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.

Junkyard Planet

This just in: I’ve turned in the manuscript to my first book, Junkyard Planet, to Bloomsbury Press.

It’s a first-person account of the globalizing waste and recycling industry, from the wilds of Fort Wayne, Indiana, to the grimy scrap boomtowns of south China. We’ll laugh, we’ll cry, we’ll visit the machine that recovers most of the change that falls out of US pockets and into the spaces between the cushions of your car (oh yes). But there’s more! We’ll meet some of the men who invented the giant machines that shred old automobiles into fist-sized chunks (and hang out at the giant machines that shred old automobiles into fist-sized chunks); and we’ll follow a couple of e-scrap traders into some of the most notorious so-called dumping zones in the world and find out what’s really going on with your old computers  (it’s not even close to what you’ve been told).

Along the way, we’ll get up close and personal with the Chinese tycoons who recognized value in what rich countries throw away, bought it, processed it, and re-sold it back to those rich countries as new products. And we’ll also meet the people who do this work, not because it’s forced upon them, but because – in every country and every place – the collection and recycling of somebody else’s unwanted stuff is often the only route out of poverty, and into a business of one’s own. As just one example – I’ll introduce you to a remarkable dump grubber who started fighting for a living in the trash heaps at age 9, and today runs one of the world’s largest recycling businesses. Those dumps, however, weren’t located in Mumbai, Manilla, or Rio de Janeiro; rather, they were located in the heart of the American Midwest – the heart of what some folks call “The Saudi Arabia of Scrap.”

Junkyard Planet will be released by Bloomsbury Press next year. Below, the tentative Table of Contents as I turned it in last week.


Over the coming weeks and months, I’m going to be re-starting the blog, with a renewed focus on photos, videos, and other extras from Junkyard Planet. I’ll also be editorializing a bit, defending a much-maligned and misunderstood industry. More soon!

Offline until JULY 8

For the next month, give or take, I’ll be in a secure, undisclosed location finishing a book for Bloomsbury Press about the globalization of the recycling and waste trade. By design, I’ll have sporadic access to email, so if you contact me please understand if I don’t get back to you right away. But I will get back to you.

If you’re interested in getting a taste of the book, you might take a look at my December article for the Atlantic on the Chinese town that recycles American Christmas tree lights. The book will include a much longer, and more detailed version of that piece. See y’all in a month.


Why are new Samsung and HP computer parts being dumped in Guiyu? Follow the bar codes …

Several months ago I had the opportunity to travel to the notorious southern Chinese e-waste recycling hub of Guiyu. It was an interesting visit during which it became apparent that many assumptions currently held about e-waste processing in China are no longer current. Of these, perhaps the most important is the blanket assumption that foreign e-waste is the primary cause and driver of Guiyu’s – and China’s – continued role as a global e-waste hub. By and large, that’s no longer the case.

Reporting that I did in Guiyu, and elsewhere, indicates that fully half of the e-waste currently being processed in China is generated in China. American and European e-wastes, meanwhile, are a declining percentage of the overall level of waste being processed in the area, while Southeast Asian e-waste – specifically from Thailand and Malaysia – becoming the fastest growing contributor. Continue reading

Harmonious Families Inspire Class Warfare

Here in Shanghai, we are finally putting some distance between us and the concluded Chinese New Year. But, in microblogging terms, it feels to me like there’s still a bit of a holiday hangover. Only in the last two days, with all kinds of interesting political news, does one get the sense that things are back to normal in the wild world of Weibo. My Bloomberg World View column for this week reaches back into the Chinese New Year period, however, to a story that I was eager to write since I first heard about it, and – due to some slow news days – received the chance. It concerns the considerable online heat that was generated when Beijing’s leading women’s group modified the criteria it uses for naming model families, to include items that, well, cost a lot of money. Like going on vacation. Or owning 300 books. You can find the piece at Bloomberg World View.

And a quick note on World View. There are five of us World View columnists, each of us doing a weekly piece on issues typically flying beneath the radar of other foreign correspondents in our respective regions. And there’s some absolutely fabulous stuff being written on the site. Two pieces, in particular, from the last week, stick out for me. Why not give them a look?

  • A Bewildering Online Hit, Now Brazil’s Biggest Star,” by Dom Phillips, World View’s columnist in Saõ Paulo, might be the funniest thing I’ve read in 2012 (so far). It concerns a young reality star, Luiza, who is in Canada … well, you just have to read it.
  • India’s Top Newspapers Battle for Hearts and Souls,” by Chandrahas Choudhury, World View’s Columnist in Delhi, is a brilliant and very funny explication of the differences between India’s two most venerable newspapers. It should be noted that Choudhury, a novelist, writes his column with a literary flair to which others (like me) can only aspire.

A lot of thought and work goes into these columns, and I think the above two really prove it. I hope you’ll have a look.

If O.J. Simpson Confessed in Chinese … sort of.

If contemporary China had a national martyr, it would’ve been Peng Yu. In 2006 he was stepping off a Nanjing bus when he saw an old woman had fallen to the ground. While others passed her by, Peng not only helped her up, he took her to the hospital and even paid her bill. In thanks, the old woman sued him for injuries sustained when he allegedly knocked her to the ground. The story became a media sensation, and in the years following, Peng Yu’s name was always the first to be uttered when strangers failed to come to the aid of an injured stranger in China. Hundreds if not thousands of articles have been written about the case and the phenomenon.

And now, they’re all going to have to be revised. Because, on Monday, Peng Yu confessed to knocking over that old woman, after all.

It’s hard to overestimate the shock value packed into that revelation. But I do my best to distill it in this week’s column over at Bloomberg View, “China’s Infamous Good Samaritan Case Gets a New Ending.” I hope you’ll take a look.

And, if I don’t get around to saying it next week, best wishes to all of my readers in the Year of the Dragon. My sense is that it’s going to be a good one.

At Shanghai Scrap, we speak, we read.

I’m very excited to announce that I am participating in the Innovation Policy Summit at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. This is a first for me (both visiting and participating), and I have to think that – among the 100,000+ attendees – I must know somebody. So, if you’re there, look me up. I’m participating in the “Product Refurbishment and Reuse in the Developing World: What is its Current and Future Role in the CE Industry?” panel on Thursday, at 15:00, in LVCC, North Hall N264. Among other topics, I’m going to offer a more nuanced view of Guiyu, China’s notorious electronics recycling town, and its role in the global re-use and refurbishment industry, than what’s typically presented in the media. The other panelists, including my pal Robin Ingenthron of Good Point Recycling in Vermont, are definitely worth hearing. Below, used, recovered microprocessors for sale at Guiyu’s electronics market (of the sort that I’ll be discussing).

In other news … allow me to offer the strongest possible Shanghai Scrap recommendation for James Palmer’s outstanding, just-published “Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao’s China.” It’s a beautifully written account of a) what it was like to live in a small Chinese city at the end of Mao’s reign; b) Mao’s court politics; c) how the Tangshan earthquake served as a catalyst (among others) to end Maoist excesses; e) an extraordinary and moving account of the quake and its aftermath. This is history, and it’s instructive. My highest recommendation.