Death By iPhone: Apple and China's Cultural Time Bomb

Last week, a 25-year-old communications worker died in an "apparent suicide" after losing track of a prototype iPhone built by Foxconn, his employer, for one of the most secretive companies in technology. It was only a matter of time.

First, a recap: Sun Danyong's death came after a case of prototype iPhones he was charged with shipping to Apple's headquarters in Cupertino ended up short by one. Sun couldn't produce the device and claimed not to know what had happened; security officials at Foxconn, the manufacturer of Apple's iPhone and Sun's employer, didn't buy his story. At all.

In the days following the incident, Sun quite possibly went through hell. He confided in his university friends—he had just graduated—that his house had been searched repeatedly and without announcement, that he had been endlessly interrogated, that he'd been held in solitary confinement, and even that he'd been outright tortured by security guards. Soon after, he was found dead at the base of his apartment building, having fallen 14 stories. He died, one way or another, for a phone. Yeah, no, you're right: This is fucking crazy.

A common snap response is that this is just symptomatic of poor labor regulations in China, a sentiment seemingly backed up by Foxconn's tellingly honest statement on the issue:

Regardless of the reason of Sun's suicide, it is to some extent a reflection of Foxconn's internal management deficiencies, especially in how to help young workers cope with the psychological pressures of working life at the company.

They've since suspended one security guard without pay, and turned over the investigation to police. But to put this incident in that broad context isn't useful, either to explain what happened or to know how to deal with it. To a certain extent, Apple does own Sun's death, and it's almost shocking that something like this hadn't already happened.

Apple's history of secrecy is long and storied, but hardly seen as scary by itself. We spend a lot of time trying to crack it for stories, and just as much laughing at how extreme it is—even Apple's office employees in California are constantly monitored by cameras, forced to pass through absurdly complex security gates on a daily basis, carrying prototypes in black cloaks and flipping on warning lights in rooms when the cloaks are removed from the devices of idolatry.

But there's a lot at stake for Apple, so to an extent their paranoia is understandable: keeping a device like the iPhone secret keeps their strategy out of competitors' view, and more importantly ensures an all-out media eruption when it goes public on schedule. There is no more secretive company in tech, and there is no device more important to keep secret than the iPhone.

Apple's also had, since the early days, a punitive attitude towards those who betray them. Stories of Steve Jobs not giving his best friend and early employee Dan Kottke pre-IPO stock because of disagreements, or banning difficult journalists from having access to the company's products or briefings come to mind. (Disclaimer: But not all.) I'm hardly saying that killing is in the character of the company, but there has sometimes been a price to pay for crossing Apple.

This ethos becomes dangerous when combined with billions of dollars and the dubious values at Chinese manufacturing companies like Foxconn, which've placed profit above human rights in the past. —Note: Foxconn is headquartered in Taiwan, but does the vast majority of manufacturing in China—specifically at the 270,000-employee plant in Shenzhen.

Foxconn may be huge, but they're not unique, and if they can't keep Apple's hardware plans quiet, it's easy to imagine another manufacturing conglomerate stealing their contracts worth untold billions. It's a scary and very real threat to a solid business relationship, and a subtly tyrannical one.

But the stakes are much higher at Foxconn's campus (to use a generous word) than at Apple's. If an Apple employee leaks a product, he could lose his job, and Apple would lose what amounts to some free advertising—after all, leaks aren't a bad way to build buzz either. If a Foxconn employee does the same, he endangers thousands of jobs, billions of dollars in contracts and a vital relationship for his company. That's an unrealistically, recklessly high responsibility to ask each employee—Sun and his alleged torturer—to shoulder. Imagine yourself in Sun's shoes: You have just lost a prototype of the world's most coveted gadget, built by the world's most unforgivingly secretive electronics maker. Would you like your life to be hung against the balance of billions of dollars, in a country with lax labor laws and a history of running its citizen over with tanks?

But wait, Apple says, let us be clear:

We are saddened by the tragic loss of this young employee, and we are awaiting results of the investigations into his death. We require our suppliers to treat all workers with dignity and respect.

They require every last line worker to keep secrets worth billions of dollars; they require Foxconn bosses to make sure these employees keep their mouths shut; they require that suppliers treat their workers well. Of those, requirement they're most willing to talk openly about also sound the most like an afterthought, and to "require" something doesn't necessarily mean you really expect it.

(As an aside, who's to say that the case didn't leave China with all the devices, and through the many handlers in the shipping and airline companies, ahem, lose a little weight during the complicated transit? And why weren't such valuable prototypes delivered by hand? Art museums do this, and they don't even have industrial spies to deal with.)

Rightly or not, Sun was the only guy Foxconn felt it could hold accountable for the mess it found itself in, a judgment which probably cost him his life, and which his employer felt tremendous pressure to make. But this scenario could have easily been foreseen, and the matter of how much human risk Apple calculated it could take before a 25-year-old man ended up dead is at least as important a question as how they respond to it.

[Photo from Southern Metropolis Daily and The Brisbane Times]