'I believe passionately in giving back and making a difference'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 November, 2010, 12:00am

'What I'd like to do is continue to write books that, even if it's only in some small way, change the way people think about the world.'

Re-read this quote from Alexandra Harney two or three times and allow the phrases to permeate. You should now know quite a lot about her, and not least that she is very good with words indeed.

If you still haven't identified the one word which distinguishes Harney from virtually everyone else you will ever meet, don't worry. You'll get there.

(The quote is taken from an impromptu phone call, not from a polished and professionally edited publication. Harney was in Tokyo, interspersing this interview with quick-fire exchanges in Japanese as she prepared for an appearance on a Japanese TV panel show; she is fluent in Putonghua and Japanese.)

Harney is in great demand right now. The reason is her first book, The China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage, in which she laid bare the truth behind manufacturing conditions for female migrant workers in the Pearl River Delta.

Her book was one of the first to raise serious questions about the behaviour and motivations not only of the large multinational corporations profiting from China's cheap labour, but also the consumers buying their 'Made In China' goods from Wal-Mart Stores while at the same time blaming the Chinese for closing their factories and taking their jobs.

Her efforts have led to her being presented with the Women of Influence Award for Young Achiever of the Year.

'The idea behind The China Price was to put a human face on Chinese workers for the rest of the world,' she says.

A native of Washington DC, a summa cum laude Princeton graduate and for nine years a political researcher and journalist with the Financial Times, Harney wrote about statistical and economic models for China, but always drew her narrative back to the stories and fates of individual women in the factories:

'I wanted to show my fellow Americans - and the rest of the world - that not only are we all connected, but we all share similar motives,' she says. 'My feeling coming from a policy background was that policy debates all too often lose sight of individuals - particularly individuals outside that country's borders. And I thought that there was a role for writers, not only in illuminating the faces of those people and what they are thinking, but also what was happening around them, the context of their lives on the ground.'

Her award came as something of a personal wake-up call, she says.

'I found that I had to re-evaluate what I was doing and ask myself seriously if I could be doing more to promote ... women in society.

'There are a myriad of issues to deal with, and some are systemic and institutionalised. We have to improve them, or at least work towards change. Laws on the books are one thing, but implementation of the law and provision of facilities that support women's opportunities are another.'

The China Price revealed the horrors of the duplicate factories, where inspectors from the multinationals' headquarters would be shown facilities and conditions that were in accordance with both law and contractual conditions for employment and return to base with glowing reports, while the real work was being carried out under dreadful conditions down the road.

The women who made it possible for her to uncover the information she needed remain her friends. She continues to visit them all.

In addition to a range of professional commitments, Harney commits a significant amount of her personal time to charitable works.

'I believe passionately in giving back', she says, 'and in making a difference.'

Her volunteer and charity work includes longtime support of the Half the Sky Foundation, which helps orphans on the mainland.

Since 2004, Harney has been mentor to a young woman migrant worker in Shenzhen. She is a volunteer for the Society for Community Organisation, an NGO in Hong Kong, tutoring young women to equip themselves to enter the workforce. She also mentors young journalists and scholars. Recently she was named a term member of the US Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

What sets her apart from most is her ability to assess any situation, person or project entirely on its, or their, own merits, and to seek a truth unburdened by the baggage of ego or empire-building. That, finally, is what makes that quote at the beginning of this article so revealing.

Read it again. They are the words of a person who is modest without being self-effacing, strong-willed without being willful, and moral without being didactic.

And the word that makes her different from all the rest of us? Continue. Most of us dream from time to time of changing the world. Alexandra Harney has done that already.

Judge's comments

Alexandra Harney, our Young Achiever of the Year, has devoted her career to promoting better understanding between the West and China, as well as between China and Japan. Not only is she the author of the best-seller The China Price, which has been eye-opening for many, she is also a highly influential person in politics and a teacher. She also takes the things she writes and talks about very personally: she supports the Half The Sky Foundation, is helping to build better orphanages, supporting female orphans in China and is fostering two little girls herself.

Ingrun Alsleben

Chairwoman of the Women of Influence Awards' judging panel