Inside Foxconn

On Tuesday night, near the end of the presidential debate, Candy Crowley asked the candidates about manufacturing competition with China:

iPad, the Macs, the iPhones, they are all manufactured in China, and one of the major reasons is labor is so much cheaper there. How do you convince a great American company to bring that manufacturing back here?

By chance, I watched that debate a few miles from where many of those iPads, Macs, and iPhones are made in southern China. The following day -- today, Thursday, China time -- I was inside the most famous of these outsourcing centers. This is the Foxconn "campus" in the Longhua area of Shenzhen, north of Hong Kong. Some 220,000 people work there; about a quarter of them live on site; and several thousand new employees are recruited, trained, and brought onto staff each week, because turnover at Foxconn and many of these Chinese manufacturing centers is so high. Foxconn has been controversial over the years because of allegations of sweatshop operation and of militaristic surveillance and discipline, plus a wave of worker suicides in 2010. I'll have more to say on the current state of Chinese manufacturing at Foxconn and elsewhere very soon, with a now-very-much-overdue article in the magazine.

I had been near the Foxconn campus several times in the past six years but never past the entry gate. Today I was able to spend much of a day there seeing assembly lines, dormitories, cafeterias, recreation areas, and other parts of the site. The only pre-condition that was set, and that I agreed to, was that I would not take any photos that revealed the logos of products Foxconn was making for its various customer companies around the world. It is common knowledge in the tech world that Foxconn is a major producer of Apple computers and devices, and that it also supplies products for HP, Dell, and other major international brands. (Consistent with my agreement, I won't mention whether I saw those or other specific brands being produced.)

I am always surprised by things in China, but this day was at the more-surprising-than-usual end of the spectrum. In the days to come, I will share a series of photos I was able to take on the campus. I will start now, before completing my article, with just a few that set the general mood.

There are some things you might expect to see. For instance, here is part of a circuit-board assembly plant (brand logos carefully avoided). Anyone who has been in Chinese electronics factories has seen things like this:

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And here is a typical giant factory building in which assembly lines like this one operate:

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If you look carefully just above the blue shipping containers, you'll see some of the famous "suicide nets" that Foxconn installed several years ago. More to come on this subject.

But there was a lot that I, at least, had no way of expecting. Just a sample, beginning with an employee cyber-cafe:

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These are the young people building your smartphones and computers. Or, this kind of scene at lunch hour, with a bunch of employees clustering around a HD big-screen TV being offered at special discount. This is a main street on the campus near a central cafeteria and many shops, banks, coffee bars, and so on.

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Or this -- the "staff care" center, which is supposed to help resolve various personal or social problems. It turns out that most of the Foxconn workers sitting and reading -- actual papers! -- were not looking for help but were just taking advantage of the seats and the air-conditioning while on their lunch break.

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Similarly, a young woman taking advantage of a security-department scooter as a place to sit and read during a break:

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Or a group of workers waiting for a shuttle from one part of the site to another after their shift.

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I am not yet going to characterize what I saw, and I am not pretending to know more than I do. This was a few hours out of one day. But what I saw once inside the gate was very different from the picture that "Foxconn" had always conjured up in my mind. I'll plan to post a series of photos day by day until I've conveyed the range of what I saw. If scenes like these conform closely to how you had imagined Foxconn to look, congrats on your insight. They surprised me.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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