changes to their identity and their politics."

While at Watson, Fu plans to turn the research she has done into a book and also wants to publish journal articles. "I want to tell this story and show how it's connected to a bigger story," she said. "I want to illustrate the networked hands making the shoes under the mass-customization model and, more importantly, how it is generating new discourses."