Living with Foxconn

Residents near the manufacturer’s plant in Taiyuan city are up in arms over a toxic stench. Meng Si went to meet the community that doesn’t much care for Apple’s gadgets.

Yang Xiuduan would love to have an iPhone – on one condition. “I’ll buy it just as soon as we chase Apple out of here,” he said, pointing at the Foxconn factory that stands 200 metres from his home.

Thirty-eight-year-old Yang, a mid-ranking employee at a state institution in Taiyuan, and other residents in Hengda Luzhou Apartments started to notice a strange smell shortly after moving into the new housing complex a little over a year ago. First, they blamed a sewer outside. Then, they wondered if it could be the furnishings in their newly decorated apartments. Finally, their eyes turned over the road to the factory that manufactures parts for Apple’s high-tech gadgets.

By the summer of last year, residents here were finding the stench unbearable and complaining of coughs, headaches and stomach problems. And they were pointing the finger squarely at the Foxconn factory.

Taiwanese-owned Foxconn is one of Apple’s key suppliers. The company shot to global fame in 2010 following a spate of worker suicides at its factory in Shenzhen, a wealthy manufacturing city in south China. And it has stayed in the news since, largely thanks to a high-profile campaign by Beijing-based green NGOs to get Apple to clean up pollution in its supply chain.

But while Foxconn’s Shenzhen plant has generated plenty of coverage in the global media, other parts of its operations have been under-reported. That is not for lack of tension: here in Taiyuan, a northern Chinese city best known not for manufacturing but coal-mining, a storm has been brewing between the electronics plant and local residents, who say the factory is blighting their lives.

It’s a story playing out all over China, as the industrial boom that started on the east coast spreads across the country. Break-neck expansion has brought jobs and opportunities, but it has also invaded the space between homes and factories, leaving people living side by side with manufacturers and their communities plagued by noxious gases. The supply chain behind Apple’s flashy gadgets offers a window into the complexities and costs of China’s manufacturing rise.

Five hundred kilometres from Yang Xiuduan’s home, environmental groups in Beijing have spent more than a year working to expose pollution violations by Apple’s suppliers. This coalition of NGOs, led by transparency campaigner Ma Jun, started monitoring Apple’s manufacturers in 2010 and went on to publish two reports revealing serious pollution violations, including in Taiyuan.

Although Apple does not directly manufacture any products itself, the green activists argued that the firm still has responsibility for the problems they uncovered. As a large and powerful client, the multinational corporation should be demanding better environmental performance from its suppliers, they said.

The Taiyuan residents hoped that the campaign against Apple would pressure both the factory and the government to act, breaking the deadlock and eradicating the stench once and for all. They were worried about their health and the homes they had channelled all their savings into.

These residents believe that Apple’s weak environmental regime has led to the chemical odours – which they say they can smell even with the windows closed – and already visible health problems. From breathing difficulties to stomach irritations, people living in this community suffer a range of illnesses that they suspect are linked to the factory’s activities, though as is so often the case in the field of environmental health they cannot confirm a causal relationship.

Standing in Yang’s apartment complex during my visit, I too caught whiffs of something strange – a smell close to paint fumes. It wasn’t too strong and it came and went with the wind. The residents described the smell in all sorts of ways to me: like sulphur, like burning and even a sickly sweet.

A Taiyuan Foxconn manager, speaking by phone, said that there is an odour problem at the plant and that Apple had come “two or three times to inspect the facility and audit its emissions data.” However, at the end of February, an Apple spokesperson told chinadialogue the audits had detected no pollution problem at the Taiyuan plant.

A zoning problem?

The problems suffered by the residents of Hengda Luzhou Apartments are linked to the way development here was originally planned. According to Shanxi’s environmental protection office, the housing complex is “200 metres from Foxconn Technology Industrial Zone”. At that distance, the odours are obvious in the eight buildings closest to the Foxconn factory when there is an easterly wind. They can also be detected in another eight buildings slightly further away.

Liu Xiang of China’s Centre for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV) explained that Chinese law sets different size buffer zones for different types of factories, but that regulations have not yet been determined for certain categories. To know what should have been done in this instance, the residents would have to look at the recommendations made in the development’s environmental impact assessment – a document that has not been made available to the public – he said.

Liu Xiaowen, chief of the local environmental protection bureau (EPB), admitted that the distance between the residential area and the facility is inadequate, but said that his hands are tied. “The factory is already there. All we can do is to try our best to find a compromise. We have got duties both to the locals and to the 100,000 Foxconn employees.”

At full capacity, the Hengda Luzhou apartment complex can house 12,000 families, or around 30,000 residents, making it the largest in Shanxi province. Another housing development is under construction to the south of the factory.

