It's been a bad weekend for US activists with global ambitions. On Friday, This American Life, a famous US National Public Radio (NPR) show, took the unprecedented step of retracting an entire piece by monologist Mike Daisey, "Mr Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory," an adaptation of an earlier theater piece about the abuses Daisey discovered in Shenzhen's Apple factories. The piece was downloaded nearly a million times, but after investigation, the show found Daisey had fabricated significant parts of the piece, which he had presented them as fact.
Meanwhile Jason Russell, co-founder of the "Invisible Children" awareness-raising group, was arrested while running around near-naked after suffering a nervous breakdown. "Invisible Children" was behind "Kony 2012," a hugely successful viral video about African warlord Joseph Kony seen by 112 million people. But the group has been heavily criticized by both Africans and Western experts for fear-mongering, dubious use of funds, and misrepresentation of the facts on the ground.
As it happens, Daisey is a close friend of a friend of mine, and I've followed his work with interest and appreciation for over a decade. I can see how he slipped from the acceptable fictionalizations of a theatrical monologue into the unacceptable fabrications of his work as presented on the radio. Equally, I can see how the "Invisible Children" founders wanted to dramatize the suffering in Africa to hit a Western audience's heartstrings.
But in both cases, these stories have ended up misrepresenting and even harming their own causes.
For some Chinese, always eager to see the Western media faults, Daisey's piece is another easy example of how the West is willing to believe the worst about China, just as for some Africans, the Kony video was seen as another example of foreign media distortions about their continent. But it was NPR themselves who investigated and exposed the flaws in the piece, and This American Life dedicated an entire show to retracting it, just as Western African experts and journalists slammed the Kony piece.
What's more significant here is the attitude expressed in both pieces, which found such resonance with the Western public. In both, the locals were stripped of agency. Daisey claimed to have met Chinese workers who have never thought about how they would change things at their factory, and who saw the iPad as "magic," like primitive tribesmen encountering a more sophisticated world. He imagined hordes of under-aged workers, flocking to Shenzhen factories to be chewed up in the gears of the machine.
But in reality, Chinese workers are increasingly opinionated, self-aware, and increasingly active in defending their own rights. There are under-aged workers at foreign-invested factories, but they're late teenagers posing as adults, using borrowed identity cards from other people in their home village in order to get an early jump on the job market. Meanwhile, the "Kony 2012" video portrayed Ugandans as helpless victims of Kony's rampaging forces, even though the Ugandan army long ago succeeded in reducing Kony's once-substantial militia to a few hundred men and drove him beyond their borders.
Who could save these helpless victims? Only the mighty power of Americans. Daisey called upon his audience to pressure Apple, handing out the company's contact details at the end of his show. "Kony 2012" called for the US military to be used against Kony. But, as journalist Adam Minter points out, Daisey's call effectively added up to asking Apple politely to be nicer, rather than taking concrete steps such as boycotting Apple products.
Of course, consumer pressure can play some role in encouraging foreign-invested factories in China to improve working conditions. Apple has already agreed to be audited by the Fair Labor Association, although labor experts have grave doubts about the methodologies involved in such auditing and the practical effects it will have.
But just as Kony was defeated through the efforts of Ugandans, not foreign intervention, so will the pressure for major shifts on the Chinese factory floor come from the workers themselves, not outsiders. Chinese workers' confidence in striking, organizing, and voting with their feet has increased dramatically in the last few years, backed in part by a more favorable government environment. It's the pressure of empowered locals that will force real change, not a Western audience working off imaginary savior narratives.
The author is a copy editor with the Global Times. firstname.lastname@example.org