Apple promised complete access, no dog-and-pony, no Potemkin Village, but they denied my repeated requests to interview Apple CEO Tim Cook or the senior vice president of industrial design, Jony Ive.
In a three-golf-cart convoy, both Apple and Foxconn reps took us around to a half dozen production lines in Shenzhen and Chengdu, and there were always five to six people with us as we toured the factories and dorms. But aside from suggesting a visit to the counseling center or canteen, they never steered us to interviews and never interrupted.
This is some of what we saw. See it yourself on Tuesday's "Nightline."
The pristine white boxes that roll off these lines in Shenzhen, China all carry the words "designed in California." But the collective genius of Cupertino would be nothing without the relentless, repetitive work of hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Taiwanese workers like Liang Juan.
Covered head to toe in a dust-free "bunny suit," the 26-year-old has spent most of the past three years flipping tiny camera lenses with a pair of tweezers.
"What do you think about all day?" I wonder. "I don't think much about other things," she says, "because the management is strict and we're busy working and have no time to think about other things."
But over on another assembly line in Chengdu, Zhou Xiao Ying admits, "A lot of times I think about how tired I am." Around 6,000 times per shift, she grabs an iPad housing and files the aluminum shavings from the iconic Apple silhouette. And once a month she takes a two-hour bus ride to see her parents and her children. (See Apple's clarification on Zhou Xiao Ying's statement regarding the 6,000 units.)
"I think about resting," she says.
Did Tragedy Cause Foxconn to Open Its Doors? 'Absolutely,' Says Executive
For years the world has marveled at a different kind of Apple line, the sort that stretches for city blocks outside stores each time a new product ships. In a single generation, those lines turned a garage start-up into the most valuable company in the world.
But while Apple fans bought over 17 million computers, 38 million iPods, 40 million iPads and 93 million iPhones last year, no one from the outside has ever seen the production lines that built them. Until now.
And in a stunning admission, a Foxconn executive, who spent 15 years at Apple, tells me he thinks "Nightline" probably wouldn't be here if it weren't for the deadly explosions and suicides.
"You being here is part of the openness, part of the learning, part of the change that Foxconn is undergoing," said Louis Woo, a former Apple executive who serves as an advisor to Foxconn CEO, Terry Gou. "Of course you can argue that we should have opened up five years ago. Well five years ago, we are under the radar screen, nobody really knows us, we are doing well. Why should I open it up?"
I ask if it took such deadly tragedy for Foxconn to rethink the way it treats its workers. "I think absolutely, absolutely, yeah," he says. "You know, success is the mother of failure. Because we've been so successful, successful in the sense that it seems everybody's happy. Right?"
We land in Hong Kong in darkness and after a two-hour drive, arrive in Shenzhen. This was a tiny fishing village 30 years ago, but after the Chinese declared it a "Special Economic Zone," there are now more people here than New York City.