By Anthony James, Staff Writer
Mike Daisey doesn’t claim to be an expert on China. The writer and actor has stated publicly that he doesn’t have extensive knowledge of Chinese customs or culture. But Mike is a Mac Head, a self-proclaimed aficionado of Apple products. In his one man show: The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Mike recalls his trip to China, visiting the factories that make his beloved gadgets, and recounting the first hand accounts of poor labor practices.
The principle factory he visits in the show was the well-known Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China. Most Americans would remember Foxconn from a few years ago when a story broke over western news that the factory installed net to decrease a rash of suicides that occurred by its workers that year. In Mike’s show, he builds an emotional story of how he met numerous Foxconn workers and illegal union workers; hundreds that were underage; poisoned by handling N-hexane; and crippled from putting together iPods and iPads. In minutes, he paints a picture of how one of the most profitable companies in the world, Apple, allows abysmal labor practices to continue in China all the while hoping the oblivious consumer never finds out.
Daisey, a talented and well-known theatre performer, quickly found traction with his one-man show. After his performance was broadcast over NPR’s “This American Life”, it became the series’ most popular episode. The performances were sold out across the country, the script has been downloaded thousands of times for others to freely use in their own productions. To many critics it was easy to see why Mike’s monologue was so popular; it was skillfully written and performed to evoke pathos. In it lied the premonition that though he only caught a glimpse of factory life in China, such atrocities were normal practice for workers.
It was after the show’s popularity that the NPR decided to look closer into Daisey’s facts, and with little digging it soon became clear to “This American Life” producers that major falsities were imbedded within the story. Though many of these fabrications or exaggerations seem a bit trivial, they don’t live up to journalistic standards as being factual. Aside from embellishing numbers in order to authenticate his experience, falsifications found seemed to exploit major stereotypes of Chinese people—fabrications that usually are hard to spot unless reads up on Chinese culture or actually visits China:
In his monologue Mike admits that he exaggerated his claim to the number of illegal union workers he spoke with and the amount of factories he visited. What was thought to be 25 to 30 workers was more like 2 to 5. Factories visited, which originally was 10 was more like 5.
Mike claims there were armed security guards at the factories. Any visitor to China would know only military personnel are lawfully armed.
Mike claims that he spoke with workers who were poisoned by N-hexane. He admits now that he never met such a person in Shenzhen.
Mike claims he saw dorm rooms where the workers lived and met workers with repetitive motion injuries. His interpreter denies either of these events occurred.
Mike claims that he talked to 12-, 13-, and 14-year-olds who were working at the Foxconn factories. His interpreter denies that any of them were that young.
One might find that listening to Mike Daisey being confronted with each of these discrepancies on national radio might be tad difficult. Each request for clarification was met with a long silence; for one who graces the stage with such style and finesse, Mike struggled to find an answer that neither condemned his actions nor lacked dishonesty. In the media reports that followed he was quick to claim that though he took artistic liberty in forming his story, there are real truths to what his performance is based upon. Many journalists and experts in China agree with this statement, but without some sort of disclaimer at the beginning of Mike Daisey’s show the honesty of his monologue quickly becomes clouded by his steady carelessness with facts.
One thing that could garnered from the show and eventual upheaval, it got a lot of people to reexamine what was really true about China. There are labor malpractices that have been exposed in China, but some, which might seem very common, are actually rare events. In an audit Apple conducted in 2010, they found 10 facilities where 91 underage workers were hired. This might seem like a significant number, but is quite small compared to the hundreds of thousands of workers employed. There was an isolated incident reported in 2009 of factory workers who were exposed to N-hexane. This did not occur at Foxconn and was not in Shenzhen. This is not to say there are not grueling conditions that the workers face every day. In an investigative series by Charles Duhiggs of the New York Times, translators talked to hundreds of workers who noted that there are continual 12 hour shifts, backless chairs or assembly work that is done while the building is being constructed. There are also reports of workers living 12 to 30 in a single apartment.
In conclusion Duhiggs noted to NPR that, no, Chinese factory workers do not share the same working and labor standards as U.S. workers, but to hold the current situation in China to U.S. practices is not exactly the right way to look at the issue. There are cultural and economic factors that are in play within the situation, and while it is important to create awareness of what is going on, having a man who neither understands Chinese labor practices nor Chinese culture help other Americans form opinions on China might not be very beneficial for either side.
Daisey’s whole premise is to reveal a worldview that unless American consumers do something, China’s factory workers will suffer from our constant demand for cell phones and iPads. Business experts don’t quite agree with that viewpoint. Yes, it is important to understand how one’s buying practices can have a positive or negative effect on those living in less developed parts of the world. But to form some sort of opinion without garnering the complete truth would prove harmful in knowing how to act. There are illegal practices and workers who are marginalized by some factories in China, but while the government and Chinese activists have made serious headway, stories that make their way to the United States usually focus on the most heart-wrenching incidents; incidents which occur very rarely. While there are many who are continually fighting in China for labor and consumer rights, the Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Job’s reductive story-telling jades a very complex situation.