Near the end of this year’s second presidential debate, Candy Crowley of CNN pointed out that iPads, iPhones, and other globally sought-after Apple products are all made in China. What would it take, she asked both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, to “convince a great American company to bring that manufacturing back here?”
I listened to this question with special interest, since I was following the debate, via hotel-room TV, from the Shenzhen manufacturing zone of southern China, where many of those same iPads and iPhones are made. For the few days before the debate, I’d been revisiting PCH International, an outsourcing company I’d first written about for this magazine in 2007, in “China Makes, the World Takes.” The company’s revenues have increased more than sevenfold since then and its workforce has grown almost as fast, despite the years of global recession. This is testament both to its own success and to the nonstop surge of outsourcing contracts to China.
The day after the debate, I walked through the famous Foxconn complex in the Longhua district of Shenzhen, where some 230,000 Chinese workers, mainly between the ages of 18 and 25, turn out products sold under international brand names, from Apple and Dell to Nintendo and Sony. Another Foxconn facility not far away employs another 200,000 people; throughout China the company’s workforce numbers 1.3 million. On previous attempts to get in over the years, I had never made it past Foxconn’s front gate—not surprising given the company’s policy of stiff-arming most foreign and domestic reporters. But a new PR team at Foxconn had apparently decided that closed-door secretiveness was making the company look even worse than it otherwise would. (If only this team were in charge of Chinese government policy—regarding the press, the Internet, letting people into and out of the country, and so much more.) Immediately after hearing the allusion to Chinese-made products on TV, I e-mailed an official at Foxconn and said that so prominent a mention in American politics would be a great news peg for a visit. I was fully expecting another turndown, but to my surprise, the company agreed. The next morning, I went to the factory and was told I could roam around and take pictures of anything I wanted, as long as I did not show or mention any of the brand-name products coming off its assembly lines.