Apple's China Comes Home to Haunt Us
Four decades ago Richard Nixon, a once famously hawkish Republican president, cut a deal with the Communist overlords of China to reshape the world. The result was a transformation of the global economy in ways that we are only now, with the sharp critiques of Apple’s China operation, beginning to fully comprehend.
At the heart of the deal was a rejection of the basic moral claim of both egalitarian socialism and free market capitalism, the rival ideologies of the Cold War, to empower the individual as the center of decision-making. Instead, the fate of the citizen would come to be determined by an alliance between huge multinational corporations and government elites with scant reference to the needs of ordinary working folk.
It was understood by both parties to this grand concord that monopoly capitalism could be constructed in China to be consistent with the continuance in power of a Communist hierarchy, just as in the West capitalism was consistent with the enrichment of an ostensibly democratic ruling class. Sharp income inequality, the bane of genuine reform movements bearing the names populist, socialist and democratic, came to be the defining mark of the new international order.
The current controversy over Apple’s treatment of its 700,000 foreign workers, mostly in China, is a manifestation of that cross-ideological betrayal. The ironies are manifest. Not the least of which is that businessmen from Taiwan, the bastion of anti-Communist Chinese during the Cold War and still the pretend reason for a U.S. military presence in the region, are the essential organizers of mainland China’s workforce. But in the pursuit of profit, and at a time when the startling success of China’s hybrid communist-capitalist model keeps the U.S. Treasury afloat, few questions are asked.
Indeed, the pressure is now on to better emulate that model within the United States, to keep still more jobs from being shipped abroad. The human rights concerns of the U.S. have by now been opportunistically tailored to exclude any serious concern about the rights of workers to organize unions to make their job conditions more humane. China’s labor practices are now to be admired rather than scorned, lest the American economy decline further in the new world order.
As The New York Times pointed out last month in its devastating overview of Apple’s shift from its once proud claim of making its products in the USA to near total dependence on China: “It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.”
Parse that language to find the excuse to run roughshod over environmental protections, workers’ rights and occupational safety standards in order to allow “flexibility” at the massive Foxconn and other plants in China where robotic work is performed by humans under conditions that even Apple has conceded in an internal audit are unacceptable under modern industrial standards.
In reality the multinational corporations prefer China’s state-sponsored model of capitalism, which assures them an endless supply of docile workers unprotected by those pesky unions and restrictive government regulations. As Steve Jobs told President Obama last year, “Those jobs aren’t coming back.” The reason that Jobs supplied in his 2011 approved biography is that the Chinese government is so wonderfully acquiescent to the development plans of foreign corporations. Not as in the U.S., where, Jobs claimed, “regulations and unnecessary costs” make it difficult for companies to operate. That the result of China’s deregulation is poisoned air, worker suicide and a massive waste of resources is deemed to be beside the point.
Oddly enough, Jobs, who succeeded in business without attending more than part of a single college semester, also blamed a U.S. educational system “crippled by union work rules” for what he proclaimed to be the sorry state of our domestic labor force. One of the basic human rights being violated by the Chinese government is that of workers to organize unions responsive to their needs; rather, they are at the mercy of phony organizations tolerated by the Communist government. It is sad, and not encouraging, that Jobs endorsed a blatantly anti-union position by claiming that until the teachers’ unions were broken, there would be almost no hope for education reform.
Considering the workforce employed by Apple, one has to question what sort of properly trained graduates Jobs had in mind. If the habits required of Apple’s workforce in China are to be emulated, the U.S. military, or perhaps our outsized prison system, should become the essential schooling system for American workers to better compete with the properly disciplined assemblers of iPhones in China.