A policeman looks out from a balcony as the crowd is dispersed from the front of an Apple store in the Beijing district of Sanlitun January 13, 2012. REUTERS/David Gray
Why do American jobs end up in China? The supposed answer in an anecdote: the late Steve Jobs summons his senior lieutenants and holds up the iPhone prototype. It’s due to be shipped to stores in not much more than a month. He points out that the plastic screen has been scratched by his keys. “I won’t sell a product that gets scratched,” he says, according to a recent New York Times story. “I want a glass screen, and I want it perfect in six weeks.”
“After one executive left that meeting, he booked a flight to Shenzhen, China,” the Times reports. “If Mr. Jobs wanted perfect, there was nowhere else to go.” The next sequence reads like a montage in some 1920s film about industrial production. Within days, a Corning Glass plant in China is turning out big sheets of toughened glass, which are shipped to a nearby Chinese plant to be cut into iPhone panes. The small panes are trucked to a Foxconn factory complex eight hours away.
The first truckloads arrived in the dead of night, according to a former Apple executive. Managers rousted thousands of workers out of their beds, lined them up, gave each of them a biscuit and a cup of tea and launched them on a twelve-hour shift. In ninety-six hours, the plant was producing more than 10,000 iPhones a day. Within three months, Apple had sold 1 million of them; since then Foxconn has assembled more than 200 million. The suicide rate among its workers was, Jobs insisted, below the overall Chinese rate.
Of course, typical Times readers nod their heads. No, cohorts of American workers aren’t available to be kicked out of bed in their communal dorms and put to work in half an hour. There’s no China-subsidized factory space. And pulsing just below the surface of the text: no tiny, skillful Oriental fingers (“flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers”), not to mention tiny Oriental wages, for the uniformed assemblers.
When President Obama dined with the kings of Silicon Valley last year and asked, “Why can’t that work come home?” Jobs’s reply was “unambiguous”: “Those jobs aren’t coming back.”
In loyalties, Apple is spiritually offshore. “We sell iPhones in over a hundred countries,” an Apple executive told the Times. “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.”
It was the phrase about having no obligation that riled up Clyde Prestowitz, one of the US government’s top trade negotiators in the Reagan years. In an acrid posting on the Foreign Policy website and in a chat over the phone with me from his winter quarters in Maui, Prestowitz efficiently dismembered Apple’s “no obligation” pretensions and its rationale for why it and kindred companies had no alternative to offshoring.