The residents have made countess phone calls to environmental authorities at local, city, provincial and national levels, both polite and angry. On August 6, 2011, they stepped their protest up a gear: more than 100 residents blocked the road with their cars, attracting the attention of the provincial government. The locals, the authorities and Foxconn had a meeting, and the residents made four visits to the factory.

Their efforts weren’t entirely smooth – locals bearing a letter from the provincial petition office were prevented from entering the city petition office by the police, for example – but progress was made. The meeting opened up lines of communication between the residents and the factory, and from this point Foxconn began to upgrade the equipment at its plant.

The residents’ complaints have not stopped, however. Yang and others continue to publish information on Foxconn’s pollution online, discuss the problems on microblogs and complain to the environmental authorities. Offline, they organise petitions and factory visits, make phone calls to the local government and factory staff, and use their inside contacts to dig for information.

Chief among their demands is more information. The authorities have come to test the air four times, and the residents want to know precisely what they found out: what gases were present and were they above permitted levels? But they have only received vague answers.

A 2010 investigation into complaints about Foxconn, carried out by the provincial environmental protection bureau, concluded that the odours were coming from the coating workshop and from oil mist created by equipment in the machinery workshop. In 2011, the city-level environmental protection bureau expanded the list: the offensive smells, they said, were caused by fumes from the coating workshop, odours from the waste-water treatment equipment, dust from the recycling workshop and oil mist from the machinery workshop.

The most detailed publically available data can be found in a document from the Shanxi Party Committee’s Social Circumstances and Public Opinion Office: “Monitoring data indicates that levels of seven of the 50 non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHCs) that were tested for are too high.” When levels of NMHCs reach a certain level, they are directly harmful to human health, and under certain conditions can form a photochemical smog, endangering both the environment and people.

But which actual tests did the factory fail? What are the emissions made up of? What dangers do they pose? This is the information residents like Yang want to find out. Meanwhile, they have resorted to buying air purifiers – now stocked in two shops in their complex – and traditional Chinese medicinal remedies. Mr Wei, a resident who has given up his outdoor morning exercises because of the pollution, advises neighbours to take lily bulbs boiled in water as a detoxicant.

What are we breathing?

The failure of the residents to establish exactly what problems they face is not for lack of trying. Last year, Yang decided to apply to the provincial government to see the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the construction of Foxconn’s factory, plus the past three years of environmental monitoring data.

When he arrived at the provincial environmental protection bureau to file his freedom of information request, a young civil servant told him he was in the wrong place. Yang followed directions to another floor, where he received an even less welcoming reception. Finally, he managed to lodge his application, but was later telephoned by the bureau: since Yang hadn’t explained why he wanted the information, he would have to reapply, they informed him. He filled in the forms again.

Twenty-four days later, Yang received a reply: full pollution monitoring data was not yet available. Once available, it would be released by the company itself. The EIA would not be made public. He could see the document approving the EIA, but would not be allowed to copy or photograph it.

Yang had been hoping to get evidence for a court case against Foxconn, but accepted this was “a dead end”. His experience is a common one. In May 2008, China introduced a set of regulations intended to enshrine in law the public right to data about polluting projects – the trial “measures on open environmental information”. But enforcement of this ground-breaking legislation has been challenging, and in the four years since it came into effect many people around the country have found their requests for data repeatedly rejected.

s advancing cities

Similarly, the continuing friction in Taiyuan is far from an isolated case. Across China, rapidly expanding cities are advancing into the countryside, bringing with them new and complicated dynamics.

At first, the villagers closest to the cities sell their land to developers facing saturated urban markets. Most of the young villagers move to the city to work, while those who stay behind sell their land or rent out their homes. Local governments are keen to attract factories to boost the local economy, while the companies themselves enjoy cheaper land prices than in the city, better infrastructure than in rural areas and preferential treatment from local government.

In Taiyuan, development has followed the route of the Dayun expressway, which links the city to surrounding rural areas. Along the road, villages and fields have one by one turned into mazes of apartment complexes.

Foxconn’s facility predates that process. The manufacturer built its facility here in 2005, and work started on the Hengda Luzhou Apartments two years later. Once the surrounding fields were replaced with apartment buildings, Foxconn’s days of peace were over. Who allowed the apartments to be built so close to the factory? As is so often the case in China, the answer is lost to history.

At the end of last year, the China Association for Science and Technology announced that local governments were behind 80% of all breaches of land law in the country. A National Development and Reform Commission official has warned that local government’s enthusiasm for development zones is leading to “scattered development, which neither farmland nor energy resources can support.”

Benefits too?

