Did Chinese iPhone 5 workers really go on strike? Probably not.

Late Friday, news broke on several wire services that Chinese workers had engaged in a massive strike at a Foxconn manufacturing plant in Zhengzhou, China. The source of the story was a press release issued by China Labor Watch, a New York-based labor right organization. Over the weekend I made the decision that I would write about the strike for my weekly column at Bloomberg View, and my assistant and I began searching for additional details about the incident. By Sunday, however, we’d failed to dig up much at all – especially on China’s microblogs, which tend to be a useful repository of information on labor unrest.

The absence of information is often the best information, and in this case the lack of corroborating information on a strike involving – allegedly – as many as 4000 people raised my suspicions. Those suspicions resulted in some serious online investigating, a dash of frustration and my latest for Bloomberg View,  “Did Chinese iPhone Workers Really Go On Strike?” For me, doing that piece was an education in how news is made – even when, as in this case, it’s not news.

What Henry Blodget Didn’t Get About Foxconn

On Friday, China Labor Watch, a New York-based NGO that claims to be “dedicated to promoting workers’ fair redistribution of wealth under globalization,” announced that a “large-scale strike” had shut down a Foxconn factory that manufactures the iPhone 5. The group didn’t cite its sources for the story, but that didn’t stop several major news organizations (the credulous Reuters report was syndicated across multiple platforms) from parroting the press release, often verbatim. It was also picked up by several notable bloggers and commentators, including Henry Blodget, co-founder, CEO, and editor of The Business Insider. Below, a screen grab of Blodget’s Friday afternoon editorial.

On first glance, the photo is the perfect complement to the headline: young Asian women in red sashes marching through a factory zone. If they can’t stop iPhone 5 production, nobody can!

But now, let’s take a closer look at that photo (you can click to the original, here). I’ve blown it up and grabbed a representative sample, below.

Two things to note in this photo. First off, the characters on the red sashes very clearly spell out 奇美電子- Chimei Electronics, a company better known as Chimei Innolux, one of the world’s largest flat panel manufacturers. Now, as it happens, Foxconn is a major shareholder in Chimei Innolux, and it partners with Chi Mei to manufacture touch-screens. But Chi Mei is not Foxconn, and thus the above photo does not show Foxconn employees.

Second, those who read the China Labor Watch press release will note that it describes a work stoppage. Now compare that to the photo: these girls are smiling, walking in lock-step, and wearing red sashes. Nobody is wearing a Foxconn uniform (for a sense of what those look like, see Rob Schimitz’s film taken in the Foxconn Longhua facility a few months ago), or any other kind of worker uniform. Rather, they’re in their civilian clothes, and they appear to be engaging in a kind of parade. Is it a parade in support of Chimei Electronics? Maybe, but admittedly I have no idea.

But here’s the thing: Henry Blodget, or whomever he employs as a photo editor, did have an idea. And that idea, as tweeted by my friend Abe Sauer (who pointed out the photo and headline to me in the first place), goes a little something like this: “group of Asian people all walking in unison = protest action.” It’s not an uncommon way of thinking about China, and Asia, especially among commentators and correspondents with little to no experience interacting with Chinese workers. Nonetheless, common or not, you’d hope that organizations and individuals who aspire to some kind of role in commentating about China and its labor situation would have the good sense if not the dignity to avoid gross stereotypes (based on skin color, no less) and generalizations in their pontificating.

[UPDATE: I was just asked who took the photo in question. Answer: I don't know. Blodget/BI didn't run a photo credit.]

[UPDATE 2: Then there's the matter of the image that China Labor Watch posted with its press release announcing the strike - and which has been widely reproduced (for example, at PC World and Engadget). That image is below, credited - on China Labor Watch's website - to "Ye Fedao/worker for Foxconn Zhengzhou."

Does this image strike anyone as depicting a strike or work stoppage? In it, workers appear to be lined up and awaiting something. Note the girl in the foreground idly checking her phone. What is she and the others waiting for so patiently? A bus to the factory? A bus to the dorms? Whatever it is, there's little evidence in this photo to suggest that she and others are waiting for a strike. But that didn't stop China Labor Watch and others from running the grainy image. They, like Blodget, appear to be under the impression that when groups of Asian laborers gather, they must be protesting. The truth is far more normal than that - unless, of course, you insist on viewing China's factory workers as a perpetually persecuted class just waiting for a chance to rise up. But this has never been true, and is even less true now, as amply documented in several recent stories, of which Marketplace's series, End of the Great Migration, is one of the best.

In any event, over at Forbes, Tim Worstall has done a nice job breaking down the media flubs on what's increasingly looking like a non-strike, non-story. Way to go, China Labor Watch. For a more nuanced, and humanizing view of Chinese factory workers, see Leslie Chang's fine essay on the subject that ran last week on CNN.]

[UPDATE 3: Stan Abrams at China Hearsay just posted an excellent run-down and wrap-up of the confused coverage of the non-strike. Well worth reading, here. China Labor Watch, it seems, has much to answer for in this debacle.]

[UPDATE 4 - 12 hours after first post:  Henry Blodget has now replaced the Chimei photo with ... the China Labor Watch photo that ran with the press release. That is not progress.]