I happened to move to Guangdong province the same summer as Tiananmen Square. My new home was far away from the protests, but shared Beijing’s compulsory poverty.
Mercifully everyone was getting richer, thanks to factories. A Nike factory opened that year, informing what would become an abiding, personal frustration with the anti-“sweatshop” movement. Back then, the movement seemed naively oblivious to the realities of everyday Chinese; today it seems more cruelly oblivious to the realities of everyday Americans. For 20 years now it has consistently cast Chinese laborers as victims, quantifying that victimhood by an arbitrary formula: How many hours of assembly line toil would be required to purchase whatever overpriced good they happened to be assembling?
But Chinese factories aren’t really sweatshops anymore — rather they’re some of the most sophisticated high-tech manufacturing plants in history. This is not because their workers assembled more and better sneakers every year. It is because China’s government, emulating that of Japan and Taiwan and Korea before it, subsidized industries that required rapid, constant change. And by doing that, China created a working class that is no longer so impoverished that it’s also powerless. Economic growth isn’t always pretty, but if you can legitimately make things better than they were for the majority of the population, it’s worth it.
Over two decades the quintessential Chinese factory worker has gone from earning $50 a month assembling $100 sneakers to $300 or so a month, depending on overtime, assembling $300 or so smartphones. If a Foxconn worker — given the other opportunities in life and the current no-cell-phone policy on the factory floor — was going to splurge on a smartphone, the only reason he wouldn’t buy an iPhone is that Apple products are inevitably a ripoff, which is the not-so-dirty secret of 31.5 percent operating margins.
Because when you work in a factory, brands lose a lot of mystique, as Chang demonstrates in Factory Girls when she experiences a mild panic attack after discovering, all at once, that a teenage subject’s beloved collection of Coach and LeSportsac handbags is not fake. The purse factory at which she works is actually a genuine, officially sanctioned Coach factory, and this is no big deal because she is friends with the security guards, who will let you take a bag out of the factory as long as you promise not to sell it to strangers.
Working at Foxconn is nothing like that. Surveillance cameras are ubiquitous; “military” protocols the sneaker factories abolished in the early nineties govern every little process; countless rules seem intended purely to subjugate; and security guards are friends with no one, as Sun Danyong learned when an iPhone prototype in his car went missing in the summer of 2009. Foxconn security searched, interrogated, and tortured Sun in episodes he described bitterly to friends. The more he thought about it, the angrier he became.
So he jumped out of his 12th-story window to protest the perverse pathology that values inanimate objects over the humans that make them. Nowhere in his final text messages or chat transcripts did he mention long hours or low wages. The first news reports focused on Foxconn’s draconian confidentiality and non-compete agreements; in ensuing interviews with the Hong Kong labor rights organization Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), workers focused mostly on military training, standing, and other practices they described as “nonsense.”
But the nonsense works better closer to home. Excerpts of Adam Lashinsky’s new exploration of Apple’s vaunted “culture of collaboration,” Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired–And Secretive–Company Really Works, detail a policy prohibiting employees from talking to one another about any topic about which both parties have not yet been officially “disclosed” — Distortionspeak for “cleared to discuss” — by a higher authority.
To be clear: Enforcing such a policy at a company that prides itself on collaboration is pretty much the textbook definition of “Orwellian.” It is also good for shareholder value and a practice that has stood the test of time: Forbidding workers from talking to one another keeps wages down, especially when senior management has struck deals with its rivals (as Apple allegedly did) agreeing to refrain from poaching one another’s talent.