Walmart in China

• Edited by Anita Chan
• Cornell University Press
• RRP $49.95

What happens when the world’s largest organisation meets the world’s most populous country? It sounds like the script for blockbuster movie. In Walmart in China Anita Chan, research professor at the University of Technology’s China Research Centre in Sydney, has woven fascinating series of perspectives on the theme.
Chan divides the book into three main sections variously addressing Walmart’s supply chain, its outlet stores in China, and that oxymoronic concept of Walmart trade union.
The chapters are authored by different writers from wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives including both American and Chinese.
The end result is magnificently multi-faceted example of globalisation’s race to the bottom as Walmart’s drive to cut costs and squeeze schedules meets nation of suppliers keen to “enter the global market, make money and expand their horizons”.
Much has been written before of sweat shop labour in developing countries. Chan’s writers document the accusations and realities of “hazardous or unhealthy working conditions, forced overtime, long working hours, child labour, illegally low wages and abusive labour discipline” as suppliers endeavour to churn out product and make living in their attempts to be part of the giant Walmart supply chain.
As for the intriguing idea of whether Walmart can ‘Walmartise” China, or China successfully push back with its own insistence on Sinification, Chan’s book points out that the two cultures had much in common right from the get-go.
“Walmart culture bears the hallmark of rural American Bible Belt of the 1950s and preaches the virtues of frugality, self-cultivation, obedience and diligence… By happenstance… these share much in common with Maoist and Confucian teachings. The culture and methods of implementation are not that alien to the Chinese populace.”
Chan and fellow authors conclude that the higher the rank, the easier it is for Chinese employee to accept the Walmart culture: in part because it is their job to Walmartise people further down the line.
However these two cultures will continue to bed down together, Walmart in China makes for thought-provoking, if frequently disturbing, exploration.
– Ruth Le Pla

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