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“Should you feel guilty for buying your iPhone?” That was the question asked by CNN’s Steve Kovach. Kovach, as so many industry pundits have done, was reacting to the New York Times‘ recent exposé on working conditions at Foxconn, the company at the heart of China’s monstrous manufacturing center of Shenzhen.
The article recounts harrowing tales of overworked, overcrowded workers frequently killed by accidents and constantly threatened by environmental hazards. This should surprise no one. China has, for some time now, been a substantial military threat to the United States. China is also a nation of thieves whose citizens toil in gilded slave-labor camps in a mockery of capitalism.
For that matter, Apple (while it is only one of many electronics firms funding manufacturing in Shenzhen) is a heartless corporation. It should not be expected to be compassionate, but as companies go its culture is one of stern and thankless demand, squeezing from its employees every last ounce of effort while masquerading as a hipster symbol of nonconformity. Is it any wonder that when Apple and China get together, bad things happen?
Apple is so draconian in the enforcement of its security, in fact, that people have killed themselves over it. Last year, an employee of a Chinese electronics manufacturer, Foxconn, lost an iPhone prototype. Foxconn employees, fearful of Apple’s wrath and the loss of its business, searched the man’s home without legal authorization. They also subjected him to questioning so intense that it was, in fact, more like torture. Finally, when he could take it no more, he leapt to his death from the window of his own apartment.
Some have disputed the Times’ description of conditions at Foxconn. Others have breathlessly repeated the charges. CBS went so far as to repeat the wide-eyed condemnations of a performance artist who apparently stood outside the Foxconn factory asking passers-by if it was bad in there.
“Everyone I talked to worked 12-hour shifts, standard,” CBS quoted the performer, Mike Daisey, “and often much longer than that.”
Bolaji Ojo, editor in chief of EBN, dismissed succinctly this “handwringing” over Chinese labor conditions, calling it “hypocritical and misplaced.” All Westerners, he wrote, are “guilty of owning products manufactured under conditions most of us who live in the West would never accept.” He goes on:
China is the world’s manufacturing center not just because of the lower labor costs – so stop believing the hype – but also because Chinese manufacturers can get away with practices nobody would accept in the West.
What is odd about this new-found angst over Apple and other Chinese electronics, however, is that few of the people commenting on it are suggesting we do something about it. The debate seems to be over whether we should pause to feel bad before going back to Angry Birds or Facebook or streaming video or the occasional e-book. Why are we not questioning, instead, our thorough reliance for manufacturing on a totalitarian communist nation whose population and conventional military dwarf our own?
Does anyone remember that back in 2007, China used a missile to shoot down a satellite? This wasn’t about cleaning the space junk orbiting our planet; it was about sending a message to the rest of the world. That message was, “Make us angry and we will shoot down your satellites, because, you know, we can do that now.”
The Beijing Olympics are another good example of what China believes it has to prove to the world. It was very important to communist Chinese officials that Beijing get the Olympics. It was more important that the often third-world, backward and embarrassing conditions in Beijing be concealed from the eyes of the world during the Games.
The devastating pollution levels in Beijing were covered up through a combination of “luck and data manipulation,” according to Alex Pasternack. When a British newspaper alleged that no less than 10 workers died during Olympic construction projects, China’s State Administration of Work Safety insisted there had been no cover-up. A horrifying mine accident that could have embarrassed Beijing prior to the Olympics was covered up for almost three months; the Chinese state finally charged nearly 60 people to save face.
Then there was the hate crime dismissed by Chinese officials as a random act of violence. A “distraught unemployed ex-factory worker” stabbed Todd and Barbara Bachman, in-laws to the U.S. men’s volleyball team coach. The likelihood that the Bachman’s were targeted from anti-American sentiment was almost pre-emptively forgotten, especially in Chinese state media.
The Chinese aren’t our friends. They have their own interests in mind, and they are quick to lie, manipulate the media and rattle a billion sabers to force the Western world to take them seriously. They’ll also, on occasion, threaten Taiwan or take hostage the crew of American aircraft if it suits them, knowing full well that the United States will do nothing about it.
Yet if ever we are to achieve something like friendly relations with China, and if the Chinese nation is to become something more than a nicely appointed gulag where skilled labor is cheap, we must continue trading with the Chinese. Nations that trade with each other are reluctant to make war. National pride is a powerful thing. Money is much more powerful.
The Soviet Union may have collapsed because we outspent them in the Cold War arms race, but the first cracks in their foundation were made by Billy Joel and blue jeans. Cultural infiltration is the natural result of economic interaction.
The answer to the question, “Should we feel guilty about buying Chinese-made electronics,” is a resounding NO. We shouldn’t. We should instead view trade with China as the only alternative to war with China.
Business concerns will hasten the exchange of culture and, more importantly, personal regard. Every industrial revolution has its dark side. China’s continued economic growth is further marred by its totalitarian government’s need to control. The best hope all involved have for that to change is to continue buying and selling with one another.