True Chinese factory horror stories Mike Daisey might have told, had he not been such a lying liar

At the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, India-based journalist Adam Matthews writes about the rising labor movement in China.

Below, a snip from his most recent piece on the phenomenon of "bloody factories" in China, which he argues is a far greater problem than Foxconn.

Matthews interviews a labor advocate and self-taught "barefoot lawyer" for migrant workers who have experienced workplace injuries; the man takes him on "a tour that even Daisey couldn’t have dreamed up."

We traveled through hardscrabble sections of Dongguan’s Tangxia Town, a factory town near the coast in Guangdong. He introduced me to a worker fired for organizing a union, a man denied overtime payments and a woman whose symptoms mirrored those of the Wintek workers. The notes about her on his printed spreadsheet were: “leg can’t move.”

That woman is Shi Yuping, a mother of two with short black hair, capris and flip-flops. Shi is in her late thirties but looks much older. We sat at a picnic table outside a convenience store as Shi told her story. Her husband Jiang Ancai stood nearby and listened.

Shi worked for a Hong Kong-owned plastics factory. The factory used a chemical as toxic as n-hexane to clean plastic parts. Shi fell ill during a trip home to Henan province to see her mother and her children (many migrant workers send children to stay with grandparents so the parents can both work). She received no compensation and no reimbursement for her 20-day hospital stay. “She called the company to ask for continuation of the leave,” Wang explained. Instead, she was fired. The factory held two months of salary, money that Wang was suing to recover. Shi suffered degenerative nerve damage and can no longer work. When she got up to leave the picnic table her left leg went lame. She had trouble even getting into her flip-flops.

Shi did not work for a supplier of a high-profile brand, like Apple. There was no coverage of her case in the English-language media.

Image, courtesy Zhang Zhiru (seated), a "barefoot lawyer," meets with workers. The younger man (l) was suing his former employer for wrongful dismissal. His case didn't look promising: the factory was illegal. Li Zuping (r) lost part of two fingers while cleaning a factory machine. Image by Jocelyn Baun. China 2011


  1. Mike Daisey got pretty much hung up to dry for telling lies about stuff that really is happening, more or less, probably more than less. Maybe we should treat his “lies” as parables. Meanwhile, actual ill-intentioned people are telling much more heinous lies all the time, with little attention or criticism given to them.

    1. Mike Daisey made it much harder for well-intentioned people to tell these stories and be believed. There is no obvious reason not related to personal gain for him to have done it. Putting his “lies” in quotes is utterly counterproductive. Daisey is a lying liar. He needs to be removed from the discussion so that people actually rooting these stories out can get some air without constantly being compared to him.

      1. I wanted to respond to this thread because I think it hits on some important points in our enormously mediated, political world.

        First, I wanted to touch on Daisey. People can have right ideas or attach themselves to good causes for wrong reasons, motivations, etc. This doesn’t excuse Daisey, who may have had his heart in the right place but just had to get rich/famous for it – but it shouldn’t change the fact that workers’ rights and human rights are in critical condition all over the world. It also doesn’t change the fact that we, as consumers and world citizens, are part of this picture. Assuming a certain high baseline for intelligence for boingboing readers, I’ll make this point and continue.

        Second, Daisey’s story illustrates an important point about how we understand what we think we understand about the world.
        As a media professional, I can understand how This American Life was attracted to such a sexy, polished story. Their failure to double-check the background of the story was an error, especially for a recognized, nationally syndicated show. Daisy’s story, especially as one that tackles such a tough topic and yet goes down so smoothly (complete with a one man show! Seemed fishy to me… )  should have raised more eyebrows.

        Not that this is a unique case. Possibly the biggest swindle in recent history dealt with the Iraq war:

        …another “sexed up,” relatively simple story with major consequences.

        We all rely on testimony – and indeed, gatekeepers and publicists have huge responsibility to the public, especially with such a large and trusting audience (yes, NYT and Miller, *shame* on you. )  It stinks to have to take everything with a grain of salt, but our communications can be, and often/usually are, gamed to form or influence public opinion. People have agendas dealing with our minds. That’s not going to stop anytime soon.

