America’s response to the death of Steve Jobs was an outpouring of grief, and love, similar to the behavior people show at the death of a beloved rock star - like John Lennon (one of Jobs’ favorite performers). But what of the rest of world? Specifically, what of Asia? China, where Jobs’ brilliant inventions were manufactured and where millions paid the supreme tribute by buying, either the real thing, or millions of Apple knock offs? At first, Asians mirrored the waves of grief that flooded the U.S. Shock, genuine grief, and an outpouring of homage from country after country.
At the other end of the spectrum, many Apple workers from China came forth to remind the global community that Jobs’ and Apple’s devices had been created to the detriment of Chinese workers’ lives and health, and that those issues have never been resolved. Others pointed out that Apple is even now being brought to face charges of environmental hazards created by their factories. These Chinese would not mourn Steve Jobs passing. It is a jagged picture. On the high end: In Hong Kong, the lights went down on the Apple Store logo as fans held a vigil, placing flowers, both inside and outside the store. On Mainland China, users of the Weibo micro-blog service shared their thoughts and feelings about his death on a page dedicated to Jobs.
Chinese commentators at The Global Times called Jobs a “maverick” and a “saint” whom China would do well to learn from. “Jobs possesses many traits that Chinese people also advocate but find hard to learn, such as being a maverick, original and stubborn. As a manufacturing powerhouse, the lack of innovation may be fatal for China’s future.” The Chinese public’s wave of mourning reflects many people’s dissatisfaction with China’s own reality. “[Our] Quality of life also needs significant improvements. Otherwise, Steve Jobs will only be a saint that the Chinese can never reach.” Korea’s and Japan’s IT industry reacted strongly to news of Jobs’ passing.
Choi Ji-seong, Vice-Chairman of Samsung Electronics, told Korea’s largest daily newspaper that he sincerely expressed his regret. “The deceased was a genius entrepreneur who offered a vision to the global IT industry. His creative spirit and legendary achievements will not be forgotten.” “He is a modern genius who combined art with technology. In hundreds of years people will look on him as they do Leonardo da Vinci,” Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son said of Jobs from Japan. In Tokyo, Beijing, and Seoul, they loved him too. At the Ginza shopping district in Tokyo, employees of Apple’s store reportedly held a silent moment of prayer before opening to customers. A candlelight vigil was held outside the store.
India’s creative community, undoubtedly influenced by Jobs’ Pixar connection, went into overdrive to pay tribute to Jobs. Furthering the heavenly motif, “Well, the only person who could make some design improvements on heaven has just arrived there…RIP Steve Jobs,” said leading gaming company IndiaGames CEO, Vishal Gondal. “He stood alone and challenged every perception by turning technology into an art form,” acclaimed director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) posted, “He made technology an extension of the child and artist in all of us and made our lives richer, more playful and creative…You will live forever in the hearts and minds of generations whose lives were changed by your incredible vision.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Apple’s competitors expressed frank sardonic pleasure at the prospect of a new opening of the market—and some former Chinese Apple employees expressed a renewal of their outrage at Jobs’s refusal to deal with substandard conditions in his Chinese factories. Two examples: fifteen Apple employees have committed suicide over the past few years, some jumping to their deaths. And factory workers in Suzhou poisoned two years ago by toxic chemicals at the factory wrote to Jobs directly. Six months ago they asked for his help in getting medical care and compensation for their illnesses and lost work time.
Jobs’ reaction to the suicides was to say that conditions were not bad for a Chinese factory. Accurate, but heartless and his reaction to the poisoned factory workers was total silence. Ostensibly, he chose to ignore their concerns. And no one from Apple has yet to address their concerns.
When the waves of grief have died down and we pause in our eulogizing of Steve Jobs as the visionary genius who created revolutionary technologies, we are forced to acknowledge that Jobs’ extraordinary inventions have been made at the cost of Chinese workers’ lives and health. Further, a Chinese commentator said tartly, “Some Chinese walking by Apple store don’t know Jobs. [A] Reminder that precious few privileged people in the world can afford iPhones, iPads.” In China, many Apple products are manufactured by Foxconn, a Taiwan-based company that operates most of its factories in China.
Foxconn’s workers are Chinese migrants who work 10 hours or more a day on an assembly line, performing the same task over and over. These conditions are unimaginable for Western plant workers. And then there are the suicides. News reports indicate that over 15 Foxconn workers have killed themselves over the past several years, and it is said that the intense pace of work might have contributed to some of the deaths. And there are the cases of chemical poisoning.
At an Apple factory run by the Taiwanese electronics supplier, Wintek, dozens fell ill, many were hospitalized for months, and several say they still suffer symptoms like nerve damage, numb hands and feet, related to exposure from the chemicals made to produce Apple products. Two years after the fact, it seems unlikely Apple will take any further action on the matter.
The sick former Chinese Apple worker, Jia, understands the eulogies to Jobs and offers one of his own—one of resignation and pain, “Previously I actually felt wonderful to work for Apple, who promised to be green and socially responsible,” Jia said. “But they’re just flaunting the bright side. They don’t show respect for the laborers. No apology and no responsibility for us.” He continued, “I feel more uncertain now Jobs is dead. I had some hope but I’m just too insignificant compared with Apple, Inc.”
Perhaps the most realistic eulogy of Steve Jobs is right there on your calendar if you live in NYC. A one-man theater piece that addresses the life and career of Steve Jobs will proceed as scheduled at New York’s Public Theater. The Public Theater said this week that “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” written and performed by Mike Daisey, would begin previews as scheduled. Daisey told the New York Times that he plans to implement some changes to the production, keeping the play’s critical point of view regarding Apple’s relationship with factories in China. Daisey said in the same release, “We live in denial about China: a relationship that so disturbs us that we pretend our devices are made in magical Willy Wonka-esque factories by space elves instead of the real human cost we all know in our hearts has been paid.”