You’re Our Bargaining Chip, Our GDP

Jun 24, 2010

Chinese celebrity blogger and TIME magazine’s No. 2 most influential person, Han Han, on the tragedy of the recent Foxconn suicides.


There have been 13 suicides so far this year at Foxconn, factory of your iPhones and iPads.

There have been 13 suicides so far this year at Foxconn, factory of your iPhones and iPads.

I have a friend who didn’t have any lofty ambitions when he was a student, but he is a healthy, proactive kind of guy. Upon graduating he searched high and low for a job. It wasn’t easy but he finally found something in an assembly line, earning 1,500 yuan (US$219.5) a month. He often has to work overtime, for which he is only sometimes paid, and so he manages about 2,000 yuan in total a month. He lives 20 li1 outside the city, and commutes in a battery-powered car, leaving his house early in the morning and returning late at night. He recently got married, but can’t afford a property. Fortunately he already had a house built in a village, which he partly rents out to migrant workers; that helps bring in a further 1,500 yuan every month.

My friend feels he is doing quite well – at least well enough to secure a bride. With his monthly earnings, the couple manages to survive; they just can’t afford big-ticket items. But he doesn’t dare dream of changing his job or setting up his own business – they don’t have social security, and they won’t be able to survive if they had to go for a month without income. They hope to buy a property in the city, to change their registered permanent residence to a city address, which will benefit the kid.2 But a property in Shanghai City costs at least 500,000 yuan – my friend will have to go without food and drink, and work for the next 25 years, before he can afford anything. And with renovation costs, he will have to go hungry for another five years.

Such is the life of an ordinary person living in the suburbs of Shanghai. In fact, it is already a pretty good life. That’s the reason why there have been so many suicides at Foxconn – working in an assembly line, for a very low salary, without a future in sight. But it could be worse working elsewhere; and with the high cost of living, apart from being able to feed and clothe oneself, one can’t do much else. And, faced with a government that is advertising its contributions and achievements to the world – it might as well produce evidence from the ancient times and pictures from the Ice Age to prove this – saying that you ought to thank the nation for not letting you starve, tell me, what more can you hope for?

Although that friend of mine is going through a lot of stress, he still has his friends and family. For the other workers, most of whom are young and have their families thousands of kilometres away, how much they earn is often the only benchmark used by Chinese families to value their worth.

If you say you are like an automaton, others would say they are like a bag of shit… Such is the life of many youths in China.

Psychological counselling won’t help those Foxconn employees. When we see our women in the arms of wealthy men, wealthy men in the arms of officials, officials in the arms of big bosses, big bosses in the arms of Lin Zhiling3; tell me, what sort of psychological counselling can you give? When you hear that your classmates are worse off, and they envy you for being at Foxconn; for having security, a regular salary, arranged accommodation and overtime pay – if you say you are like an automaton, others would say they are like a bag of shit… Such is the life of many youths in China.

If you increase the salary of Foxconn workers by tenfold, would that mean no one will kill himself? Well, only if inflation doesn’t increase tenfold. But of course the Big Boss won’t agree to it; even if he does, the government will issue orders to stop him.

That our politicians have been able to flex their muscles in the international political arena, and play games, it’s all thanks to you – every one of you, cheap labour – for you are China’s bargaining chip, our GDP. Whether this is a consequence of China’s unique socialism or capitalism, it remains to be fathomed. What is clear is that such tragedies, much as they should be raging in our hearts, they remain splattered, smeared on the ground.



Han Han also blogs at



1 One li (里) equals one-half kilometre.

2 Hukou (户口) influences the allocation of schools

3 Famous Taiwanese female movie star