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iPhone Factory Protest Challenges China’s ‘Zero COVID’ Rules

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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 emerged from closed buildings to confront health workers and destroy food supplies.

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

As China’s draconian COVID rules enter their third year, there are increasing signs of discontent across the country. For China’s leader, Xi Jinping, the turmoil is a test of his precedent-breaking third term in office and underscores the pressing political question of how to lead China out of the post-Covid era.

The rare displays of defiance over the past two weeks are among the most visible signs of frustration and desperation with lockdowns, quarantines and mass testing impacting everyday life. The anger coupled with the nationwide outbreak of Covid, which has pushed cases to an all-time high, hints at a dark winter ahead.

Earlier this month, officials said they would adjust Covid restrictions to limit the impact of disruptions on the economy and government resources. The latest spate of cases has cast doubt on that promise, with many officials backing away from the well-known heavy-handed measures to contain the spread of the virus.

Should Mr. Xi finding a middle ground will reflect China’s status as the world’s factory floor leader and a major driver of global economic growth. Some multinationals are already looking to expand production elsewhere.

“What we’re seeing at Foxconn is the bankruptcy of the ‘Chinese model’,” said Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing, referring to the Taiwanese operator of the central China factory, which produces half of the world’s iPhones. “It’s the collapse of China’s image as a manufacturing powerhouse, as well as China’s relationship with globalization.”

Many will be watching to see if the recent chaos at Foxconn’s factory spills over elsewhere. Even before the plant riots this week, Apple warned that a poorly organized lockdown would hurt sales. Analysts predict longer waiting times for holiday purchases of the iPhone 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max.

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“If the government continues with its zero-Covid policy, Foxconn will be just the beginning. Today it is Foxconn, but other factories will face similar situations,” said Li Qiang, founder and executive director of China Labor Watch, a New York-based Chinese labor rights organization.

Foxconn employees talked about delays in paying bonuses and the Taiwanese mechanic’s failure to properly separate new hires from those who tested positive. The new employees were recently hired after thousands of workers fled the Foxconn factory last month due to the Covid outbreak.

From Tuesday evening to Wednesday morning, thousands of workers clashed with riot police and health workers, according to four activists who spoke to The Times. Protesters destroyed barricades, stole food supplies and threw pieces of fence at officers.

Han Li, a new activist from Zhengzhou, said: “We protested all day, from day to night.” She said she felt cheated and that the bonus payments and living conditions at the factory were different from what she was promised. Mr. Han said he saw workers beaten and injured.

Videos shared by Foxconn workers with The Times showed thousands of workers dressed in riot gear and protective suits beating and throwing steel bars at police. A video, taken at dawn, clearly shows the result: a motionless worker cornered on the side of the road when a posse of security personnel burst in and kicked him. Another sat on the road with a bloodstained sweater and a towel wrapped around his head.

In a statement, Foxconn attributed the delayed bonuses to “a technical flaw” in the hiring system. With regard to the violence, it pledged to work with staff and the government to “prevent similar mishaps from happening again”.

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

On Wednesday night, Foxconn promised $1,400 to employees who wanted to resign and offered them free transportation home.

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

In some ways, China’s struggle is Mr. Xi’s own fault. China has maintained a strict “zero-Covid” policy aimed at eliminating Covid infections, even as vaccination efforts have lagged behind. For three years, Beijing campaigned in support of tighter controls, arguing that it was the only way to protect lives. It also described the dire consequences of the uncontrolled spread of the virus to the rest of the world.

At the same time, many others have questioned the necessity of the lockdown itself. When millions of Chinese flocked to Qatar this week to watch the World Cup, they saw unabashed crowds support their favorite teams. Chinese social media users posted messages expressing sarcasm and jealousy, comparing their clandestine lives to the raucous festivities on TV.

Mr. Xi, one of China’s most powerful leaders in decades, has used heavy censorship and harsh punishment to silence his critics. This makes the public expression of grievances particularly high profile, as last week in Guangzhou when hordes of migrant workers staged a raucous protest after more than three weeks in detention.

In the closed district of Haizhou, home to about 1.8 million people, workers, many of whom work long hours and low wages in Guangzhou’s garment industry, took to the streets to protest food shortages. They tore down fences and barricades, and videos circulating online showed another confrontation between residents and police.

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As the number of cases rises, government resources for epidemic prevention – including food, hospital beds and quarantine facilities – have been depleted in some places, forcing workers to sleep on the street or, as in Haizhou In the case, in a tunnel, said the workers.

People are also angry about reports of deaths due to delayed medical care due to Covid restrictions. Earlier this month, the death of a 3-year-old boy in Lanzhou city after coronavirus restrictions prevented him from being immediately taken to a hospital sparked grief and anger, as well as a renewed scrutiny of the cost of “zero Covid”. ”. Hui. ,

A similar outcry followed last week’s death of a 4-month-old girl whose father took to the Twitter-like Chinese social media outlet Weibo to describe the delay in relief efforts. Due to COVID protocols, the dispatcher refused to send an ambulance, and when an ambulance did, emergency responders refused to take her daughter to the hospital. In total, it took her 12 hours to get help.

Li Baoliang, the father of the child, wrote: “I hope that the relevant departments will intervene, investigate a series of shortcomings in epidemic prevention, inaction and irresponsibility, and we will demand justice for the common people.” On Sunday, officials released the results of their investigation into the incident. While the government offered its condolences to the family, it blamed individual medical staff, who it said lacked a sense of responsibility.

Among Mr Lee’s online complaint, many pointed to the harm caused by policies designed to protect the public.

“What is killing people? is it covid? one commenter asked.

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