Not everyone is angry, however. For the Hengda Luzhou homeowners, Foxconn means pollution. But for the residents of Chengxi, a village to the north of the apartments and diagonally opposite the factory, it is a source of prosperity.

Mr He, a Chengxi shopkeeper, described how the village had got richer since Foxconn arrived. Locals have been able to sell land to property developers and almost every household here rents rooms to Foxconn employees.

Mrs Gao’s husband works at Foxconn. They rent a 30-square metre, two-room apartment on the third floor of a private dormitory. The building can accommodate seven families on each floor. When they first arrived in 2009, she said, the rent was 200 yuan per month. Now it is 450 yuan.

Many of the homes in the village have signs advertising rooms and there are plenty of restaurants, hotels, clinics and launderettes.

Nobody in Chengxi seemed to know much about the pollution nearby. Liu said “very few” villagers here had complained about the smells in the past. A woman from Hebei who sells dried foods said that there are strange odours in summer, but they aren’t necessarily caused by Foxconn: they could come from burning coal or the sewerage ditch at the front of the village.

The villagers of Chengxi may not care about the odours too much, but that doesn’t mean they suffer no impact. In fact, they have lived with the plant for longer than Hengda Luzhou’s residents, and Dr Li, a local physician who used to work in a hospital here, believes environmental health issues need attention.

Although there is no quantified data, Li said that the incidence of respiratory problems and congenital disorders among villagers is high. Between 2006 and 2011, the rate of cleft palates, cleft lips, hydrocephaly and spinal problems increased significantly, she said, estimating they may now account for 70% to 80% of all illnesses.

Benzene, an organic pollutant often used in the cleaning and coating of electronic components, is a carcinogen. High degrees of benzene exposure can cause reproductive abnormalities and leukaemia. Dr Li added that respiratory problems are often linked to harmful substances in the air.

According to a source with access to authoritative data, who wished to remain anonymous, between 2006 and the end of 2011, the rate of stillbirths, miscarriages, congential disorders and respiratory problems in the villages around the Foxconn factory – Xicheng, Nanheiyao, Xiaodian, Nanpan and Yangzhuang – was markedly higher than in the period from 2002 to 2006.

Official in the middle

Saddled with the unenviable task of balancing this host of competing priorities – health, growth, stability, jobs and living standards – is local EPB chief Liu Xiaowen, in a case symptomatic of the complex relationship between people and officialdom in boomtown China.

Almost everyone here has Liu’s mobile number – and he is feeling the pressure. The 57-year-old visits the factory whenever a complaint comes in, even if it’s at the crack of dawn. On December 31 last year he even invited Yang Xiuduan and several other residents to dinner (though he asked Yang not to bring anyone who had been abusive when lodging complaints). Making a rather unlikely New Year’s Eve party, Liu and his deputy sat down to eat with around a dozen residents’ representatives.

“No matter what, we’ve known each other for a year and they have helped our work,” Liu said of the residents. But he explained that it’s difficult for him to do anything about the smell: as the Foxconn facility was approved at provincial level, the local environmental protection bureau only has powers to monitor the problem.

He also believes that, as a local official, his duty is to keep his area stable. “We’ve got a staff of 10, and we’ve spent most of our time this year on Foxconn,” he said. “The public can talk in extreme terms – they don’t have any legal responsibilities. But we represent the government and it would be wrong for us to do the same.”

A more stable future?

Do the Foxconn factory’s upgrades – made in response to residents’ complaints – offer hope for more “stability”? The early signs are mixed. “Little” Yang, who lives on the tenth floor of a Hengda Luzhou block, has no faith in the new environmental equipment or monitoring systems. He and many other locals still insist the only answer is for Foxconn to leave.

Yang Xiuduan, meanwhile, believes that public campaigning has had an effect and that the problem is less severe now than in the past. But the residents are struggling to regain trust and a sense of security. Even with the new equipment, they say the smells still come.

And they have learned not to take soothing official words at face value. An article on the provincial government’s website on Taiyuan’s “modern circular economy” claims that emissions from the Foxconn facility are entirely controlled. In effect, it says, the factory produces no emissions at all, as all fumes go through a treatment process that renders them harmless. In 2006, Foxconn suddenly became a “Taiyuan Model Environmental Firm” and a “Shanxi Green Firm” and senior officials from the State Environmental Protection Agency (now the Ministry of Environmental Protection) visited and praised the plant on a number of occasions.

After months of constant complaining, Yang’s wife Jia Sumei has given up: “Let’s move in the summer. I don’t want to go through it all again.” But Yang is more confident: “Don’t worry, I believe things will get better,” he said.

Meng Si is a Beijing-based freelance journalist who formerly worked at

Homepage image by Meng Si shows the gates to Taiyuan’s Foxconn factory.