Steve Jobs, Demigod or Something Else?

Posted on November 11, 2011

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The Simplified Chinese translation of Steve Jobs, a biography of the late Apple CEO by Walter Isaacson, has been on the shelf in bookstores across China since October 24, the same day when its original English edition was available in the US. During the first week, 678,000 copies were sold in China, which almost doubled the 379,000 copies sold in the US. I did a search for the Chinese title of the book “乔布斯传” or “Jobs’ Biography” on Weibo today, and yielded more than 760,000 postings. Having flipped through a few pages of the search results on Weibo, I didn’t see a single posting that mentions the labor abuse in Apple’s Chinese suppliers. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a very short piece about Apple in China for The Nation magazine, which was published in its “Noted” section in the November 14, 2011 issue. The editor had cut my article short so that it could fit in the magazine’s tight real estate. Now I’m posting the longer version of it bellow. I think it’s still very much relevant.

Since October 6, on popular Chinese social media sites like Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) and kaixin001.com (a Chinese version of Facebook), a grainy smartphone photo has been widely shared. It shows chrysanthemum bouquets leaning against a glass wall, propping up black- and-white photos of Steve Jobs. In front of the flowers sit a dozen scattered apples, all missing a bite. The accompanying text reads, “Shanghai. Nanjing Road. Countless Apples. Mourning a Genius.”

The shrine was set up outside of an Apple store in Shanghai for the late former CEO of Apple Inc., Steve Jobs, and it is just one drop of Chinese Apple fans’ outpouring grief rarely seen in China. Within two weeks after his death, 93 million postings appeared on Jobs’s tribute page on Weibo, the most on any single subject in the most popular Chinese social media’s two-year history. “Your products changed the world and your thinking influenced a generation,” one posting reads, and countless awe-struck remarks like this are still circulating on the Internet weeks after Jobs’s death.

Without a doubt, China has caught Applemania. It is Apple’s second largest market behind the US and the fastest growing one. The members of its rising middle class are hunger for Apple products, and their appetite is huge. For the fiscal year ended September 24, Apple’s sales in China rose to $13 billion from $3 billion. As CEO Tim Cook said, “China—the sky’s the limit there.”

However, this appetite is not without a price, perhaps more so to Chinese workers who assemble Apple’s slick gadgets than anybody else. Since 2009, numerous reports such as “iSlave Behind the iPhone” by NGOs, activists and media have exposed the harsh working and living conditions for workers working for Apple’s suppliers in China. The most notorious among them is Foxconn, Apple’s largest contractor. In the first six months of 2010, thirteen Foxconn workers threw themselves out of the company’s tall buildings. The suicides happened so frequently that the company was nicknamed by Chinese netizens “suicide express.”

Foxconn is not the only Apple contractor that is extremely exploitive. According to a report by 36 environmental and activist groups, “The Other Side of Apple,” a number of Apple’s contractors have occupational safety issues, environmental protection issues and labor issues. One of the cases involved the use of a toxic chemical to clean the touch screens for Apple products that got many workers sick.

Apple, while making billions of dollars each year, has turned a blind eye to these issues. After the series suicides in Foxconn, Apple conducted an investigation under the public pressure. It concluded that there were “a number of areas of improvement,” and the ways in which Foxconn attempted to improve the situation were to put safety nets around its buildings, ask the worker to sign an agreement promising they will not commit suicide upon employment, and install care hotline for workers that does not work.

What’s sad is that the suicides and cases of abuses and health hazards all happened in Apple’s plants when Chinese Apple fans flock to the Apple stores for the newest iPhones and iPads. And while hipsters in Beijing sought after the $2000 iPhone 4GS on the gray market before its official release, the workers working for Apple’s suppliers may never be able to own any of the trendy gadgets they made. Making about $5 a day, a worker would have to spend about four months of her wages to buy an iPhone.

There is a stark difference between two worlds. While media and consumers hail Jobs for his “innovation” and “vision” in one world, they conveniently turn away from the real lives—not the abstract branding concepts—in another world, lives that have actually created Apple’s wealth.

But Applemania is not new. It is the quintessence of the old consumerism, now more than ever spreading across the globe. It is easier for us to hate Wal-Mart than Apple, because we adore iPhones and iPads and despise the “shoddy goods” that are “made in China,” although they are made in factories perhaps just miles away from each other. This fetish for Apple gadgets, here in the US and in China, is at the root of our double standards for corporate responsibility.

“Although every suicide is tragic, Foxconn’s rate is well below the China average (which is false). We are all over this,” Jobs wrote in an email in response to a Chinese Apple device user’s demand “Apple can do better!” This is hardly the same demigod worshiped by Apple fans in China, or anywhere. Or is it?

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Posted in: commentary, happening