Don’t feel guilty for buying Chinese-made gadgets

Because of manufacturing, China has reversed its once dismal poverty rate.

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(Photo: Zach.vega1/Wikimedia)

The controversy over working conditions in China continued to deepen this past weekend with the revelation that Mike Daisey fabricated some of the accusations he lobbed at manufacturer Foxconn, one of the biggest suppliers for Apple and other gadget companies.

This American Life, a long-running and well-respected radio program, on Thursday retracted an episode that used material from Daisey’s off-Broadway show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Pundits are now piling on to criticize the program and other media outlets that spread Daisey’s stories—the worst of which included claims that Foxconn was illegally employing children—without bothering to check their veracity.

That’s definitely a concerning issue, but equally worrisome is something said by a New York Times reporter in a follow-up interview on TAL. Charles Duhigg, one of the reporters who worked on the newspaper’s iEconomy series in January, was asked if people should feel bad for buying iPads, iPhones and other gadgets, given that they’re made under tough working conditions.

Duhigg said he was just a reporter and it wasn’t his job to tell people how to feel, but then pretty much did exactly that:

Do you feel comfortable knowing that iPhones and iPads and other products could be manufactured in less harsh conditions, but that these harsh conditions perpetuate because of an economy that you are… supporting with your dollars…. You’re not only the direct beneficiary; you are actually one of the reasons why it exists. If you made different choices, if you demanded different conditions, if you demanded that other people enjoy the same work protections that you yourself enjoy, then those conditions would be different overseas.

In a nutshell, Duhigg suggested that in rejecting harsh working conditions domestically, the United States had exported them to other countries. Which is kind of bull.

How people should feel about their gadgets is in fact counter-intuitive to this line of thinking. When the bigger picture is taken into account, it’s perfectly fine to actually feel good for buying an iPad, Xbox or other Chinese-made gizmo.

Consider the following. Thirty years ago, only 16% of China’s rather sizable population lived above the poverty line. By 2005, the country had experienced a total reversal, with only 16% below (here’s a graph that pretty much tells the story). Things have improved even more in the past five years, with more than half a billion people globally escaping poverty. Most of them were in China.

How this happened is well-known: manufacturing. Industry and construction are responsible for nearly half of China’s gross domestic product, with almost 20% of the world’s goods made in the country. This has driven double-digit economic growth for three decades.

Put all of that together and the result is obvious—without China building all that stuff, it wouldn’t have experienced such a prolonged economic miracle, and hundreds of millions of people would certainly still be in total poverty.

So, when deciding whether or not to feel guilty about an iPad or iPhone because it was made in tough conditions, it’s also important to consider the alternative—that if factory workers in China didn’t have their hard jobs, the facts suggest they’d be starving and dying.

Are working conditions in Chinese factories harsh by Western standards? Yes, but as I wrote a few weeks ago, that’s not something to feel guilty about. Such conditions are the unfortunate but necessary growing pains all countries must go through as they modernize. It’s important to push governments and companies for further improvements, but it’s not helpful to try and make people feel bad for what they buy when those purchases are in fact doing a world of good.

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