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China's masses of production

Chinese factory workers

“Since 1979, when Deng Xiaoping unleashed capitalism on his vast but introverted nation,” the Financial Times noted recently, “China has conquered the world not with its armies but with its factories.” A legion of low-cost workers is driving the country’s staggering economic growth and transforming the global economy.

Hong Kong-based photographer Michael Wolf has spent the last 10 years documenting mainland China and its workers. Wolf aims to show the human presence behind the masses of Barbies, bobbleheads, and other made-in-China bric-a-brac that the world consumes each day--and to shine a light on the practices of the country’s industrial workplaces. Those factories are notorious for Dickensian conditions. But Wolf’s photos expose China’s other secrets of productivity, such as the heavy regimentation that marches employees onto the factory floor like an invading army with each new shift.

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The facility pictured here manufactures industrial air conditioners. “I was trying to capture the feeling of discipline and mass,” Wolf says. “This is a very successful, privately run company, and the CEO places great value on discipline and order.”

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