China syndrome: How media linkbait leads to mainstream meltdowns

"Boycotting Apple because of working conditions in China makes about as much sense as boycotting The New York Times because of journalism conditions in America."

There are several stories floating around the web this week concerning boycotts planned against Apple, the result of stories floating around the web last week concerning working conditions in China. While in some cases the sentiment is good and the intention noble, in many cases its based on lazy, exploitive journalism and shallow, opportunistic activism, fed by a soundbite- and sensation-seeking readership.

And while Apple and China is just the latest example, it's also one of the most tragic.

We've talked about it for the last couple of weeks during the iPhone & iPad Live podcast, but it's worth going over again here.

The problems with working conditions are real. Absolutely. Apple's role in the Chinese manufacturing system is real. Undeniably. But just as absolutely, just as undeniably, the real story here is about China and workers, not about Apple.

The pain isn't of a situation but of a transition -- the pain that come with the slow, steady growth through industrialization and the creation of a middle-class, manufacturing society.

Apple is only one of many, many, many companies that use factories in China to produce their goods. While some few, token others are sometimes briefly listed in one sentence, the title, lede, and every other sentence in a lot of the recent coverage throws the spotlight entirely on Apple.

That misses the industry-wide nature of the issue, and the global economic nature of the issue. While Apple is certainly the most wealthy, influential, and likely powerful company in the industry, and in the world, at the moment, they aren't the industry and are certainly not the global economy.

If Apple pulled out of China tomorrow, the entire rest of the industry would remain. The rest of the industry that hasn't posted supplier responsibility reports like Apple has done. HP, Dell, Nokia, Samsung, Lenovo, Motorola, LG, Sony, and everyone else in consumer electronics who aren't facing any media or pundit pressure to do so anyway.

All the other industries would remain as well, from jeans and shoes to toys and household goods and everything else. The factories would no doubt be hurt by the loss of revenue from Apple, however, as would the workers, who typically earn more from these types of factory jobs than they can otherwise earn in the region. The increase in unemployment following an Apple pullout would probably only make that situation worse. But it would go on.

Once upon a time in the Western world, though not too long ago, we had children working in factories and mines for fractions of pennies. We had had working conditions almost unimaginable even in in China or other, similar, out-sourced locations. We had them until, as a society, they became intolerable to us and we forced the cultural and legal changes necessary to stop them. To say they would no longer be tolerated. (Though sadly, they still persist in some of the darker cracks of our society.).

China will have to face this as well. With or without Apple. With or without the linkbait of major media outlets. With or without the protests of the guilty-of-concience, opportunistic of cause, or patronizing of agenda. With or without the attention of a readership that increasingly only mortgages their attention for linkbait and opportunism.

There's a real story here. A story about China's industrialization, of the political pressures within the government, the suicide rates in the country as a whole, the earning potential inside and outside the factory system, the ratio of worker pay verses management profit in the factories, the costs associated and benefits gained through in-sourcing vs. out-sourcing, and how the lives of Chinese workers would be affected now, and in the many potential futures with, without, and beyond the factory system.

But it's a story that won't be written, because it won't get anywhere near the amount of clicks, because absent Apple it won't get anywhere near the mainstream reaction. It's a vicious cycle of our own creation.

That's why boycotting Apple because of working conditions in China makes about as much sense as boycotting The New York Times" because of journalism conditions in America.