To hear Mike Daisey tell it in his monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which he recounts visiting factories owned by Foxconn, which manufactures Apple products, Hong Kong's neighbour Shenzhen “is a city without history” and used to be “a fishing village.” That alone should have given pause to the fact-checker at This American Life, the non-fiction public radio program that aired Daisey's work in January.
In reality, Shenzhen has a long history. For centuries, the area produced salt – back-breaking, blinding work, but not factory work, the labour that is the focus of Mr. Daisey's outrage.
“They had little reed huts, little reed walkways between the huts, the men would fish into the late afternoon – I hear it was lovely,” he says of old Shenzhen.
The point is to draw a sharp contrast between pre-special-economic-zone Shenzhen (the Shire, apparently) and modern Shenzhen, which he says “looks like Blade Runner threw up on itself.”
There's a market area in Hong Kong's Kowloon district that he describes as a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” – Obi-Wan Kenobi's description of the city on the planet Tatooine in Star Wars, the one with the cantina populated by grubby aliens. The Chinese people in his show are mostly depicted as pathetic, adorable aliens (think Ewoks) by Mr. Daisey, who portrays himself as a brave man, a crusader, venturing into a strange land to rescue its inhabitants from the evils of globalization.
“I am the only minority,” he says of the market/cantina where “sub-Saharan Africans with tribal scars are getting into arguments over garbage bags filled with second-hand cellphones, mainlanders are debating with Koreans over some mysterious root, and in an Indian food stall there are stacks and stacks of tiffins.” Again, fact-checker alert.
About 95 per cent of the people in Hong Kong are of Chinese descent, so unless by “minority” he means “not weird, mysterious-root-eating foreign person,” he would be wrong. The Africans, Koreans and tiffin-buying Indians might have told him so, if they weren't so busy being “outlaws” and “pirates” who are “jail-breaking” iPhones, as well as providing our hero with an oracle-like telepathically communicated synopsis of the odyssey upon which he's about to embark.
“He looks like a warrior prince,” Mr. Daisey says of a man with a gold tooth whose magnifying glass causes his eye to “loom enormously,” and “he smiles, as if to say, ‘It's me against Apple. Who do you think is going to win?' ” It may, of course, have been one of those “Leave-me-alone-I'm-working-these-gold-teeth-don't-pay-for-themselves” smiles. We'll never know, but at any rate our hero shoulders the White Man's Burden and leaves.
Not only is The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs terrible journalism, riddled with lies, a truth that caused This American Life to retract the show last week, amid much publicity, it's also terrible theatre that, unlike most terrible theatre, has weakened the credibility of legitimate journalists investigating China's deplorable working conditions. Even A Chorus Line never did that.
Much of what Mr. Daisey describes in his work never happened. He never met under-aged workers at the Foxconn factory he visited. In fact, a human-rights group investigating it around the same time said there were none. And the “older worker with leathery skin … twisted up into a claw … crushed in a metal press [while]assembling iPads,” although “he'd never actually seen one,” also never actually worked at Foxconn as he tidily arranged it so that he could then describe himself handing the nameless elderly worker an iPad. “I turn it on,” Mr. Daisey says. “I unlock the screen, pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view. And he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth.”
Cue the childlike wonder so often seen in noble savages.
“He says it's a kind of magic,” the translator tells our hero. Except, when contacted later despite Mr. Daisey's insistence that she couldn't be found, the translator insists that the man said nothing of the kind. And while Mr. Daisey has defended himself, saying, “I'm an artist” the scene carries no emotional weight once you know it's false, and therefore it's not art, which is false, yet compelling.
By the time you're lying to a fact-checker, as did Mr. Daisey, you know that what you're doing is journalism, and understand it has strict rules. He, like all of us, would have witnessed the rise and fallout of false memoir syndrome, the fame-seeker's affliction, and so what's incredible is that Mr. Daisey thought that, particularly with the ubiquity of the Internet, he would not get caught out. (The translator was found when someone simply Googled “Cathy translator Shenzhen.”)
It really does suggest, as does The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs itself, that Mr. Daisey believed he had set his false memoir on a “dark continent.”