Analyses of recent events across the Middle East and North Africa have routinely noted the role of mobile technologies in facilitating not just events on the ground, but the communication within and between countries. Missing from the discussion, however, is a major concern: the often shocking labour conditions faced by those --- mostly in China --- who manufacture Blackberrys, iPhones and the other products that have spurred this communication. Writing for Al Jazeera English, Mark LeVine examines the problem and how it unifies a multitude of struggles against economic oppression:
Arab activists could not have achieved their stunning successes without Blackberries, iPhones, laptops and the other weapons of contemporary revolution. But what few have noticed 000 or at least wanted to think about - is that the spread of these technologies across the Arab world is the result of intense and often crushing exploitation of the millions of workers on the other side of Eurasia who produce the devices that have enabled the revolutions. The economies of scale and efficiencies in production technologies that have put prices for computers, HiDef video cameras and smart phones within the reach of middle and working class Arabs have pushed the workers that produce these products to the edge.
Mohamed Bouazizi was the last of three Tunisians who committed suicide in 2010 in protest against a life without hope. In Egypt, four self-immolations preceded the call to Tahrir on January 25, 2011. In China, 18 workers at just one Apple production complex attempted suicide in 2009-2010. Many more have threatened suicides, and hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers have staged labour actions to protest on-going violations of workers’ rights throughout the country.
Of course, millions of workers have little choice but to go to that edge --- according to numerous reports by Chinese and foreign activists, journalists and human rights groups, workers will grudgingly accept mandatory and unpaid overtime, 18-hour days spent standing until legs swell, the use of toxic chemicals and other violations of international (and often Chinese) labour laws. They do so because the wages, however low by Western standards, are better than what could be earned in other jobs. But this doesn't justify the conditions under which they are forced to work, or the fact that they suffer as corporations like Apple are making unprecedented profits from the devices these workers build.
The paradoxical links between the Arab Spring and the on-going problem of workers' rights in China was not lost on scholars and activists working in and on China. Ralph Litzinger, a Duke University anthropologist who studies labour issues in China, explained:
When we get all excited about the Arab uprisings but we don't really want to know who and what produces the things we're holding in our hands. We want to get on with the business of revolutions and to be constantly reminded of the way things are made? Heavy metal runoff into rivers and ground water, and harsh labour conditions, etc. That stuff stands in the way of the revolution, illuminating a fundamental contradiction that slows down its momentum. But the reality is that the technologies that we use are part of the global capitalist network, which means that ultimately the issues facing protesters in Cairo or Shenzhen are rooted in the same larger processes.
Litzinger continued. "I joke with friends in China that we're sitting around doing all this planning with our iPhones, Blackberries, Androids, and the like, sharing information and commenting on articles? We're using the very technology that we're denouncing. And they say, 'What choice do we have?'."
Certainly, the Chinese government is very aware of the links between the two plight of Arab and Chinese workers and activists. During the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions people couldn't even type the word "Jasmine" into Chinese search engines or use it in blogs.
"The government is very paranoid," Litzinger went on, precisely because it can see that thanks to the same technology that helped enable the Arab revolutions, workers in China are now getting more connected than ever before, and able to bypass attempts to censor or block what is happening across the country.
It seems, we agreed, that Chinese activists are in a similar position to Egyptians or Tunisian a few years ago - activist and solidarity networks are become denser, best practices for protesting and otherwise resisting abuses from land expropriation to exploitative working conditions are being shared, and slowly but surely Chinese society is gaining the experience and courage to challenge a seemingly powerful state, with labour activists providing the crucial early experiences that will likely shaped a combined environmental, labour and perhaps pro-democracy movement in the coming years.