Foxconned

What we can learn from Mike Daisey.


This week’s episode of This American Life, in which Rob Schmitz and Ira Glass carefully dismantle Mike Daisey’s testimony about conditions in Foxconn factories, so depressed me that afterward I felt as if I’d been thrown into a pot of melancholy and boiled over low heat. Hearing Daisey audibly wither under Glass’ questioning, trying to grope for justifications between long, awkward silences, it seemed to me that all this uncomfortableness could have been avoided by simply telling the truth.

We now know that Daisey fabricated certain details in his one-man show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, for the noble purpose of keeping media attention on factory conditions in China. To this end he appeared on television programs, op-ed pages, and, yes, “This American Life.”

Let me say now that although I appreciate artistic license and understand the virtue of employing falsehoods in the service of a greater truth, lying to media outlets that stake their reputation on journalistic accuracy is crossing a line. Why didn’t Daisey just say that he was an artist and not a journalist when this all began? Did he think the reality of the Chinese manufacturing industry was not shocking enough to pique the American public interest?

Factory workers are neither 12-year-old ingenues waiting to be saved nor world-weary workers waiting to commit suicide.

I think most of us who’ve lived in China a while, who are bombarded everyday with negative headlines and the latest anti-China rhetoric, just want reporting on China to be fair. China is neither heaven nor hell. Factory workers are neither 12-year-old ingenues waiting to be saved nor world-weary workers waiting to commit suicide. They are human beings, with complex reasons for working at an industrial campus that sits on a square mile and employs hundreds of thousands of people—an industrial campus that itself exists for complex reasons.

The main problems with reporting on China, and the views they engender, is lack of depth and lack of context. If you’re trying to help a situation, you should probably understand it first. Otherwise you end up with things like the Great Leap Forward. Sure, people like Mike Daisey and Jason Russell of KONY 2012 fame can succeed in drumming up attention for an issue, and there’s a certain value in that, but by not offering a full and nuanced picture of the situation, they might end up doing more harm than good.

Thankfully, in the third part of the episode, Glass talks with Charles Duhigg, who wrote a series for the New York Times on Foxconn, who offers the context for the messy morality of Chinese manufacturing.

Most people would blanch at the thought of working a 12-hour assembly line shift, not to mention back-to-back 12-hour shifts, but Duhigg points out that long shifts are precisely what some workers want. However, others feel coerced into doing it. Most people would blanch at living in a cramped dorm room with 12 or 20 other people but (and this is my personal addendum) Chinese college dorm rooms regularly fit six or eight students.

Duhigg then makes a critical point that everyone who talks about China should keep in mind (emphasis mine):

I do not think that you would find any factory in America where you would find those same conditions and you would not find any Americans who would tolerate those conditions. That being said, I think that China is a little bit different and that the expectations, particularly as a developing nation of workers, are a little bit different. I don’t think holding them to American standards is precisely the right way to look at the situation.

This is the crux of the problem. Though Americans wouldn’t tolerate those conditions in their own factories, they are content to tolerate them in Chinese factories. Indeed, many Chinese are content to do the same. One of the greatest ironies in this globalized world is the rabid Chinese consumption of Apple products which one segment of the population makes for almost nothing and another segment of the population buys for hundreds of dollars in markup.

Most of us are perfectly able to swipe and tap and drag our touchscreens without a care as to which factory tempered the glass, which workers assembled the phone, and what solvents were used to clean the screen.

The sad fact is: factory conditions aren’t harsh because the issue isn’t getting enough media attention—factories conditions are harsh because most of us are perfectly content to let someone else live a hard life as long as it isn’t anyone we care about. Most of us are perfectly able to swipe and tap and drag our touchscreens without a care as to which factory tempered the glass, which workers assembled the phone, and what solvents were used to clean the screen.

But Duhigg is right. Too often Americans judge others by their own standards, a habit encouraged by reports that fail to properly contextualize their facts. The issues go beyond “we need to help them” or “why can’t they be more like us?” Duhigg points out that factory conditions are harsh behind the profit margins at the manufacturing end are so small, and yet Apple succeeds in making hundreds of dollars in profit off each phone. Who is the real enemy here?

If you truly oppose poor working conditions, then you should demand that Apple demands more from its suppliers. As Duhigg puts it:

If Apple demanded x and said, “we’re willing to fire you if we don’t get” then x would happen immediately.

If you truly oppose poor working conditions, then you should be willing to stop buying the products and supporting the companies that contribute to them. You can’t lament poor working conditions, then in the same breath complain that the iPhone is too expensive. Duhigg again:

It’s not my job to tell you whether you should feel bad or not…

Do you feel comfortable knowing that iPhones and iPads and other products could be manufactured in less harsh conditions, but that these harsh conditions perpetuate because of an economy that you are supporting with your dollars?

You’re not only the direct beneficiary [of those harsh conditions]; you are actually one of the reasons why it exists. If you made different choices, if you demanded different conditions, if you demanded that other people enjoy the same work protections that you yourself enjoy, then, then those conditions would be different overseas.

We are all implicated, though we might not feel like it. Call it the banality of consumerism. But we are also empowered because in the end it’s up to us and the choices we make.

If there is a silver lining to this whole incident, it’s that Americans might not be so quick to believe everything they hear about China in the future. Mike Daisey’s embellishments are now national news but there are many smaller though no less damaging elisions or, to use Daisey’s phrase, “shortcuts” that occur in the media everyday. I’ve written about a few in the past, in particular the New York Times piece that implied the Chinese government was monitoring phone calls (which was also debunked by a journalist willing to do some simple fact-checking).

They say people learn lessons from being tricked. Maybe this instance will allow Americans to glimpse some of the complexities behind Chinese society. Maybe they will begin to see that China is like everywhere else, neither heaven nor hell, but just a kind of restless purgatory. If that’s the real lesson we learn from Mike Daisey, I can support that.