China suicide puts spotlight on secretive Apple culture

HONG KONG Wed Jul 22, 2009 9:09am EDT

A worker walks past Apple Store at The Village, Sanlitun in Beijing, July 29, 2008. REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV

A worker walks past Apple Store at The Village, Sanlitun in Beijing, July 29, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Claro Cortes IV

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Apple Inc said it was awaiting results from an investigation into the death of a worker in China, after media reports said the man killed himself on learning he was suspected of leaking company secrets.

The case puts the spotlight on Apple, whose public face as maker of the wildly successful iPhone contrasts with its reputation for a highly secretive corporate culture.

"We are saddened by the tragic loss of a young employee and we are awaiting the results of the investigation into his death," Apple said in a statement released in the United States on Tuesday, declining further comment.

"We require that our suppliers treat all workers with dignity and respect," it added.

Apple's iPhones are made in south China by its contract manufacturing partner Foxconn International, a unit of Taiwan electronics giant Hon Hai.

Foxconn said in a statement that a worker named Sun Danyong, who had joined the company in 2008, had committed suicide and expressed its condolences to his family.

"The company has noticed there has been much detailed discussion on the Internet and welcomes public discussion on how to help Foxconn's management where it is lacking," Foxconn said in a statement. "We will scrutinize those places ... and strengthen our assistance to young employees," it added

Foxconn did not go into the details surrounding Sun's death.

But according to a report in the influential Nanfang Daily, Sun, a 25-year-old product manager, became frantic after discovering that one of 16 prototypes of Apple's fourth-generation N90 iPhone had gone missing. The iPhone is Apple's hottest-selling device and the latest version is a well-kept secret.

Sun vented his growing frustration in text messages to his girlfriend and a former classmate, and tried to find the missing device, the Nanfang Daily said. But company officials from Foxconn's security division apparently got suspicious and raided his home.

The Yunnan native jumped from his 12th floor apartment the day after, according to the report.

The incident, which triggered an investigation from local police and within Foxconn itself, sparked a Web firestorm in China and has provoked criticism of Apple's intensely guarded culture.

The company has previously threatened lawsuits against media and bloggers that try to publish information about its upcoming products, often arguing they obtained the information from employees who violated confidentiality agreements.

(Reporting by Doug Young and Joanne Chiu in Hong Kong and Gabriel Madway in San Francisco; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

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