Learning from Genghis Khan and the Qianlong Emperor

The Wall Street Journal's profile of Foxconn, Taiwan's manufacturing goliath, leaves out just one thing: The company's attitude toward the press.


Andrew Leonard
August 14, 2007 3:11AM (UTC)

How the World Works readers: Slap yourselves on the back. On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal published a long, Page One story profiling Terry Gou, the CEO and founder of Taiwan's behemoth contract electronics manufacturer Hon Hai Precision Co., also known as Foxconn. The headline: "The Forbidden City of Terry Gou: His complex in China turns out iPhones and PCs, powering the biggest exporter you've never heard of."

But, of course, Foxconn is no stranger hereabouts. How the World Works has posted on Foxconn five separate times, dating back to February 2006, when we considered the anomaly of a Taiwanese company setting up factories in Eastern Europe so as to be closer to Western European markets. We also followed with great interest the controversy over whether workers at Foxconn's huge complex in Longhua, China, were being mistreated, a foofaraw that caused Apple no shortage of embarrassment. One reader even chimed in to provide a personal account of visiting the Longhua factory town.

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Still there's no question that Jason Dean's story is by far the most comprehensive English language treatment of Gou and Foxconn yet published. In addition to some eye-opening statistics -- Foxconn now employs 270,000 people worldwide, raked in revenues of $40.6 billion last year, and has a market capitalization equal to that of its top 10 global rivals combined -- there's also some nice color. Chairman Gou "wears a beaded bracelet he got from a temple dedicated to Genghis Khan, the 13th-century Mongolian conqueror whom he calls a personal hero" and he doesn't want to repeat the mistakes of the Qing Dynasty's Qianlong Emperor, who ruled China for 60 years, but may have stuck around too long and planted the seeds of his empire's eventual decline.

There was one thing we missed in the story, however. Dean makes a brief reference to the blowback over worker conditions at Longhua, but doesn't include a whisper about how Foxconn, in cahoots with Chinese courts, retaliated against Chinese journalists who wrote stories about conditions at Longhua.

From How the World Works:

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."

Foxconn later backed down, perhaps after realizing that assuming the mantle of a global company requires at least a pretense of playing nice with the press. Maybe that's why, after five years of denying requests for an interview with Gou by the Wall Street Journal, the company finally complied.

We wish the Journal had seen fit to report on Foxconn's relationship with the media. In the not too distant future, Rupert Murdoch is going to be running the show, and his editorial treatment of Chinese-related topics has been suspect for decades. It would be nice to have a stronger benchmark to compare the pre- and post-Rupert Wall Street Journal.

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Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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