ACT Humans Rights Film Festival: ‘Complicit’ reveals the human cost of electronics

Julia Trowbridge

“Complicit” was titled after’s 2017 word of the year.

The documentary follows the fight of Yi Yeting, a group of Chinese teenagers and the non-governmental organizations as they work for their basic human rights.


The movie features a Steve Job’s quote: “The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world do.” The quote seems a bit ironic when looking at his lack of response to Chinese labor reform activists.

“The reason for putting (Steve Jobs’ quote) in the film is to encourage people to think about all the irony and the contradictions that are going on in our current relationship with technology,” said Heather White, a director for the documentary. “And, I think that people were a little surprised to hear him having made that quote when he was not very receptive to the outreach from the workers or the NGOs in Hong Kong who contacted him several times before he passed away. It’s more food for thought.”

Around 163 million Chinese migrant workers, including around 12 million teenagers, travel from their homes to the cities like Guangzhou to find work. These workers are met with long, dangerous work hours. Electronic factories like Foxconn, who creates 50 percent of Apple’s products, have unlabeled cleaning chemicals that contain carcinogens like benzene and n-hexane. As a result, Chinese migrant workers in their early 20s are discovering they have cancers like leukemia from benzene poisoning. 

Yeting, who was diagnosed with leukemia from benzene poisoning at 24, became a labor reform activist. It was a hard journey for the company he worked for to pay for the treatment for his occupational illness. Through his work with the activism group, he tried to help various people, like Ming Kunpeng, who was diagnosed with leukemia at 26 and committed suicide so as to not bring a financial burden to his family, and Xiao Ya, who was poisoned with n-hexane at 18 and joined Yeting in his activism work.

I think we’re in a position of opportunity, if we care, to try and help and assist the people of China however they need it.” – Heather White, director of “Complicit”

The film follows the horror that the workers and the activists go through, from being evicted from offices, not being able to leave the country and fighting for their rights in the streets all while dealing with cancer or poisoning. The insight into what creates the technology we use every day is important, especially now that China has cracked down on investigative journalism.

“The media’s censored,” White said. “They get arrested if they try to protest. The families get roughed up by government employees if they try to raise awareness of what’s happened to their children. As they’re in the midst of a dictatorship and totalitarian crackdown right now, even lawyers are getting killed in detention, lawyers that are representing advocates and activists and people who are speaking out. I think we’re in a position of opportunity, if we care, to try and help and assist the people of China however they need it, and this film is kind of a combination of my work over the past 25 years with China.”

The undercover investigation discovered what the media is missing due to the pressure from large manufacturing companies to keep this under wraps. “Complicit” showed the wrongdoings of the technology manufacturing giants and the efforts for the activists to fight for their basic human rights. This documentary reveals the lives behind the devices we use every day, and advocates for the consumers, who financially support companies like Apple by buying their products, to think about their consumer choices and advocate for the voices of the Chinese migrant workers that are not being heard.

 “Apple started out as a very progressive, beloved company because of all of the new technology they were producing and all the great products,” White said. “And now there are a lot of challenges in their supply chain, and they’ve become one of the most profitable companies in the world.” 

Collegian reporter Julia Trowbridge can be reached at or on twitter @chapin_jules.