You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

What and Where of Chinese Factory Riots Reported on Social Media, But What Of Why and Who?

BY Lisa Goldman | Thursday, September 27 2012

Earlier this week Foxconn, the huge China-based electronics manufacturer, was forced to close down for three days as a reported 2,000 workers rioted. Foxconn is probably best known to readers of the English language media for manufacturing iPhones and other Apple products. The Taiwanese-owned factory is notorious for its difficult working conditions; techPresident reported earlier this month that local academic colleges had been forcing students onto the assembly lines to compensate for a shortfall of workers needed to make the deadline for the launch of the iPhone 5.

There have also been reports of Foxconn assembly line employees committing suicide, although no evidence was reported of a direct link between the suicides and conditions in the factory.

Associated Press (AP) and the Chinese news outlet Xinhua reported the story, with the latter obliquely implying that the riots were sparked by a brawl between workers from different provinces &madash; perhaps an ethnic dispute? The Washington Post posits that it's unclear what started the riots, even as it links to a Reuters report that includes mention of posts on Sina Weibo by Foxconn workers who claimed that factory guards had beaten some of them almost to death. Again, Reuters notes that these reports could not be independently verified.

The New York Times's coverage is perhaps the most interesting, because staff reporter David Barboza notes in his lede that the story first broke on Chinese social media — but then tells David Brancaccio of Marketplace Tech Report that he does not like using social media in his stories unless he "really, really [has] to," because there is no way of corroborating the information.

Reporters can't take without corroboration the company's statement that the incident-which involved about 2000 people-- was started by a personal dispute and was not work-related. Barboza observes that it's tough to define personal and work issues when 79-thousand people work and live at a factory complex.

"They are like cities, like city-states," [Barboza] says. "And they have their own dormitories, their own banks, their own little restaurants, their own work sites. In the "city" of some of these facilities you may have the Dell building, the Apple building, and the Microsoft building and these are really conglomerates manufacturing conglomerates."

In his New York Times report about the riots at Foxconn, Barboza observes:

...analysts say worker unrest in China has grown more common because workers are more aware of their rights, and yet have few outlets to challenge or negotiate with their employers.

When they do, though, the results can be ugly and, because of social media and the Web, almost instantly transmitted to the world in their rawest and most unfiltered form.

A man who identified himself as a Foxconn employee told Barboza that he believed the riots had been sparked by a dispute between factory guards and employees, adding, “But I think the real reason is they were frustrated with life.”

In China the newspapers, radio and television are mostly state owned, with the government exercising significant control over reports. Social media platforms like Sina Weibo, the microblogging platform, are also controlled, but to a far lesser extent. In a recent article for techPresident, David Eaves writes that Chinese Internet analysts believe the government tolerates or even manipulates social media as a useful means of watching and controlling the population. In the case of Foxconn, it seems unlikely that the government leaked photos of rioting workers at the largest and probably best known factory in the country. But on the other hand, official controls on the brick-and-mortar media as well, as the culture of fear that prevents witnesses from speaking on the record, have combined to create a smokescreen around this story. Did the workers riot because they wanted better conditions, was there an ethnic dispute or a fight between guards and workers? Or were they just "frustrated with life?"

Social media has not supplied the answers, though it does raise the questions.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.