As if embodying the current state of labor exploitation, brand identity and the mutual strained embrace between China, the U.S. and Taiwan wasn't enough, now the controversy over conditions at Foxconn's iPod Nano factory has expanded to include the question of press freedom in China.
Bolstered by the Apple audit that found only minor infractions of Apple's "Code of Conduct," Foxconn decided to strike back. But it chose not to sue the U.K.'s Mail on Sunday, the original media venue that broke the story. Instead, the company has launched hostilities against a Shanghai business newspaper, First Financial Daily, and somehow convinced a Shenzhen court to agree to freeze the financial assets of two reporters. According to the invaluable EastWestSouthNorth, Foxconn was particularly annoyed at the newspaper's coining of a special phrase to describe FoxConn workers: "They work harder than mules; they eat worse than pigs; they rise earlier than roosters; they leave work later than 'young ladies'; they act more obedient than grandchildren; they look better than anyone else; they are older than anyone else after five years."
I suppose one can see why that would be aggravating, but Foxconn, a company few people outside the contract electronics manufacturing industry had heard about before the iPod story blew up, is not helping its international profile with its actions. The blogosphere instanteously unearthed a 2-year-old story recounting how Foxconn went after a Taiwanese journalist whose coverage displeased it. The pattern makes the story all the juicier, because it is entirely possible that both of the following are true: First Financial Daily got carried away in its reporting, and Foxconn is overreaching in attempting to quash unfavorable coverage.
The affair is quickly becoming a major cause célèbre in the mainland Chinese media universe. And well it should: The ability of the Chinese press to report freely on labor conditions at a Taiwan-run factory in China is a critical marker on the way to a truly open society. The crucial question is whether Chinese courts have the maturity to strike the right balance between protecting a vigorous press and compensating corporate interests for inaccurate or libelous reporting.
Of course, at the moment, using the words "maturity" and "Chinese courts" in the same sentence is laughable, as witnessed by the sentencing of blind human rights advocate Chen Guangcheng and the ongoing judicial harassment of New York Times researcher Zhao Yan. But I am strangely heartened by this latest clash. Seeing that Sina News has a special section today on Foxconn and the media, reading reporter Wang You's personal account of the debacle, and watching as the news of the entire brouhaha circulates across the Net faster than the speed of light, it seems self-evident that we are watching the growing pains of a civil society. This story is only beginning.