Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Because we dislike Foxconn, should we relieve 900,000 people of their jobs?

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This is a tricky issue. Because on one hand, America needs jobs. But on the other, as this NY Times article currently making the rounds reported, "the iPhone in the United States would demand much more than hiring Americans -- it would require transforming the national and global economies."

The above video -- however funny -- is also yet another example of the always dumb "China Narrative," wherein Western press (in this case, CNN and the Telegraph, the two sources selectively quoted by Jon Stewart's comedy writers) seek to present stories in an "objective" fashion that happens to only cite facts (which are sometimes not facts) that make China look bad while ignoring anything that might suggest the Chinese government isn't all-bad. And it's a narrative that Evan Osnos deftly picks apart:

iPhone suicides, believe it or not, are not news to the Chinese. Nobody has done more aggressive reporting on the factory conditions at Foxconn than the Chinese press. Before foreigners noticed, newspapers in eastern and southern China were investigating the deaths of workers and Chinese bloggers were documenting more details about their daily lives than foreign visitors could hope to obtain. It’s one of those examples of how erratic the Chinese world of information is these days: the Chinese press is throttled on many issues, but when it concerns workplace conditions -- or, better yet, a factory with a boss in Taiwan -- the issue resonates with enough notes from old socialist hymns that it gets reported in astonishing detail.

Osnos quotes Nicholas Kristof in his post, and you should go to this link -- a transcript of a recent show from the excellent This American Life -- to read in full what Kristof has to say about sweatshops. Excerpt:

It's a very awkward thing to defend sweatshops, if you will. I mean, I think it's useful to be reminded about how grim the conditions are. But again, I just think that if you try to think how you can fight poverty most effectively, and what has fought it within China, then I think sweatshops are a key part of that answer.

Unfortunately, Kristof wasn't given as much time as Mike Daisey, one-man proprietor of the radio show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. As a follow-up to Kristof's comment, Daisey basically implies he wants American corporations to change Chinese laws. Anyone who's tried to do business in China is probably snorting right now.

By the way, here's what Daisey had to say about Foxconn's suicides:

And the biggest problem is that it isn't the quantity, it's the cluster. If there was any company in America where a sizable chunk of your workforce went up over a period of time, especially close to one another, and killed themselves in the same way very publicly, it would be an enormous news story because it's far outside the norm.

Problem No. 1: The comparison with an American company... huh? Shenzhen --> Houston?? There are no comparables except within the same country. As This American Life host Ira Glass notes, "Some people have pointed out that 12 suicides for 400,000 workers is actually much lower than China's suicide rate as a whole, as China has an unusually high suicide rate of 22 suicides per year per 100,000 people."

Problem No. 2: Daisey is simply wrong. See: Osnos excerpt, above.

But, again, the China Narrative demands that we acknowledge China is worse than the U.S. and that all the faults rest with the Chinese system. Something tells me it's Daisey's show and his sentiments that will get much wider play in America, and that a vast majority of people who listen to his show will think, Yeah, burn down Foxconn!

To those people, I have this to say: unfortunately, the world is the way it is. It's not the way bleeding hearts want it, and for that, we should all be sorry, we really should, but -- at the risk of repeating myself -- the world is the way it is, so that a 12-year-old child of an Anhui farmer who works 18 hours a day on the paddies might choose to seek employment in the big city to make four times as much as her parents at a company that draws the ire of the developed world. And what has the developed world ever given her? Never mind that American politicians don't give a shit about her, they only complain about their own country's jobs and the dollar-yuan exchange rate. That girl has a great story, and I applaud Mike Daisey for getting it and the hundred-plus other stories from Foxconn. I just fear that the China Narrative being the way it is -- much like the world is the way it is -- people will see the girl as merely a symbol of a "Communist regime."

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