Why Apple builds iPhones (and everything else) in China

President Obama reportedly once asked Steve Jobs what it would take to make iPhones in the U.S. Jobs' response wasn't encouraging...

An assembly line in Shenzhen
(Image credit: Qilai Shen/In Pictures/Corbis)

When President Obama famously dined with a handful of Silicon Valley titans a year ago, he had a question for Apple chief Steve Jobs, say Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher in The New York Times: What would it take to make iPhones in the United States? Jobs' answer was unambiguous and sobering: "Those jobs aren't coming back." Now, in a lengthy story, Duhigg and Bradsher explain — based on conversations with executives at Apple and its tech rivals, economists, and government officials — why Apple and just about every player in the consumer-electronics universe has all but given up on "Made in the USA." Here, a concise look at the secret to China's success:

What does China have that America lacks?

Quite a lot. China has more mid-level engineers, a more flexible workforce, and gigantic factories that can ramp up production at the drop of a hat. China also offers tech firms a one-stop solution. "The entire supply chain is in China now," a former high-ranking Apple executive tells The Times. "You need a thousand rubber gaskets? That's the factory next door. You need a million screws? That factory is a block away. You need that screw made a little bit different? It will take three hours."

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

It's not just about cheaper wages?

No. Wages actually aren't that big a part of the cost of making consumer electronics, according to The Times. Paying American wages to build iPhones would add only about $65 to the retail price of each handset, according to analysts' estimates. That's an amount Apple could likely afford. And in fact, China no longer offers rock-bottom wages. But when it did, it used that window "to innovate the entire way supply chains work," says Sarah Lacy at PandoDaily. China is now "a place other countries can beat on sheer cost, but not on speed, flexibility, and know-how."

What does China's competitive edge look like in practice?

One example from The Times article: When Jobs decided just a month before the iPhone hit markets to replace a scratch-prone plastic screen with a glass one, a Foxconn factory in China woke up about 8,000 workers when the glass screens arrived at midnight, and the workers were assembling 10,000 iPhones a day within 96 hours. Another example: Apple had originally estimated that it would take nine months to hire the 8,700 qualified industrial engineers needed to oversee production of the iPhone; in China, it took 15 days. Anecdotes like that leave you "feeling almost impressed by the no-holds-barred capabilities of these manufacturing plants," says Edward Moyer at CNET News, "impressed and queasy at the same time."

Is there anything the U.S. can do to bring these jobs back?

At the Silicon Valley dinner, some tech executives suggested that a "tax holiday" on foreign profits would allow their companies to repatriate money to create jobs at home. Such a tax break would save Apple about $8.2 billion, says Philip Elmer-DeWitt at Fortune. "That's a lot of lettuce." Jobs also suggested at the dinner that Apple could bring some skilled manufacturing jobs to the U.S. if the government helped train a new cadre of engineers.

Was Steve Jobs generally down on America?

No. Apple has actually added quite a few jobs here in the U.S., even as it outsources more of its labor overseas. And at the end of the Silicon Valley dinner, Jobs reportedly told Obama that he's "not worried about the country's long-term future" because the U.S. "is insanely great."

Sources: CNET News, Fortune, Gizmodo, PandoDaily, New York Times

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us