        We all need to stay context-aware, and media critical. I myself feel media literacy is a key topic, and should be part of any decent modern educational program.

        The whole premise of the Iraq war must have seemed fishy to many, as the run-up to the war was met with the largest worldwide coordinated anti-war demonstrations in history on February 15, 2003. After the war proceeded anyway, the movement lost its steam, but our present topic will have no such clear ‘go date,’ and so the struggle is ongoing, and has been for centuries.

        So now onto “the discussion.”

        Consumers and populations in general wield enormous power in the systems they interact with, especially en masse. Communication and some type of leadership are key elements in broad-based social change.

        Fact-obsessed online communities (and really, people generally) demand impeccability in leadership. The reasons are clear: if something is out of place the whole weight of the argument comes into question for many people who take the ad hominem bait.

        Daisey should ideally come forward, apologize, and hand off “the discussion”  to such individuals or organizations that can carry the torch of worker’s rights with confidence, keeping the facts straight and the message clear.

        Further, these groups should be such that will actually *do something* other than roll over – the much cited civil rights movement didn’t happen simply by whining and letting business and policy as usual continue, even while racist, brutal situations were legal and widely condoned.

        The next step is to simply say no, and ally oneself with those who are also saying no, who will not tolerate, who will not roll over while people are being exploited.

        I hope to see such individuals and organizations come forward, with or without Daisy’s nod – and places like boingboing give them some bandwidth/traction to move forward.

        Who’s already on this in addition to Adam Matthews?

        Is enough? Is it a good start?

        We should all know by now that simply letting business as usual proceed leads to suicide-prevention nets and PR greenwashing, not health care or workers’ or human rights.

        If you got this far, thanks for reading! Let’s try to make tomorrow better than today, together. It’s our world.

      2. So, Daisey is as much of a liar as James Frey and Stephen Glass, who made up everything out of whole cloth?  There’s no worker exploitation in Foxconn? Calling Daisey a lying liar simply isn’t appropriate or accurate.

        I’d be satisfied with calling him a propagandist. Which he has freely acknowledged, when he has called his material a “weapon” to effect change.

        And, look, I don’t like the guy but I think it’s weird that people (no doubt  iPhone and MBP owners with cognitive dissonance) are making him out to be worse than he is. Yeah, he’s the real enemy. Get rid of the Daiseys of the world and we can iText and iType in peace.

        1. So, Daisey is as much of a liar as James Frey and Stephen Glass, who made up everything out of whole cloth?

          Pretty much. Like Daisey, both of those men mixed actual journalism and factual accounts with lies and embellishments.

          There’s no worker exploitation in Foxconn?

          Of course there is. And because of Daisey it’s likely that many people will question those true stories.

          Calling Daisey a lying liar simply isn’t appropriate or accurate.

          Yes it is. Just as I’d be a lying liar if I wrote about all the horrors I’d witnessed at Abu Ghraib.

  2. Headline aside, I’m glad to see BB try to shift focus back onto the human rights issues and terrible labor practices. The real news story is not whether Daisey made some stuff up, but that these practices continue unabated and receive little to no media or government attention.

    1. “The real news story is not whether Daisey made some stuff up”

      That is absolutely A real story, but not THE story. He deserves his flogging and to never be taken seriously again so that real people doing actual journalism can supplant him.

      1. Daisey’s entire point was that “real people doing actual journalism” were asleep at the wheel. US news outlets had stopped covering Chinese labor conditions until Daisey’s story started making them look bad for ignoring it.

        Moreover, thanks to Daisey’s lying lies, the conversation is squarely back into the collective conscious.

        Question his motives all you like — I’m not trying to defend them — but awareness has been raised and his point has been made. The fact that media continue to flog Daisey while ignoring the labor abuses simply underscores his fundamental argument.

