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In Foxconn's iPad factory, a window on Chinese hopes - and frustrations

Underneath China’s economic strides, Foxconn's iPad factory shows its labor market remains rooted in tough conditions and low wages, even as workers aim to improve their lot in life.

By Tom LasseterMcClatchy Newspapers / July 18, 2012

Workers walk out of the entrance to a Foxconn factory in Chengdu, Sichuan province on July 4.

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Chengdu, China

Invitations to the conference in Chengdu promised “China’s New Future,” with the country’s name spelled out in large gold letters. Mayor Ge Honglin, wearing a nicely tailored black suit, assured the audience sitting beneath rows of bright chandeliers that the regional market will grow “bigger and bigger.”

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Throughout the afternoon, business executives repeated economic plans as mantra: Research and development! High-tech manufacturing! Alternative energy!

For all the enthusiasm offered by Mayor Ge and his guests, prominent local employer Foxconn Technology Group received little mention at the day’s press events. Even the spot in a promotional video boasting that more than half the world’s iPads are manufactured in Chengdu didn’t name Foxconn as having churned them out.

The lack of appetite for open discussion about the Taiwanese electronics firm – with its reputation as a 21st-century sweatshop where workers leap off rooftops – wasn’t surprising.

In Chengdu and other cities across the country, companies such as Foxconn are a reminder of the complexities facing Chinese Communist Party efforts to promote quality of life, household spending and, ultimately, social stability. Underneath China’s great economic strides, its labor market remains rooted in tough conditions and wages that have risen but remain relatively low.

Workers at Foxconn described a strictly regimented and depersonalized environment. It’s a life spent sitting mutely at assembly lines, they said, then shuffling back home to towering, cramped apartment buildings monitored by guards.

“Some people come for a few days and leave,” said Wu Zeyun, an assembly line worker who was eating a bowl of rice and vegetables at a rundown row of restaurants near the company’s facility in Chengdu. “And then others come for a few days and leave.”

His friend Huang Li said, “It happens every day. The feeling here is not good.”

Support for the Communist Party

But interviews with the factory’s rank and file also pointed to a significant reason that, despite such frustrations, support for the Communist Party remains strong: Based on the nation’s past three decades of momentum, they expect something better to come.

That’s a crucial, if not existential, margin for party rulers presiding over a system beset by corruption, swelling prices and a widening gap in wealth and privilege. It might help explain why, despite a staggering average of some 10 percent annual growth for the previous 30 years, Chinese officials often seem edgy about the prospect of slowing down the economy.

As the largest private employer in the country, Foxconn certainly has generated revenue and jobs in Chengdu and elsewhere. The company says it employs more than 1 million people in mainland China – 100,000-plus in Chengdu alone – contracting with Apple and others to assemble their products.

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