I imagine it like this:
Xu Lizhi left his room—the linoleumed sliver where he had spent nearly three years now, off and on. Its fluorescent lights beating down their sterile sunlight on pages of poetry. Despairing but determined, he took the elevator to the ground floor, pushing through the wicker gate “like a dead man/ Slowly pushing open the lid of a coffin,” as he once wrote. He crossed the courtyard, some of Foxconn’s million-strong work force lingering under sparse trees, smoking or talking. Maybe even laughing. He crossed to a different building and took the elevator to the 17th floor.
There, 24 years of life toed the window ledge. What of it? Life in an increasingly stratified China, where the rail-thin third son of a farmer had little choice but to set out to the city with the thousands of other migrant workers. What of his talent? Crushed by dullness and personal disappointments, it must have seemed hardly to matter. He must have felt that he’d already glimpsed the future—wages every tenth day of the month in exchange for every ounce of vitality he ever had. For young workers like Xu, “Industry captures their tears before they have a chance to fall.”
And so, he jumped.
Xu Lizhi the Worker-Poet
Xu’s story might have been a footnote—another obscure name and life—among those that had jumped before him. He might’ve been all but forgotten to the more privileged of us—a passing concern for migrant workers rapidly displaced by the desire for the next iPhone. Xu might have been simply a number, a moment’s guilt, a fleeting criticism of capitalism.
But Xu was a poet.
He left behind pages of writing that tell the haunting story of a life that otherwise might have been forgotten. His words pierced through borders, languages and norms when they were translated by friends of the Nao Project. Xu had created a testament to misery so complete—and so damning—that it resonated. Today, closing in on three years since Xu jumped—we must not shake off his words when we close a tab on a screen or turn the page of a newspaper.
Yet, it almost seems necessary that we forget. If we remembered, how could we continue to drive the market for cheap electronics? And is it really so bad to want for things—for computers and cameras and the next, greatest smartphone? These are the material trappings of modern life, and they are hard to avoid. Yet, as Foxconn reported a 30% growth in net profit at the end of the fourth quarter—we have to wonder: Who is suffering as a result?
Foxconn is the largest contract electronics manufacturer in the world. The Taiwanese conglomerate creates components for motherboards, MP3 players, cameras, cell phones, and more. A list of their clients is a literal who’s who of the consumer electronics economy—names like Microsoft, Nokia, IBM, Dell, Sony, Amazon and Apple. Fueled by contracts with major players such as these, Foxconn consistently posts hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue, and is the single largest employer in all of China. They have several factories spread throughout the eastern reaches of the country, and are planning to build factories in the poorer western provinces.
Foxconn first came under international scrutiny after a rash of 18 suicide attempts in 2010—all of them jumpers. 14 of these were successful. It’s damn depressing to look at the lists, the victims’ ages listed next to the Chinese characters of their names. All were between 17 and 28. Life must have seemed awfully bleak. In reaction to the suicides, new hires were briefly forced to sign an anti-suicide pledge, and nets have been hung between the buildings to prevent further such incidents—a grim reminder of the conditions that the factory workers live and work under.
It is relevant to point out that the suicide rate among all Foxconn employees remains well below China’s relatively high national per-capita average. It’s a statistic that both Foxconn and their major contractor, Apple, made much of after those first 18 suicide attempts. Yet, though the statistic was repeated again and again, no one seemed to point out that this rash of suicides stands outside of those averages—these were all young people, employed by the same company, the vast majority of them at the Longhua factory in Shenzhen. These are unusual details when you consider that the demographics that make up the vast majority of China’s suicides are impoverished rural women and the elderly.
The Drudgery of Factory Life
Reading the pages of Xu’s poems, it is hard to imagine the man that wrote them as anything other than overworked, depressed and unable to conjure a brighter future. He describes himself in his poem “I Fall Asleep, Just Standing Like That” as “Full of working words/Workshop, assembly line, machine, work card, overtime, wages …/They’ve trained me to become docile.” He continues: “Don’t know how to shout or rebel/How to complain or denounce/Only how to silently suffer exhaustion.”
One of the four who were unsuccessful with their suicide attempts, the then 17-year-old Tian Yu, came forward with her story in 2013. She lived and worked at the same factory as Xu, Longhua, in the bustling port city of Shenzhen. After the jump that left her paralyzed from the waist down, she went on-record, describing her life to a reporter who later published the piece in the academic journal New Technology, Work and Employment. She described a life of drudgery and fear at Longhua. She would wake up at 6:30 am, attend an unpaid meeting at 7:20, and begin formal work 20 minutes later. Her job was to inspect iPhone screens for any cracks or scratches. Lunch came at 11 am, and she’d typically skip dinner to work until 7:40 pm, amounting to a 12-hour day. Department heads timed every employee and every task; when goals were met, the targets were increased, making it impossible to consistently meet quotas. Security officers stalked every room of the factory, where conversation was forbidden and the threat of punishment—most often by public humiliation—always loomed. She described the factory as “a massive place of strangers.” After only 37 days of employment at Foxconn, she jumped.
Foxconn workers are given a book for inspiration at the onset of their careers with the company—all penned or endorsed by the company’s CEO, Terry Gou. Expressing a relentless work ethos, the book smacks of exploitation with hard words such as these, written by Gou himself: “Growth, thy name is suffering. A harsh environment is a good thing. Execution is the integration of speed, accuracy and precision.”
Xu described the dismal chore of eeking out a living at Longhua in his poem “I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron,” saying “I swallowed the industrial sewage, these unemployment documents/Youth stooped at machines die before their time/I swallowed the hustle and the destitution/Swallowed pedestrian bridges, life covered in rust/I can’t swallow any more.”
Where Responsibility Lies
Foxconn has chosen a victim-blaming approach in response to the suicides in its factories. Suggesting that it was not the conditions that they were forced to live in with little hope of escape, but the workers own psychological weakness. Foxconn then chose to implement a 36-question psychological test during its application process to weed out those with “fragile spirits.”
After years of struggle—taking him from rural farm life to Shenzhen, and later to Suzhou on the outskirts of Shanghai, completing thousands of hours of draining work along the way—one could hardly question Xu’s integrity. Reflecting on his life, it becomes apparent that he was given very few choices, and Foxconn loomed as the obvious one. I imagine that Xu saw his life stretch out in front of him in a series of mind-numbing days on the factory line.
One could hardly say the college-like dormitories, commissaries and campuses of Foxconn’s factories inherently inhumane. The work itself isn’t inhumane, either. But rampant overtime is. So is stamping out simple human joys like conversation as threats to productivity. Making success impossible by ever-increasing quotas is also inhumane. The constant threat of punishment and the watchfulness of security that breeds distrust and unease is, too.
Who is responsible for increasing the baseline level of happiness for migrant workers in China? Apple now conducts annual surveys of Foxconn factories to ensure the factories’ legality, more likely in order to cover their own tail should more suicides occur rather than out of corporate benevolence. Certainly, the companies that continue to contract with Foxconn must remain vigilant and attentive to the conditions inside the factories. In turn, those companies’ constituents must urge them to.
Xu’s poetry has the ability to change the way we see the world of stuff around us—to help us cease to champion the materiality of life over the substance of it. A poem Xu wrote the same year he died reads “A screw fell to the ground/In this dark night of overtime/Plunging vertically, lightly clinking/It won’t attract anyone’s attention/Just like last time/On a night like this/When someone plunged to the ground.” Let us pay attention to the millions of migrant workers in China. Let us not forget Xu Lizhi and the millions who still toil as he did.
I imagine this—that Xu Lizhi put pen to paper so that we would never forget.