How Far Does the Apple Fall from the Tree? Ask Confucius

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Friday February 17, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Currently Apple Inc. and even the deceased Steve Jobs have come under criticism and fire because of the fact that several of Apple's products are being made at one of Foxconn's many factories in China; the factory in question is one that has grown notorious for a recent spate of suicides among its workers. Many are thus wondering and critiquing Apple's business practices. "Apple should be boycotted," shout some critics. "Apple needs to clean up its act," say others. They question how can such a modern company like Apple so callously profit from this seeming exploitation of workers. Yet while this questioning is going on, we also hear a completely different voice. Economic gurus continue to chant the mantra, "Run to China." Supposedly that is the prime place where the money can be made; factories there can churn out products at a faster rate; their workers are more pliant in meeting extreme deadlines, and China makes it easy to come and set up shop. Does no one see the contradictory cross-purposes developing here?

Look at it this way. Where should the questioning begin? Instead of simply castigating Apple perhaps deeper questions need to be raised. Are not the critics attacking the symptom instead of the cause? Instead of challenging Apple to clean up its act by pressuring Foxconn to have better working conditions, should Foxconn be the villain then? Is the problem because Foxconn offers the best rates? Or should critics go deeper and instead ask why is Foxconn in China in the first place? Foxconn followed the gurus' advice. It is there because China made it advantageous for Foxconn to be there. And if that is the case then why and how did China make it so advantageous? Is not this the avenue that needs to be explored?

A quick, down and dirty and simple answer is, China made it advantageous because it wanted to build its economy. China set its goals to be the "giant factory of the world." Nothing wrong with that in itself, unless one still goes deeper and asks is China becoming the factory of the world at the expense of its workers and citizens. Return then to Apple. Is Apple the primary one that should be blamed for not caring about those that make its products? Is it Apple that should pressure Foxconn to improve the working conditions in factories? Why is China standing by so idle?

Pursue a different direction in the questions. Start first with this. If China does not care about its citizens and invites and allows companies like Foxconn to set up such factories that exploit its citizens, why then should Apple or anyone else care? Put it in a further different but blunter way and examine this perspective. In addition to seeking to be the giant factory of the world, China is going to great expense to set up Confucian Institutes around that same world; it is setting up these institutes so that it can lay a questionable claim to be the questionable bearer of the Confucian mantle. Are the Confucian Institutes simply a front? Supposedly they are there to demonstrate commitment to centuries of Confucian values but an obvious question remains. Why does not China practice what it preaches? If it wants to lay claim to the mantle, why not start at home?

A strange logic is involved here; the symptoms are being blamed instead of the cause. The public blames Apple; Apple in turn tries to pass the buck to Foxconn. Foxconn says it is providing jobs. The workers can leave if they want. Others even try to say that the fault lay in the deceased Steve Jobs and the way he drove his company. Everyone is blamed except the government of China, the Politburo that has welcomed the many companies to set up their factories, sweat shops, whatever in China. In effect this government has said, "Set up your sweat shops, we have an endless supply of expendable workers. Those workers that die in the process, must do it for the good of the cause."

Is this meddling in the internal affairs of China? There is no question that companies have and continue to rush into China; their reason for going there remains basic; it is pure simple profit, a profit that can be reached because the factories in China have no problem with pushing their workers with longer shifts and overtime to meet deadlines that workers in other countries cannot meet. China's factories give a profit margin that businesses cannot refuse. They do this because China wants to dominate Asia. So then, should businesses feel obligated to protect the workers when the country that encourages and welcomes these businesses does not? What is the symptom and what is the cause? Is this a Confucian model?

Yet, as all this is going on, we even find some pundits that say companies should study and imitate the China (can we say Confucian?) model. Why study such a system? Why study a system when the symptoms are called upon to solve the problems of the cause? How far has the Apple or Foxconn fallen from the tree?