Chinese Bloggers on the FoxConn Affair

FoxConn, so you finally don't want to be the Wang Cheng "Who Dares To Shoot At me"?  By 十年砍柴 ("Ten Years Chopping Wood").  August 31, 2006.

(in translation)

Taiwan Hon Hai's fully-owned FoxConn demanded damage compensation of 30 million RMB from two First Financial Daily (=China Business News) reporters and went through the litigation process to freeze the private assets of the two reporters.  When the news came out, the criticisms came in like the tide.  I declined all requests from the media to say something about it.  First, it was because I felt that I would only say what others have already said and I have nothing new to say.  Secondly, and this is most important, I judged that this legal case will finish as a farce.

As expected, before too long, in the face of universal condemnation by public opinion, the charging FoxConn reduced its requested damage amount from 30 million RMB to 1 RMB.  The difference was so huge.  Why did FoxConn change so fast?  I am not a member of the decision-making team in that company, so I would not know.  But this seemingly laughable turnaround proved at least that it was a mistake for FoxConn to ask for an inflated amount in the hope that it would intimidate the mainland media which have been dogging it.

In its detailed operation, FoxConn was precise in its calculations and its decision-makers are also familiar with conditions in China -- the daily pressure on the lives of Chinese reporters; the complicated relationship between media and government; the concern that local governments give to "large corporations"; the subservience of the judicial system to the local authorities; etc.  But they were not aware about the higher level, and that would be one word: Politics.

Anyone who knows something about Chinese society today knows that most people are not worried about minor problems and they are not afraid of major problems.  They are only afraid of problems that are neither too little or too big.  If FoxConn sued First Financial Daily and its reporters to demand an apology and a few hundred thousand RMB, this would be a minor news item.  There would not be such a storm and FoxConn can probably win the lawsuit using its capabilities.  But FoxConn was obviously aiming for more.  They did not want to just win a simple defamation case, but they want to use shock-and-awe power to thoroughly destroy the other side so that all other media that have reported on its labor problems will stop hereafter.

But they forgot a piece of commonsense: A lion can handle a lamb, but it may not know how to handle an ant.  Compared to 30 million RMB, the assets of the two reporters are a pittance.  When you push someone into destitution, what is there left to be afraid of?  If you ask for 200,000 RMB in damages, you can make Weng and Wang worry.  If you ask for 30 million RMB, you can only provide them with a tragic stance.  As FoxConn hoped to use the assault on the two small reporters to intimidate the entire media industry, then it would be useless to deny it and continue to claim that this was just a straightforward legal case.  Nobody is stupid enough to believe you and it is no exaggeration to say that was a challenge to the entire field of journalism.

Besides, mainland China and Taiwan are not the same.  Two years ago, FoxConn did the same thing in Taiwan.  Although Commercial Times reporter Joyce Kuang was not ruined, the two sides compromised and FoxConn did not lose anything.  Compared to China, Taiwan has a more developed civic society, less inequality of wealth, more freedom of press and a more credible judiciary.  Thus, Hon Hai's lawsuit against Joyce Kuang was a plausible use of the right to sue for the purpose of assaulting a weaker party and the public found it easier to understand why.  It was the journalists' association in Taiwan that stood up for Kuang because her colleagues have the same sense of vulnerability.  Thus, the affair was not bundled together with other social emotions.

But in mainland China, FoxConn is like Wang Cheng in <<Heroic Men and Women>> calling out "Shoot at me!" in order to actively direct all the various forms of social discontent towards it.  FoxConn's act brings up all the citizens' emotional issues in mainland China.  Thus, the company of Taiwan's richest man was described as "blood and sweat factory" and so he went through the court in the place where he invested to bypass the newspaper and directly freeze the assets of the reporters.  This affair has at least the following hot spots: division by wealth; the right of the grassroots workers to exist; the space for press; fairness of the judicial system and the cross-strait relationships.  You look at this -- which one of these is not a fatal political problem?

The various Internet discussions and analyses that emerged when this affair came to light included: discussions about the dismal state of press environment in the mainland; suspicions about the corruption of the Chinese judiciary for colluding with businesses; calls for attention on the living conditions of the grassroots laborers; the unjust treatment of Chinese people by Taiwan investors and managers ... a 30 million RMB lawsuit seems to have included all the hot problems in the mainland, and FoxConn voluntarily became the outlet for the release of all the feelings of disenchantment.  Once the matter reached this stage, the two small reporters had nothing to worry about.  Once the matter became too big, it iwas beyond anybody's control regardless of the fact that FoxConn is a corporate group with huge resources.  Once the matter blew up, it snowballed without limits, even spilling outside of China.  There was not way for the Chinese authorities, who look for stability above all else, will let a public issue expand without limits.  At that time, whether the news reports were balanced or whether the judiciary has been fair are unimportant.  The most important thing is "political correctness."

Against political correctness are the employment opportunities provided by FoxConn and the interests of the local government.  I do not think that it is difficult to say which is more significant.  I believe that FoxConn backed off in time because they observed the powerful public opinion and recognized the various citizens' feelings behind, as well as the various possibilities if this affair were allowed to continue.  As brave and tough as the boss Terry Guo (nicknamed Genghis Khan) is, he probably does not have the confidence in certain victory in this complicated situation.  Getting too close to the authorities is a double-edged sword, and you live or die by it.  Boss Guo is a descendant of business people and he must understand this from the fates of some of the business people who had been immensely rich during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

When FoxConn backed off in time by changing 30 million RMB to 1 RMB, it is thinking about morally changing the one-sided tilt in public opinion.  Hopefully, this affair will make the Genghis Khan of business understand that even he cannot endure all the weights.  No matter how awesome you are, you cannot hope to fill up the North Sea with the Tai Mountain.

