iPhone factory protest challenges China’s ‘zero Covid’ rules

At an iPhone factory in central China, thousands of workers clashed with riot police and tore down barricades.

In the southern city of Guangzhou, protesters broke out of cordoned off buildings to confront health workers and loot food supplies.

And online, many Chinese raged at authorities after the death of a 4-month-old girl, whose father said access to medical treatment had been delayed due to Covid restrictions.

As China’s strict Covid rules stretch well into its third year, there are growing signs of discontent across the country. For China’s leader Xi Jinping, the unrest is a test of his landmark third term and underscores the pressing political question of how to lead China out of the Covid era.

The rare displays of defiance over the past two weeks are the most visible signs of frustration and despair at the lockdowns, quarantines and mass testing that have turned everyday life upside down. The anger, combined with outbreaks of Covid across the country that have pushed cases to an all-time high, heralds a dark winter.

Earlier this month, officials said they were adjusting Covid restrictions to limit the disruption’s impact on the economy and government resources. The recent surge in cases has called that promise into question, with many officials resorting to known heavy-handed measures to try to stop the spread of the virus.

Whether Mr. Xi can find a middle ground will reflect China’s status as the factory floor of the world and a major engine of global economic growth. Some multinationals are already trying to expand production elsewhere.

“What we’re seeing at Foxconn is the bankruptcy of the ‘China model,'” said Wu Qiang, a policy analyst in Beijing, referring to the Taiwanese operator of the central China factory that makes half of the world’s iPhones. “It’s the collapse of China’s image as a manufacturing power and China’s relationship with globalization.”

Many will be watching to see if the recent chaos at the Foxconn plant spreads elsewhere. Even before the uproar that broke out at the plant this week, Apple had warned that a poorly managed lockdown there would hurt its sales. Analysts have forecast longer wait times for iPhone 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max Christmas purchases.

“If the government continues with its zero-Covid policy, Foxconn would be just the beginning. Foxconn exists today, but other factories will face similar situations,” said Li Qiang, founder and chief executive officer of China Labor Watch, a New York-based Chinese labor rights group.

Foxconn workers railed against a delay in paying bonuses and the Taiwanese assembler’s failure to properly isolate new workers from those who tested positive. The hiring had recently halted after thousands of workers fled the Foxconn plant last month due to a Covid outbreak.

Clashes erupted between thousands of workers and riot police and health workers from Tuesday night until dawn Wednesday, according to four workers who spoke to The Times. Demonstrators smashed barricades, stole food supplies and threw pieces of fences at authorities.

“We protested all day long, from day to night,” said Han Li, a new worker from Zhengzhou who had joined the protests. He said he felt betrayed and that bonus payments and living conditions at the factory were different than promised. Mr. Han said he saw workers being beaten and injured.

Videos shared by Foxconn employees with The Times showed thousands of workers punching and throwing steel beams at police officers in riot gear and hazmat suits. Video taken at dawn showed the obvious aftermath: a motionless worker curled up on the side of the road as a group of security guards stamped and kicked him. Another was sitting in the street with a bloody sweater and a towel over his head.

In a statement, Foxconn attributed the delayed rewards to “a technical error” in its hiring system. Regarding the violence, she vowed to work with staff and the government to “prevent similar accidents from happening again”.

An Apple spokesman told the Times that Apple team members on the ground in Zhengzhou are “assessing the situation” and are working with Foxconn “to ensure their employees’ concerns are addressed.”

On Wednesday evening, Foxconn promised resigning workers $1,400 and offered them free transportation home.

“It’s all tears,” Mr Han said Thursday. “Now I just want to get my compensation and go home.”

In a way, China’s struggles are of Mr. Xi’s own making. China has stuck to a strict “zero Covid” policy aimed at eradicating Covid infections, even as its vaccination efforts have lagged behind. For three years, Beijing pumped out propaganda in support of strict controls, arguing that it was the only way to protect lives. It also detailed the terrifying consequences of the uncontrolled spread of the virus across much of the rest of the world.

At the same time, many others have questioned the need for lockdowns in the first place. As millions of Chinese watched the World Cup in Qatar this week, they saw unmasked crowds cheering for their favorite teams. Chinese social media users posted messages expressing sarcasm and envy as they contrasted their monastic life with the vociferous celebrations on TV.

Mr. Xi, one of China’s most powerful leaders for decades, has used severe censorship and severe penalties to silence his critics. This makes the public expression of grievances particularly noticeable, as in Guangzhou last week when droves of migrant workers staged a vigorous protest after being detained for more than three weeks.

In the lockdown Haizhu district, home to around 1.8 million people, workers, many of whom work long hours and for low wages in Guangzhou’s textile industry, took to the streets to protest the food shortages. They tore down fences and barricades, and videos circulating on the internet showed another confrontation between residents and the police.

As cases continue to rise, the government’s pandemic prevention resources – which include food, hospital beds and quarantine facilities – are being exhausted in some places, forcing workers to sleep on the street or, in Haizhu’s case, in a tunnel, they said worker .

People have also been angered by reports of deaths caused by delays in medical supplies due to Covid restrictions. Earlier this month, the death of a 3-year-old boy in the city of Lanzhou after coronavirus restrictions prevented him from being rushed to hospital promptly sparked an outburst of grief and anger, as well as a re-examination of the cost of ‘zero Covid ” out .”

A similar outcry erupted online last week after the death of a 4-month-old girl whose father took to Weibo, a Twitter-like Chinese social media channel, to describe delays in emergency response. Due to Covid protocols, dispatchers refused to send an ambulance and when one arrived, responders refused to take his daughter to a hospital. In total, it took 12 hours before she was helped.

“I hope the relevant departments will step in, investigate a series of loopholes in epidemic prevention, inaction and irresponsibility, and demand justice for us common people,” wrote Li Baoliang, the baby’s father. Authorities released the results of an investigation into the incident on Sunday. While the government extended its condolences to the family, it blamed the tragedy on individual medical workers who they said had a weak sense of responsibility.

Under Mr. Li’s online complaint, many pointed to the damage being done by policies designed to protect the public.

“What takes people’s lives? Is it Covid?” asked one commenter.

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/24/world/asia/china-unrest-covid-lockdowns.html iPhone factory protest challenges China’s ‘zero Covid’ rules


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