Over the past day or so several foreign media outlets including Huffington Post, Business Insider and Bloomberg TV have been reporting that dozens of workers at a Foxconn factory in Chengdu were arrested after clashing with security at a dormitory. Some said that “workers with a grudge against the security guards prevented them from catching a thief. Soon up to 1,000 workers were ‘throwing trash bins, chairs, pots, bottles and fireworks from the upper floor of the building and destroying public facilities.’”
These outlets cited a single source: Want China Times – a Taiwanese agency which routinely prints stories based on single, unreliable sources (here, here and here, for instance). In this case, WCT cited Molihua – a democracy and human rights advocacy group. Of course, claims that there were 1,000 rioters had to come with evidence. This is it:
Most of the media reporting this story and netizens on Weibo have included this picture with reports of the violence. If you can spot a riot here, you have much better eyes than I do. A couple searches for “Foxconn riots” also bring up this picture:
Bloomberg TV however managed to obtain a much more sensational picture depicting a fire and people in surgical masks:
…but it turns out that picture actually came from an explosion that happened at Foxconn’s Chengdu plant over a year ago.
It’s now been three days since this supposed riot started and this is all we have. No other pictures, no videos, no interviews from rioters. That’s pretty amazing considering “Foxconn riot” is NOT blocked on Weibo and there were allegedly 1,000 people involved.
I got in touch with Foxconn Technology Group and they sent this press release:
We were informed by local law enforcement authorities that late Monday night, several employees of our facility in Chengdu had a disagreement with the owner of a restaurant located in that city. We were also informed that the employees subsequently returned to their off-campus residence, owned and managed by third-party companies, at which time a number of other residents also became involved in the disagreement and local police were called to the scene to restore order. Foxconn is cooperating with local law enforcement authorities on their investigation into this incident.
They didn’t list any numbers, but this seems a far cry from what’s been previously reported.
It’s too early to say definitively that the original Want China Times report (and all those that based their reports entirely on it) were completely wrong, but I think it is safe to say they jumped the gun. Some outlets even tied the alleged violence to poor working conditions, which is completely unsubstantiated. Huffington Post went so far as to title one piece “Foxconn Workers Riot In Chengdu Over Minor Incident, Leads To Massive Uprising” and listed several unrelated conditions at the factory (They’ve since printed a retraction).
Foxconn has been the whipping boy of the media for quite some time now. In 2010 some outlets were ticking off suicides as they happened at the company. The estimated 14 suicides that year do indeed sound bad…until you consider there are over 800,000 employees and that that suicide rate is well below China’s national average (and the US’s for that matter). Both the suicide and rioting over poor working conditions angles fit nicely into the pre-established narrative that Foxconn and its Apple overlord run a repressive sweatshop. Unfortunately for those outlets that perpetuate these angles, there’s just not much evidence to support them.
Update 6/8: Reuters published a story this morning which said:
Seven workers at a Foxconn factory in Chengdu went to a restaurant near their dormitory, but began making a ruckus after an argument between the eatery’s owner and his wife “affected their meal”, said a statement on the Sichuan government website (www.scol.com.cn) released on Thursday.
After the restaurant owner called the police, the workers ran back to their dormitory shouting “they are beating us”, upon which around 100 of their colleagues came in and joined the disturbance, throwing bottles, the statement added.