If 4,000 people go on strike at an iPhone factory in China, will anybody know it? That’s the question at the heart of an ongoing puzzle over whether, in fact, iPhone 5 production was shut down by a labor action in the northern Chinese city of Zhengzhou on Friday.
For most of the world, the news broke on Oct. 5 when China Labor Watch, an influential New York-based workers’ rights group issued a press release claiming a strike had occurred at a plant producing iPhone 5s that “according to workers, involved three to four thousand production workers.”
News organizations worldwide, eager for anything iPhone-related, rushed to report the press release, and by the end of the weekend the event was international news, with some analysts going so far to blame the alleged strike for a 2.21 percent decline in Apple’s stock price on Monday.
As the story grew, journalists and bloggers who tried to confirm the event found themselves forced to rely on China Labor Watch’s word. Meanwhile, Foxconn, Apple’s primary contractor and the owner of the factory where the alleged strike occurred, denied that anything more than several isolated incidents between workers and quality control personnel had occurred and insisted that iPhone 5 production would not be delayed.
The lack of additional information is highly unusual: In contemporary China, it’s the rare brawl that isn’t recorded by somebody’s smartphone, while large-scale unrest is either accompanied or followed by a virtual data dump of accounts, photos and films. To be sure, Foxconn restricts the ability of its employees to carry phones into factories, but there’s no question that many Foxconn employees not only have smartphones (a brief perusal of Foxconn employees who tweet to Sina Weibo proves it), but also use them.
A search for the origins of China Labor Watch’s report reveals that at least one person recorded the Oct. 5 events. His real name is unknown, but on Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblogging service, he goes by the handle Ye Fudao -- a name that can be roughly translated as “The Wild Husband’s Cleaver.” His brief Weibo profile describes him as a second-generation migrant laborer originally from Hubei province who works at Foxconn. He does not attract much interest: As of Wednesday afternoon he had a mere 767 followers.
In the 15 months that Ye has been tweeting to Sina Weibo, he’s shown a talent for unearthing information and images from worker unrest at both the Foxconn Zhengzhou plant and the company’s equally large factory at Taiyuan (which also manufactures Apple products). Even a perfunctory reading of his tweets suggests somebody who, if not a Foxconn employee himself, is definitely aware of the frustrations of being one. On Sept. 28, a few days before a national eight-day holiday that Foxconn workers in Zhengzhou were not given (rather, they worked overtime for triple pay), he tweeted:
It was an early and prophetic warning that quality problems with the iPhone -- and the measures to deal with them -- were ratcheting up tensions in the Foxconn Zhengzhou plant. A few days later, on Oct. 5, some of that tension allegedly broke. At 9:52 a.m., Ye tweeted from his ZTE smartphone:
At 8:26 p.m. that evening, Ye tweeted a grainy photo of what appears to be a line-up of Foxconn workers waiting at a bus stop. Ye didn’t appear concerned that the photo would be connected to his alias: Like all photos posted to Sina Weibo, his account address is printed in the lower right-hand corner. Below the image was the following text:
Ye’s two tweets from Oct. 5 have since been retweeted 332 and 216 times, respectively. That’s a big number by Ye’s modest standards, but almost comically modest by Sina Weibo standards, and certainly not the kind of interest that drives international headlines and moves stock prices. Then again, most Sina Weibo users don’t gain the attention of U.S.-based labor-rights organizations with tremendous credibility in the media.
On Oct.5, after the second of Ye’s tweets, China Labor Watch issued its press release, with the headline, “3000 to 4000 workers strike at Foxconn’s China factory.” Ye’s photo of workers gathered at a bus stop was atop the release. China Labor Watch blacked out Ye’s contact details from the lower right-hand of the photo, though added a caption below the photo reading, “Ye Fudao/worker for Foxconn ZhengZhou.”