  3. Interestingly enough, Daisey has not only removed his Twitter account, but made his blog private.

    I don’t know him, and I can understand not wanting to deal with any more Internet fallout from the Foxconn mess, as richly deserved as it might be; but his closing his blog save to invited guests suggests to me that Daisey is assuming a bunker mentality over the whole affair… which further suggests to me that he may not have learned a damned thing from it.

    1.  He kept doubling down on his lies, on This American Life, and some other places too.  Just disgraceful.  My bullshit detector should have went off when I was at first put off by his annoying, melodramatic, poetry slam style of story telling.  I’m embarrassed that I fell for it.

  4. The real story here is how American business was “forced” by the Unions and government regulation to globalize and move their operations to China.

    I’m sure these socially responsible corporations would like to be able to force governments everywhere to guarantee a living wage, a 40 hour work week and overtime pay, a safe and healthy workplace and legal representation when a corporation violates the law, without the need for unions, but their hands are tied.

    To anyone out there who believes that Unions ruined America, and that the workplace rights you enjoy today would have been given freely without the literal blood, sweat and tears of Unions, I suggest you pay close attention to the stories coming out of China.

    China is proof once again that big business knows what is best for workers…oops, associates, without the need for labor unions.

    No, you may not have a bath room break.

    1. I would’ve been able to understand your point better if you weren’t being sarcastic.  I’m not attacking you; I’m communicating honestly.  Sincerity works better than irony, in my opinion.

  5. The Dutch have an adage that is perfect for this situation:

    “Take care of the big leaks first.”

    These “bloody factories” are where activism should be concentrated. Once they become less ghoulish, Foxconn will itself have to improve to keep drawing workers. 

    And people who want to improve teh world should pull their heads out of their own asses and not hamper activism by passing off  fiction as fact and excusing it with self-indulgent horseshit. 

  6. To people coming out in Daisey’s defense:

    Look, almost nobody has said that abuses aren’t occurring in China. Before Mike Daisey, there were hundreds of stories done by a myriad of news outlets about the abuse of workers in hundreds of Chinese factories (not just Foxconn). It’s half the reason why, for over a decade, some people refuse to buy Chinese products (not very successfully these days, I admit). This is a known problem and has been one for a very long time. It has been one which Apple has addressed *before* Mike Daisey came out with his piece (and perhaps needed to address more).

    Mike Daisey only brought his dramatized performance to this already ongoing decades-long conversation. And he did it in a spectacular way, I admit. But he outright lied to do it. He presented it as fact in every single way possible.

    And that damaged the conversation for quite a while to come. You can bet that a lot of human rights people involved in trying to help China reform their system of business are not entirely pleased with what Mike Daisey did. They have been working for decades to help, without glamor, without their face on the news, giving all the interviews they could  give (mostly in obscurity without dramatizations) to talk about the reality and the facts and how best to change things. And, quite frankly, they were doing quite well – until Mike Daisey came around.

    MIke Daisey took their work and trashed it. He added lies to their work. He ripped apart their incredible efforts and, with the exposure of his lies, has given ammo to the other side to state that nothing bad is happening.

    Mike Daisey, if anything, has hurt the effort of human rights in China for a while to come. He hasn’t helped anyone. He hasn’t made us *more* aware of what is going on in China. What Mike Daisey did is to shut the conversation down.

    He may have intended to help Chinese workers in factories, but he ended up hurting them instead. And that’s not a good thing for anyone. And while he sat in the limelight and spouted off his lies over and over again for a few weeks, he essentially spat on the hard work that good people have been doing to negotiate better lives for Chinese workers.

    If you’re defending Mike Daisey for bringing these things to the attention of the world, you’re defending the wrong man. You should be defending the human rights workers who have made an actual difference and have taken incredible offense at these lies. If you want to see better conditions for workers in China, you should flaming Mike Daisey for what he did – not praising him. Your concern about workers is noted, and I might add even appreciated, but it is misplaced if you are backing a guy who outright set the effort back for a while.

    Mike Daisey is *not* the guy who deserves your respect, or your defense. And, quite frankly, he appears to have learned nothing from this fiasco. I’m sorry to say that about such a talented performer – because he clearly had us all enthralled – but he’s not worth anyone’s time right now.

