Buy an iPad, kill a Chinaman

The idea that our lust for Apple products is causing suicides is anti-capitalism of the lowest (and dumbest) variety.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Do you have an iPhone or iPad? If so, you are putting Chinese people’s lives at risk.

Your desire for smooth, sexy gadgets is forcing Chinese people to work in slave-labour conditions – as they assemble all the bits and pieces of various Apple products – and even pushing some of them over the edge towards suicide. This year there have been 12 suicides at Foxconn, the vast Taiwanese-owned company based in China that makes things for Apple, Nintendo, Microsoft, Dell and others, and as one American magazine brutally puts it under the headline ‘The iPad suicides’: ‘Should you blame yourself for all those deaths at the Chinese electronics factory? Yes.’

Only you shouldn’t, for a number of reasons. Firstly because even the very idea that there has been an unusual spate of suicides in one particular China-based company over the past year – an idea that has been splashed across the news media over the past couple of weeks – is highly questionable. Secondly because it is infantile anti-capitalism of the highest (or perhaps lowest) order to imagine that the consumer choices of Westerners have a direct, causal impact on the living standards of Easterners. And thirdly because this non-story is being driven by a pretty grotesque form of Western consumer guilt that you would be well advised to steer clear of.

For journalists who love nothing more than black-and-white morality tales, with greedy consumers in one corner and poor foreign people in the other, the timing was perfect: just as Steve Jobs’ iPad was launched in Britain, and an army of Nathan Barleys queued up to buy one, there were more revelations of more suicides at Foxconn. Since January, 12 individuals who work at the Foxconn factory in southern China have committed suicide, most of them by jumping off buildings, one after being verbally attacked by management for losing a prototype iPhone.

This has given rise to claims that the ‘i-stuff’ craze in the West and elsewhere – where everyone now wants an iPhone or iPad to make their lives easier and trendier – is directly causing hardship in the East. ‘The West’s desire for gadgets comes at an inhumane cost in China’, says one journalist. ‘Who died for your iPhone?’ says the headline in an online magazine. ‘Is a phone worth dying for?’ asks another. One writer suggests boycotting the iPad as a way of lifting Chinese people out of destitution and saving them from self-imposed death.

The problem with these arguments is that they are built on dodgy facts and even dodgier politics. It is just not accurate to say that there has been a particularly weird spate of suicides at Foxconn. It is worth bearing in mind that Foxconn’s Longhua factory employs somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 people (that is, it is more populous than the British cities of Nottingham, Belfast and Newcastle). And according to the most recent figures from the World Health Organisation, the suicide rate in China is 13 males and 14.8 females per 100,000 of the population. This means that, technically, it is rarer for a worker at Foxconn to commit suicide than it is for a Chinese person who doesn’t work at Foxconn: one might expect there to be somewhere between 39 and 52 suicides amongst Foxconn’s vast male and female workforce in Longhua over the course of the year, in keeping with the national average rate, or roughly 20 suicides in the five months of the year so far. There have been 12. As one of the very few critics of the ‘iPad suicides’ hysteria has pointed out, perhaps a little bit glibly, ‘Working at Foxconn dramatically reduces people’s risk of suicide!’

What is really driving the ‘iPad suicides’ story is the desire to create a cheap moralism in which the allegedly greedy behaviour of mainly Western consumers is held directly responsible for the living conditions of people ‘over there’. It is an updated, secular version of what Catholics used to say to children who didn’t eat their dinner or who demanded Nike trainers: ‘Think of the little black babies who have nothing…’

Just as that form of moral blackmail took an apolitical, ahistorical approach to matters of politics and economy – and was entirely ignorant about the nature of exploitation and what it represents – so the ‘iPad suicides’ story also lacks any understanding of real capitalist relations and instead reduces everything to an imaginary, moral relationship between Buyer and Maker, Greedy Westerner and Enslaved Easterner. It is ‘anti-capitalism’ reduced to a childish whimper.

Of course, pay and working conditions in many of China’s factories, including at Foxconn, are dire. Chinese people, who actually experience these conditions, are perfectly aware of this fact and there are a rising number of work-related protests (in response to protests, Foxconn has just increased wages by 30 per cent; Honda workers in China are currently demanding a 50 per cent pay rise). The condition of Chinese workers will not be helped one iota by the outpouring of iGuilt amongst hacks and activists in London, Paris and Washington. Indeed, the patronising message of their morality tale is not only that Westerners should learn to live with less, but that we should also help to save the poor little Chinese people by refusing to buy Steve Jobs’ evil products. It would be better to offer proper solidarity to those Chinese people who are struggling for better working conditions and to stop fantasising that buying an iPad will kill them and not buying one will save them.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Neil Davenport reviewed Paul Mason’s book on the new global working class. Daniel Ben-Ami described the attacks on Primark’s Indian factories as nauseatingly elitist and asked who’s afraid of economic growth?. Nathalie Rothschild looked at the rise and rise of the iPod loving, Tibet-supporting ‘white people’. Or read more at spiked issues China and Anti-capitalism.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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