Even a cursory reading of the press release suggests that Ye’s contribution to it -- willing or unwilling -- extended beyond the photo. In fact, the third paragraph of the four-paragraph press release appears to have come directly from Ye’s 8:26 p.m. tweet. However, rather than credit Ye and his tweet for the information, China Labor Watch appends “according to workers” to the front of it, leaving the very distinct impression that the information was culled from multiple sources. The third paragraph, as translated by China Labor Watch, reads:
These are not the only similarities between Ye’s tweets and China Labor Watch’s press release. The second paragraph bears striking similarities to Ye’s 9:52 a.m. tweet. The first paragraph of the four-paragraph press release merely summarizes the information in the other three, while adding that 3,000 to 4,000 workers allegedly participated in the strike.
Predictably, the English-language news reports -- some of which conceded that the strike could not be confirmed -- quickly bounced into the Chinese news media, which was then at the tail-end of an eight-day holiday and thus not in much mind to do independent reporting.
As a result, in China, too, the early reports of the strike were largely reported off the China Labor Watch press release (some Chinese media later reported other accounts, some sourced directly from Foxconn), or sourced to “foreign media.” For example, a strike-related story posted to the Sina Finance portal turns out to be just a soft re-write, followed by a mention of an earlier strike. A Sina Weibo tweet directing readers to the story has been forwarded -- that is, retweeted -- more than 7,500 times since Saturday morning. Nobody seems to have noted the obvious similarities between Ye’s tweets and China Labor Watch’s press release, or the credibility issues that they raise.
Yesterday, I reached out to Li Qiang of China Labor Watch to obtain their side of the story. Li explained to me that the organization had other sources for its information in the press release while conceding that China Labor Watch used Ye’s tweets (with Ye’s authorization, Li noted). He defended attribution of “workers” to Ye’s words in an email:
By “Pinyin of the username,” Li is referring to the Romanization of Ye Fudao in the photo credit at the top of the press release. But if Ye Fudao can be credited for taking a photo, why could he not also be credited with writing much of China Labor Watch’s press release? In his emails to me, Li mentioned the need to protect Ye from those who might fire him. That’s certainly reasonable, but if that’s the goal then it seems logical to remove his name from the photo credit. My own suspicion, unconfirmed, is that Li and China Labor Watch are quite aware that news organizations are far more likely to quote a press release written by rights group with multiple sources in China than they are to cite a tweet from an anonymous microblogger in China with fewer than 800 followers.
Finally, I asked Li to explain the methods or source for China Labor Watch’s contention that 3,000 to 4,000 workers went on strike at Foxconn. This was the one major point in the press release on which Ye had not commented. Li Qiang’s answer -- noting a discrepancy between people “absent from work” versus “at strike” -- that the number “was confirmed several times from our first-hand information” was not particularly illuminating. He also referred me to a confusing Oct. 8 update to the original press release in which China Labor Watch appears to claim that the number includes workers who were unable to continue working due to the work-stoppage actions of others.
In any event, my attempts to reach Ye have been unsuccessful. On Wednesday morning, he abruptly announced on Sina Weibo that he’s no longer updating his account. He didn’t say why. However, over the last couple of days Ye has been quite clear that he’s unhappy with the news coverage born from his tweets, and perhaps that fact lends a hint. Early on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 6, he denounced those in the press who had exaggerated the Foxconn Zhengzhou incident, and those who would compare it to a more recent, violent episode at the Foxconn Taiyuan facility:
That evening he logged into his account to vent his frustration with the coverage a second time:
So, what really happened? Foxconn denies outright that there was a strike, instead claiming that its factory suffered a series of confrontations between production and quality control staff. Ye’s limited account of what happened seems to lend more credibility to the company than to China Labor Watch’s release.
In the end, the fact that such a poorly sourced story has become a major news event tells us much more about how Foxconn and Apple are covered in the press than they do about conditions in the factories. Neither company should be viewed as a victim, but neither should their critics be granted a waiver on having to prove the truth of their claims.
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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