I missed the FoxConn affair and I'm very mad.  Lian Yue's Eighth Continent.  September 1, 2006.

(in translation)

Based upon my instinct, the FoxConn subject was about to be banned any minute.  Therefore, I turned in my article very early on Thursday.  At the same time, I turned down an invitation to write for the NetEase Technology section.  But the article did not appear as scheduled on Friday.  Today, the Central XXX Department issued an order to ban further discussion of the FoxConn affair.  So the article was dead.  As a commentator, the slowness of the editor caused me to be totally missing in action on this affair.  Although I still feel good about the Southern Metropolis Daily's Commentary Department overall, I am so angry this time that I don't even know what to say ...

Here is the article which should have appeared.

<<First Financial Daily>> was sued to the extreme.  By Lian Yue.

FoxConn subsidiary Hongfujin made a demand of 30 million RMB in compensation against two First Financial Daily reporters for damaging its reputation, and also asked the relevant court to freeze the personal assets of the two reporters, Weng Bao and Wang You.  On August 30, Hongfujin made a public statement to say that it has asked the Shenzhen intermediate court to cancel the freezing of the assets of the First Financial Daily reporters.  At the same time, it named First Financial Daily as a co-defendant and also changed the amount of damages from 30 million RMB to a symbolic 1 RMB.

Several days after the incident began, the related discussions began to get interesting.  "Rational, objective, fair" and "constructive" thinkers began to reflect.  Some believed that there is too much freedom of press while others believed that since the matter has entered into the "legal phase," the media ought to shut up so as not to influence the "fairness of justice" ...

Before these grand ideas appeared, we  had better examine two conditions first.  First, the Chinese media are generally backwards and cowardly.  Some media and capital unconditionally work together or deprecate themselves as money-earning machines.  As such, they have nothing to do with the so-called freedom of speech and public responsibility.  Other nation's media can bring down presidents, but our media cannot even bring down a toilet.  We should be spared from those "reflections" that are supposed to based upon a mature foundation of the media, because this is like a bunch of starving people talking about the dangers of too much nutrition.  Or it is like a bunch of Shaolin monks talking about too much sex would waste your body and weaken your kidneys to the point of impotence -- this is theory applied in the wrong place.

From the action taken by FoxConn against First Financial Daily, we can see a difference.  The British Mail on Sunday's report "iPod City" on FoxConn appeared on June 11 with a lot more details.  They even claimed that the workers were working as much as 15 hours per day.  This news story appeared in all the western news websites.  Four days later on June 15, First Financial Daily published "FoxConn workers: The Machines Punish You To Stand 12 Hours Per Day."  Not only were the contents simpler, but the number of hours per day was 3 hours fewer.  FoxConn behaved like a low-keyed toilet with respect to the more prominent Mail on Sunday and let it say whatever it wants to.  But they acted like a high-toned and sacrosanct president against the less influential First Financial Daily which followed up on the story.  I think that this strategy must have been carefully considered, as they will lose for sure if they sued Mail on Sunday whereas they have a good chance of winning against First Financial Daily.

Let us look at the second piece of reality.  FoxConn employs 200,000 employees in its Shenzhen factories and is among the world's top 500.  It is also still growing quickly.  In the "era of GDP," it is commonly believed that "any official with no GDP isn't worth a fart."  An investor like FoxConn is therefore very influential among local officials, with even controlling power.  There are many instances in which government officials interfere with the fairness of the judicial system.  In this triangular relationship, the investors can easily go through the officials to package its improper demands as proper and legal through legal judgments.  This much is not in doubt.

Because the Chinese media are being too practical, they are too soft and pliant.  There are so many "black factories" and incidents in which large corporations violate the rights of workers' interests.  But the Chinese readers have to depend on the English-language media again and again to obtain the news.  People who are not as good in English must be satisfied with bits and pieces of rumors in order to satisfy their thirst for knowledge.  The "iPod City" from Mail on Sunday was nothing new, but without the follow-up by First Financial Daily, the matter would have vanished.  It was a good thing for the media to have First Financial Daily to become a defendant.  The sky did not fall down; instead, we see a bit of daylight.  This shows that the Chinese media have shown that they are willing to look at reality directly in defending the rights of Chinese workers, and they have exhibited a certain courage.  If the Chinese media had been more responsible before, they would have been sued a long time ago by FoxConn and we did not have to wait until today.

For the reporters who were involved in the lawsuit, this is undoubtedly a worrisome thing.  I hope that they can hold on.  For those media that are used to depending on the corporations and government for living and those who claim that they were smart and conscientious enough to force an official to give an interview and who are now parroting talk about self-discipline in speech or that fairness is the reporter's duty, I can only raise both my hands from the keyboard -- I use my left hand to raise a middle finger to them and use my right hand to raise a middle finger to them.

Related Link:  Assessing the media's victory over FoxConn  Joel Martinesen, Danwei