Writer Mike Daisey was recently repudiated for fabricating numerous elements of his story “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory”, about working conditions at Foxconn, Apple’s Chinese supplier. The story ran last month on public radio’s This American Life, and quickly became the popular show’s most listened podcast of all time.
With its creative ruffling of truthful facts, Daisey’s monologue weaves a compelling piece of narrative theater, grave and curious and comprehensible. That Daisey told a story that sparked so much empathy, email campaigns and calls for investigations into Apple’s labor practices, speaks to the effectiveness of his storytelling. And perhaps it is precisely because Daisey positions himself as an uninformed foreigner in China that made him easily relatable to American audiences. But it is also what makes this type of reporting deeply troubling, especially as it concerns a society already prone to distortion and misunderstanding in the American media.
The documentary Struggle, directed in 2001 by Shu Haolun, tells the story of workers whose injuries due to abuses and accidents at factories like Foxconn. Shu’s direct access to the disenfranchised workers and their desperate attempts to seek compensation and peace of mind after being injured is unnervingly intimate and straightforward.
Shu Haolun is among a group of other Chinese documentary filmmakers whose work delves the very darkest corners and unglamorous margins of Chinese society. To produce these works, these filmmakers cultivate unusually close relationships with their subjects. To make her most recent documentary When The Bough Breaks, the story of a migrant family living in a Beijing garbage dump, director Ji Dan spent over a year living with the subjects of her film. Wang Jiuliang, director of the 2011 documentary Beijing Besieged By Waste‘s documentation of the endless landfills that surround Beijing is so extensive, so deliberately mapped, the film brings eye-opening authenticity to China’s pollution crisis.
Ultimately, the story surrounding the undoing of Mike Daisey is less about his dishonesty than about what Americans expect from reporting on China and the hazards that spring from those expectations, where lies become more palatable than facts.