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The Choreographed Global Journey of Your Household Products

A Glimpse into the Massive System Powering U.S.-China Trade

  • A welcome message in Chinese displays on the entry gate of a construction site run by China Harbour Engineering Company, in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest port city, 2017.
    A welcome message in Chinese displays on the entry gate of a construction site run by China Harbour Engineering Company, in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest port city, 2017.
  • Shenzhen government officials, California state officials, and officials from the Los Angeles Port Authority on an official tour of Port of Los Angeles terminals managed by Chinese state companies, San Pedro, California, 2017.
    Shenzhen government officials, California state officials, and officials from the Los Angeles Port Authority on an official tour of Port of Los Angeles terminals managed by Chinese state companies, San Pedro, California, 2017.
  • A China Communications Construction Company road construction site, between Entebbe International Airport and the city of Kampala, Uganda, 2017.
    A China Communications Construction Company road construction site, between Entebbe International Airport and the city of Kampala, Uganda, 2017.
  • A China Road and Bridge Corporation railway construction site, Nairobi, Kenya, 2017.
    A China Road and Bridge Corporation railway construction site, Nairobi, Kenya, 2017.
  • A Coca-Cola bottling plant, Hong Kong, 2016.
    A Coca-Cola bottling plant, Hong Kong, 2016.
  • A visitors display at a Coca-Cola bottling plant, Hong Kong, 2016.
    A visitors display at a Coca-Cola bottling plant, Hong Kong, 2016.
  • Cubbies for employees’ personal items at Foxconn, Shenzhen, China, 2016.
    Cubbies for employees’ personal items at Foxconn, Shenzhen, China, 2016.
  • A lunch facility at a printing house for major publishers, including Penguin and Disney, on the outskirts of Shenzhen, China, 2016.
    A lunch facility at a printing house for major publishers, including Penguin and Disney, on the outskirts of Shenzhen, China, 2016.
  • A printing house, on the outskirts of Shenzhen, China, 2016.
    A printing house, on the outskirts of Shenzhen, China, 2016.
  • The director of a textile factory that produces custom-made fabrics for brands including Zara and Victoria’s Secret, at the factory showroom, Humen town, Dongguan city, Guangdong province, China, 2016.
    The director of a textile factory that produces custom-made fabrics for brands including Zara and Victoria’s Secret, at the factory showroom, Humen town, Dongguan city, Guangdong province, China, 2016.
  • The entrance gate to a textile factory, Humen town, Dongguan city, Guangdong province, China, 2016.
    The entrance gate to a textile factory, Humen town, Dongguan city, Guangdong province, China, 2016.
  • A security guard at Foxconn, Shenzhen, China, 2016.
    A security guard at Foxconn, Shenzhen, China, 2016.
  • A leisure and recreation space for Foxconn employees, on the premises of the factory, Shenzhen, China, 2016
    A leisure and recreation space for Foxconn employees, on the premises of the factory, Shenzhen, China, 2016
  • Outside a group of textile factories, Humen town, Dongguan city, Guangdong province, China, 2016.
    Outside a group of textile factories, Humen town, Dongguan city, Guangdong province, China, 2016.
  • ATL Logistics Centre Hong Kong, at the Port of Hong Kong, 2016.
    ATL Logistics Centre Hong Kong, at the Port of Hong Kong, 2016.
  • Workers subcontracted from the Philippines, on deck maintenance duty aboard the Hatsu Crystal, sailing on a Mediterranean-Asia route, in the Indian Ocean, 2017.
    Workers subcontracted from the Philippines, on deck maintenance duty aboard the Hatsu Crystal, sailing on a Mediterranean-Asia route, in the Indian Ocean, 2017.
  • A container ship departs from the port of Hong Kong, 2016.
    A container ship departs from the port of Hong Kong, 2016.
  • A screen saver made by a four-year-old for his father’s work computer, inside the engine room of the Hatsu Crystal, en route to China, 2017.
    A screen saver made by a four-year-old for his father’s work computer, inside the engine room of the Hatsu Crystal, en route to China, 2017.
  • A Russian engine mechanic and workers subcontracted from the Philippines, aboard the Hatsu Crystal, on the way to a stop in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2017.
    A Russian engine mechanic and workers subcontracted from the Philippines, aboard the Hatsu Crystal, on the way to a stop in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2017.
  • Technical manuals and a company-provided calendar, aboard a Chinese-built container ship sailing on a circular route between Europe and Asia, 2016.
    Technical manuals and a company-provided calendar, aboard a Chinese-built container ship sailing on a circular route between Europe and Asia, 2016.
  • A marine traffic display on the bridge of a China-manufactured vessel on it’s way from the Mediterranean to Asia, the Suez canal, 2016.
    A marine traffic display on the bridge of a China-manufactured vessel on it’s way from the Mediterranean to Asia, the Suez canal, 2016.
  • View of the ocean floor from the 10th deck of a ship. At this height, the water would crash into the human body like a block of concrete.
    View of the ocean floor from the 10th deck of a ship. At this height, the water would crash into the human body like a block of concrete.
  • An employee on security watch aboard a Chinese-manufactured vessel, the Gulf of Aden, 2017.
    An employee on security watch aboard a Chinese-manufactured vessel, the Gulf of Aden, 2017.
  • A China Harbour Engineering Company construction site, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2017.
    A China Harbour Engineering Company construction site, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2017.
  • The Hong Kong Stock Exchange, 2016.
    The Hong Kong Stock Exchange, 2016.
  • A cellphone advertisement at a shop inside a Foxconn complex, Shenzhen, China, 2016.
    A cellphone advertisement at a shop inside a Foxconn complex, Shenzhen, China, 2016.

It is by now common knowledge that the United States and China are locked in a great trade battle, or even war, placing in jeopardy the jobs and businesses that depend on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of goods passing between the world’s two great economies each year. U.S. President Donald Trump has claimed Chinese trade policies have “ripped off” the United States, and in the latest round in the escalating dispute recently announced tariffs on an additional $200 billion worth of Chinese goods sold into the United States. Beijing has responded with new tariffs on $60 billion of American goods, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who just last year sought to claim the mantle of the world’s premier internationalist, is now extolling self-reliance. Leaders from the two sides are barely talking, and military tensions are rising in tandem.

Yet U.S.-China trade is not merely a political question; it exists within a massive system that has been built over decades, the accretive results of countless choices by governments, businesses, consumers, and workers. It is at once a heaving, Brobdingnagian mass of steel and plastic, and a finely choreographed dance among itinerant factory workers, a lonely Filipino crew at sea, and countless other human beings who have found themselves in what most closely resembles an undeclared state, one hiding in plain sight. Its very scope suggests it will not easily yield to political whims.

Russian-Danish photographer Mari Bastashevski set out to capture this system over a two-year journey that took her to the Port of Colombo in Sri Lanka, a Chinese-made container ship crossing the Pacific Ocean, a bottling plant in Hong Kong, a customs house in Piraeus, Greece, and elsewhere. Bastashevski’s project, she writes, “navigates through the complex, politically ambiguous, and often violent culture of logistics by which our common household products reach us.” And yet, her austere, frequently alienating images contain small moments of surprising humanity, even serenity. A Russian joins Filipino mechanics for a smoke; printing-house workers in Shenzhen beam during a break from their toil; Chinese and California state officials join together to gaze from the prow of a boat in San Pedro. Both beautiful and foreboding, Bastashevski’s work unmasks a world that each of us—perhaps without thinking or knowing—have already built together.

The Editors