  7. I’d like to add one more thing about defending Mike Daisey.

    Imagine if he had done the reverse. Imagine if Mike Daisey’s piece was about how amazingly well Foxconn was treating their workers. We do know, for a fact, that there have been improvements in Foxconn over the last few years. Imagine that his story embellished those things and claimed that they were doing a bang-up job. And then we found out that he lied about that.

    Would you be defending him so readily? I think nobody here would. And why? Because it’s a political point, and truth loses too often to political agendas.

    I’m on the left for the most part, but I am not beholden to it over truth. I don’t think anyone should be beholden to a political agenda over truth. Political views are fine as long as they are not compromised by the truth and are, rather, defined by it.

    The truth is that there are abuses in China, and also that there have been gradual reforms. I would rather see faster reforms, and I’ll keep pressing for them. But with the truth as my weapon. I don’t need lies and fabrications to win that battle.

    1. I will not defend Daisey’s actions in news interviews like TAL.

      Personally, I first saw “Agony and Ecstasy” in a theatrical setting, and I’m happy that I did. I was not aware of some of the more egregious, wholly true stories that Daisey presented in his monologue.

      Also, if you had closely followed the story, you would realize that much of Daisey’s story, even in a journalistic context, was actually true. On stage, his dramatic re-enactments and embellishments helped create a juicier narrative. His mistake was in taking his theatrical distortions from the playhouse stage to the news media stage.

      1. I can accept that but I would say that Daisey still presented his stories in theater as true. He never mentioned that parts of it were fictionalized. He’s talking about something which is a real problem and people took it on faith that he was talking about real events. Some of them were real (I did follow it closely and I listened to TAL twice when he came out and admitted what he had done). I can appreciate the real parts. The question I have, however, is this: with all his real material – which was excellent in all cases – why didn’t he just present the real stories? I’m sure he had enough to make us understand and see the problems. But he had to add a fictionalized account at a few points. Why? Why do that?

        The only logical reason I can think of is that because he couldn’t find something so dramatically different from other real accounts, and so he didn’t think it would make good enough theatre. The only conclusion that one can draw from this is that things weren’t so bad as he described and he had to invent worse things to make it all sound better.

        I’d like to point out that there is another article on BoingBoing today which deals with lying. It’s a rather important article about it and it deals with the Iraqi informant who lied about the WMD vehicles. Remember that?

        That was a lie that I think absolutely nobody here is going to defend.

        But why? Because people died? That’s not a reason of distinction for me. The fact is that Saddam was a horrible monster. He personally tortured and executed people with his own hands. I dare say that if he had been a criminal in the United States, even some anti-death penalty people (such as myself) would be calling for his execution with what he had done to innocent victims. We know that this is true by all accounts, whether or not you supported the war to overthrow him. Nobody here, even as much as they hate the war, thought that Saddam was a good guy.

        So, by that measure, why did lying about those WMD matter all that much? After all, we knew that he *did* have a WMD program in the past, we knew that he *was* breaking the sanctions in other ways which nobody disagrees with as fact. So, knowing all these crimes, and by that same justification, did it *really* hurt to lie a little bit to put the case over the edge?

        Again: I don’t think anyone is going to defend those actions in the same way that they are going to defend Mike Daisey – as well as they shouldn’t. The case against Saddam could have been made without the lie. It could have stood on its own merit. So too could the case against Foxconn. One doesn’t have to “sex it up” to make either case. Whether or not you supported the war in Iraq, I put forward the idea that had we not discovered a lot more about the truth later on, we would not have done as much damage to our foreign relations later on down the road. We would have done a lot less damage to our country as a whole.

        I completely appreciate your point and I even understand it. But I am very angry at the damage Mike Daisey did that I cannot actually defend him in any way. And again, I have to say, he doesn’t appear to really fathom his mistake. It was fairly clear from that episode of TAL that he was starting to parse what the word “is” is.

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