Chinese observers see the manufacturing labor landscape pretty much the way American businesspeople do, which is to say, cynically.
The New York Times investigative series into Apple's manufacturing practices in China are being published in Chinese as well. In a smart move, the Times decided to translate Chinese reader comments for the consumption of its English-speaking audience. You can read a couple dozen of them here. And here's a selection that I found fascinating:
There are two stories about Apple: one is about its brilliant business performance, and the other is about the blood and sweat behind Apple miracles. I strongly recommend that all Apple fans read this. Corporations should bear social responsibilities, and customers should also understand and be responsible to the society. -- 花甲小猪
Without Apple, Chinese workers will be worse off. I hope China can some day soon have dozens of its own companies like Apple, who (only) work on high-end research and development and send manufacturing lines to Africa. -- Anonymous
Working conditions in smaller factories are even worse (than Foxconn). They have even longer work hours. The major reason is that suppliers are not at the top of the value chain and major brands can easily replace them. Also, workers in China do not have labor unions, and the Chinese government always protects the large companies. -- 自由泳来了
If Foxconn were to abide by the labor law, which is supposed to protect workers and keep them basically to 8 hours a day and 5 days a week, their wages will be lower. If workers establish a formal labor union, lots of workers will be disappointed and return home to rural areas. The production cost of Chinese manufacturers will increase, and those Chinese factories will lose their competitive advantage. Who would be happy if that really happened? -- 野也果酱,
If people saw what kind of life workers lived before they found a job at Foxconn, they would come to an opposite conclusion of this story: that Apple is such a philanthropist. -- Zhengchu1982
What sticks out to me is the openness of the debate over the conflicted relationship between labor and corporate profits. No one thinks that Apple is going to do anything out of a sense of corporate conscience (err, responsibility). At least from the comments that the Times translated, there is no sense that regulations would help anything. Apple's profit margins, here and among (at least some in) China, are seen as sacrosanct, while the health and safety of workers is up for discussion.
Image: Reuters. A protest in Hong Kong during 2011.