Apple, China, and Free Debate

Not surprisingly, Evan Osnos nails the context and significance of Mike Daisey’s exaggerated portrait of life at a Foxconn factory, an Apple contractor, in Shenzhen, China:

“He thought that China was so exotic and far away that it was uncheckable; that it was okay to take “a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” as he put it in his follow-up interview. But China, it turns out, is not so far away. Daisey’s fiction was predicated on the notion that China is essentially unknowable, that reporters never go to factory gates, that highways exit to nowhere. And he might have gotten away with it twenty years ago. But these days, it’s no longer so far away at all. It’s close enough to make an iPhone today and have it on a U.S. store shelf next week. And it’s closer in another important way as well—in overestimating his own ability, Daisey underestimated a lot of other people.”

The brilliance of this entire episode is that there’s a growing diversity of credible and openly-shared perspectives on what’s happening in China. If you’re in the reality-making business, you’ve now got to contend with a lot of well-informed and credible voices. It’s harder than ever to get away with sloppy China journalism, whether in Chinese or English, and that’s a great thing for the world.

As I noted in an earlier post about Truth in China-journalism, in so far as Western journalists have more credibility as being more truthful, it’s because their ideas and perspectives must stand more on their own merits against unfettered public scrutiny. Remove the environment of debate and you destroy the means for determining credibility. As Richard Rorty put so nicely: take care of freedom and truth will take care of itself.

We should not be terribly concerned by people like Mike Daisey or Jason Russell who use lies (or bend the facts) to tell their version of the truth. What’s most worrisome is environments that permit singular perspectives to survive unchallenged by alternative descriptions. Hopefully both Mr. Russell and Mr. Daisey will now have the humility and pragmatism to welcome — and perhaps even embrace — their critics’ perspectives and open debate, and its ability to exponentially improve awareness and understanding of the critical issues they passionately seek to address.