Navel-Gazing On China, Libertarian Style


If you picked up a Fairfax paper over the weekend you might have read the latest offering from the Institute of Public Affairs: a column from research fellow Chris Berg on Foxconn, the now-notorious Chinese electronics company whose workers have taken to throwing themselves off the roofs of its factories.

Berg’s regular column, this week entitled "Westerners consumed by tech toys wallow in misplaced guilt" is quickly becoming Fairfax’s equivalent of an elephant graveyard for facts, but it’s also a great example of the libertarian right’s cynical rhetoric on Chinese communism, which is something like P.J. O’Rourke’s preference for the Republican party: Both parties are crooks, but the Democrats do it for fun. At least the Republicans try and make a buck.

Berg’s argument is essentially this: activists have whipped Foxconn up into a morality tale about Western guilt and hubris, when what we should be doing is thanking the consumer electronics industry, globalisation and Foxconn for providing the jobs to lift Chinese workers out of poverty.

Moreover, the This American Life program on Foxconn was found to be fabricated. Workers in their factories actually covet the assembly line jobs to the point where they were voluntarily performing huge amounts of illegal overtime. As for Foxconn’s standards there have been some "OH&S incidents," Berg admits. "Certainly not everything is rosy in Foxconn plants. But then, not everything is rosy in the developing world. Our neurotic eagerness to blame ourselves does nothing to fix that."

God knows how many column inches the right wastes a year decrying political correctness but to bash labour activists over "self-absorbed moral sensibilities" while dismissing worker suicides as "OH&S incidents" surely takes the Orwellian cake for misuse of language.

Even the bare claim that this is a Western vanity project doesn’t stand up to the facts. The initial report on Foxconn worker suicides in 2010, written long before the now-retracted episode of This American Life event went to air, was compiled by Chinese universities. The report was extensive and drew evidence from 1800 Foxconn workers across 12 factories, concluding that the factories were akin to labour camps.

Other investigations have been conducted by Hong Kong-based Students Against Corporate Misbehavior and expatriate activists at Chinese Labor Watch, headquartered in New York. Given that the All-China Federation of Trade Unions is affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party and independent trade unions remain forbidden, external advocacy groups are one of the only ways workers may express grievances.

As for "voluntary" overtime, which Chinese workers apparently performed because "just as Australian workers sometimes want to work overtime, so too do Chinese workers," the New York Times reported that Foxconn workers felt coerced into extra work because unless they performed overtime when it was asked of them, they’d get none at all. Assembly-line workers in the factories are often rural nongmin labourers who travel to the cities to escape poverty and have no local family or opportunities for recreation. They work overtime because there is literally nothing else to do.

Labour conditions remain reprehensible even as the company raises pay in its Shenzen factories. Safety nets have been installed to prevent jumpers and workers have been made to sign contracts that exclude their families from taking legal action in the case of accidental death or suicide. Workers poisoned by n-hexane fumes (n-hexane is used to polish LCD screens) and disfigured in an explosion at Riteng in Shanghai have gone uncompensated.

So when Berg asks "is there anything more patronising than the assumption that choices made by people in the Third World are merely the result of unthinking exploitation from the West?" we should reply: "Perhaps not. But at any rate the Chinese and Taiwanese are doing a fine job of exploiting their own workers without our help, thanks very much!"

This is no small operation either. Foxconn employs over a million workers. It’s not just about Apple either — the Foxconn plants have probably had a hand in manufacturing any of the consumer electronics you have in your house. Nor is it just about the electronics industry — labour practices across rapidly-modernising China are abysmal. Any idea of an Apple boycott is pointless as a result, because doing so consistently would involve boycotting huge swathes of manufactured goods.

Obviously the West is not the only market for consumer electronics either. "Foreigners are morally autonomous human beings like us, with preferences and plans and intelligence. They know if they are being exploited. They know better than us their employment alternatives." Damn right they do. Nongmin workers know their employment alternatives are rural idiocy or the inner-city meat grinder. They know they’re being exploited, which is why earlier this year 150 of them threatened to jump together to their deaths, repeated by a further 200 Xbox assembly line workers in Wuhan.

It’s not like Berg doesn’t have sympathy for the plight of Chinese workers — as long as they’re being exploited by evil communists. In a review of Frank Dikötter’s "Mao’s Great Famine" he says "the great power of this book is in the stories of hunger, disease and violence taken from official records and occasionally, from survivors [of the Great Leap Forward]." The problem was Maoist ideology’s destruction of labour productivity and Western intellectuals’ ignorance of and therefore compliticty with Mao’s crimes. "The great love for Mao among Western intellectuals and the tendency of Western governments to ignore or excuse Maoist authoritarianism … leads one to the conclusion that Maoist sympathising Western intellectuals chose to ignore Mao’s atrocities in pursuit of his perceived ideological purity," Berg concludes.

To maintain that Labor productivity — the extraction of further rent in the form of profits from the only property the nongmin have, their bodies — is more important than asking serious questions about China’s modernisation is to fall into the same trap. One can almost imagine the lines cut from Berg’s column — "At least they’re not being liquidated. That’s what the commies would have done. They should be grateful."

As China grows into a first-rate superpower the West should, if it believes its own rhetoric on international human rights and liberalism, make attempts on a structural level to ensure its relationships with Chinese industry aren’t unduly exploitative. The Foxconn pay-rises show that reporting and legitimate NGO investigation can have an effect.

The alternative is that the IPA’s future detractors will write snide columns like Berg’s claiming he was blind to the excesses of Chinese growth, maybe quoting ironic Maoist classics back at him: "there is something ideologically wrong with you if you are afraid of [Foxconn] coercion."

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.