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story.lead_photo.caption Workers sort shoes at the Huajian Group factory near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Chinese company is touted in a China-backed film as spreading prosperity by hiring thousands of Ethiopians, but the workers paint a different picture.

SHANGHAI -- A Chinese company that manufactured Ivanka Trump shoes and has been accused of serious labor abuses is being celebrated in a blockbuster propaganda film for extending China's influence around the globe.

The state-backed documentary Amazing China portrays the Huajian Group as a beneficent force spreading prosperity -- in this case, by hiring thousands of Ethiopians at wages a fraction of what they'd have to pay in China. But in Ethiopia, Huajian workers told The Associated Press that they work without safety equipment for pay so low they can barely make ends meet.

"I'm left with nothing at the end of the month," said Ayelech Geletu, 21, who told the AP she earns a base monthly salary of about $51 at Huajian's factory in Lebu, outside Addis Ababa. "Plus, their treatment is bad. They shout at us whenever they want."

With epic cinematography, Amazing China -- produced by China Central Television and the state-owned China Film Group Co. Ltd. -- articulates a message of how China would like to be seen as it pursues President Xi Jinping's vision of a globally resurgent nation, against a reality that doesn't always measure up.

China's ruling Communist Party recently announced that it would take direct control of major broadcasters and assume regulatory power over everything from film and TV to books and news.

As the party deepens its ability to cultivate "unity of thought" among citizens, Amazing China demonstrates the scope of China's propaganda machine, which not only crafted a stirring documentary about China's renaissance under Xi but also helped manufacture an adoring audience for it.

The movie, which weaves together extraordinary feats of engineering and military, environmental and cultural achievements, hit theaters three days before China's rubber-stamp legislature convened to amend the constitution and allow Xi to potentially rule China for life.

The star -- duly noted by -- is Xi himself, who appears more than 30 times in the 90-minute film.

Amazing China presents Huajian as an inspiring example of China exporting the success of its own economic miracle by creating transformative jobs for thousands of poor Ethiopians and sharing China's knowledge, language and can-do discipline to build a new industrial foundation for Ethiopia's economy.

The company is celebrated as a model of the inclusiveness at the heart of a much larger project: Xi's signature One Belt One Road initiative, a plan to spread Chinese infrastructure and influence across dozens of countries so ambitious in scope that it's been compared to the U.S.-led Marshall Plan after World War II.

"In opening to the outside world, China's pursuit is not to only make our lives better, but to make the lives of others better," the narrator says.

In the film, Huajian Chairman Zhang Huarong stands before neat rows of Ethiopian workers singing a song about unity, describing himself as a father to his employees, who "like me very much."

But four current and former Huajian employees told the AP their wages were so low that they struggled to pay their bills. They said they had no protective gear, were forced to work 12 hours a day and participate in military-style physical drills, were not permitted to form a union and were regularly yelled at by their Chinese managers.

All that made it hard for them to relate to the inspirational video about Huajian circulated by mobile phone with its sweeping shots of a gleaming factory and a soundtrack that repeats in operatic Mandarin: "Huajian has come, Huajian has come ... holding the torch of hope."

"If someone complains, he will be accused of disturbing the workplace and will be fired right away," said Ebissa Gari, a 22-year-old who estimated he earns about $35 a month. "That's why we keep quiet and work no matter how much we are subdued."

Getahun Alemu, a 20-year-old who quit Huajian last year to continue his studies, complained of inadequate safety gear.

"There are chemicals that hurt our eyes and nose, and machines that cut our hands," he said. "They have no idea about hand gloves! If you refuse to work without that protective gear, then you will be told to leave the company."

Huajian declined the AP's requests for comment. Ivanka Trump's brand said it no longer does business with Huajian and "has always and continues to take supply chain integrity very seriously."

Huajian's investment in Ethiopia was part of a government-led industrialization drive. In the past few years, Ethiopia's leaders and business allies came under intense criticism, with more than 300 businesses attacked by protesters who saw them as bolstering a repressive regime.

These days, armed soldiers stand guard at the entrance to the Eastern Industrial Zone in Ethiopia's Oromia region, where Huajian opened its first factory.

Six years after the company's arrival, the dream of turning Ethiopia into a shoe-manufacturing hub remains unrealized, and few harbor illusions about the main incentive for Huajian's investment in a country where there is no legal minimum wage.

"These companies are moving out of Asia and coming to Africa to save labor costs," said Fitsum Arega, who recently stepped down as head of the Ethiopian Investment Commission to become an adviser to the new prime minister. He praised Huajian for employing more than 5,000 Ethiopians but said the company "could have done better."

"I'm not saying all employees are happy and there are no abuses here and there," Arega said, adding that the government pushes companies to protect workers. "There's a labor law which actually the companies say favors the employees."

Information for this article was contributed by Chris Hulme, Si Chen, Fu Ting and Shanshan Wang of The Associated Press.

Business on 05/03/2018

Print Headline: Documentary sings China's praises

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