In a rare show of public fury, workers at an iPhone factory in Zhengzhou rioted against the country’s strict pandemic rules. The rules have imposed a high price on its citizens and the economy—even as Covid cases reach a new peak. The rest of the world has moved on from lockdowns and closed borders, why is Beijing refusing to budge?
Editor’s note: This is part one of our analysis of China’s zero Covid policy. Today, we set the context by explaining the policy—and the rise in popular rage. Part two will look at the bigger picture for China—its economy, the profit-loss calculation made by Xi, and a zero Covid policy that has turned into a zero-exit policy.
Wait, China is still under lockdown?
Yes, and that is because its zero Covid policy has failed to curb the spread of ever more infectious strains of the coronavirus. Omicron apparently has zero respect for either communism or President Xi.
First, the numbers: As of Wednesday, China reported 29,157 cases—which is close to its all-time peak of 29,411 in April. More than half of the caseload were reported in Guangzhou and Chongqing—which are mega-cities with more than 35 million people. Most of these are asymptomatic. To put this in perspective, India reported 360 new cases on Wednesday—while the number in the US was 37,077 on Tuesday.
The zero Covid policy: Ever since the first cases were detected in Wuhan, Beijing has adopted strict pandemic measures to block the spread of the virus:
“People who have the virus are isolated or sent to hospitals, depending on the severity of their cases. Anyone deemed a close contact, which can be very broadly defined, is also isolated. When outbreaks are deemed severe enough, entire cities can be shut down.”
Even when there isn’t an outbreak, pandemic protocols are extremely tight. Travel into the country is extremely restricted. And you have to use a contact-tracing app to enter public places. If your code turns from ‘green’ to ‘yellow’—because you walked by an infected person or visited a high-risk area—you will have to be extensively tested and possibly quarantined. In some places, mandatory testing is part of daily life:
“PCR testing every two to three days is becoming the norm in major cities to gain access to offices, groceries, and public services. Indeed, China has built a machinery that can test half a billion people every 48 hours.”
The great Chinese lockdown: As of August, at least 74 cities with a combined population of 313 million have imposed lockdowns that cover entire cities, districts or multiple neighbourhoods. The shutdowns have come at a high price to citizens—who have been denied access to food and medical supplies—and even turned away by hospitals. Vast numbers have been thrown into overcrowded quarantine centres—and in many places, children have been taken away from their parents. All of this suffering became visible when Shanghai—a city with a population of 25 million—was locked down for eight weeks! This is how bad it was:
Key point to note: Lockdowns last until zero new infections are reported.
OTOH: Strict lockdowns have sharply curbed China's death toll—which is just over 5,200 after nearly three years of the pandemic. That’s equal to three Covid deaths for every million—compared with 3,000 per million in the US.
Ok, so what happened at this iPhone factory?
After the terrible scenes from Shanghai leaked on social media, Beijing has clamped down on all public displays of dissent. More so, in the leadup to the communist party conference in August—where President Xi was given an unprecedented third term as leader. The Foxconn riot is the first sign of trouble since.
What happened: It took place at a factory run by Foxconn in Zhengzhou—which has 200,000 workers and is the world’s main manufacturing site for iPhones. Hundreds of workers went on an angry rampage—smashing surveillance cameras and windows, overturning cars, and taking down quarantine barriers and Covid-testing booths. You can see the aftermath below:
The police—dressed in hazmat suits—responded with swift brutality and tear gas shells:
The trigger: As Covid cases started to rise near the factory around November 2, the company put the workers into a “closed loop” system—where workers are required to live inside the factory. Nobody is allowed in or out. The reason: Foxconn is under pressure to deliver iPhone shipments in time for the Christmas season.
Those who tested positive were thrown into isolation centres with barely any food or even a quilt—housed in apartment buildings that were still under construction. And they were not paid for their time in quarantine. The result: tens of thousands fled the factory, jumping over fences—resulting in a 100,000 shortfall in staff. The company used a series of desperate measures to bring in new workers—promising higher wages and bonuses. But none of that seems to have materialised, and they finally rose up in anger, yelling, “Give us our pay!”
Foxconn’s response: The company insists it has paid all its workers. And in a frantic bid to end the protests, it has promised to pay each newly-hired worker 10,000 yuan (US$1,400) to leave the campus: “Some employees are still concerned about the coronavirus and hope to quit and return home, and the company deeply understands the concerns.”
The fallout: Foxconn will most likely not be able to meet its iPhone targets. Production had already fallen by 30% after the great exodus. Apple has warned that its iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone Pro Max will be in short supply during its peak holiday sales.
Also this: Zhengzhou announced a five-day lockdown yesterday—in the name of “mobility management” with daily universal PCR testing for Covid-19 infection. So the escaping workers won’t have much freedom outside the factory either.
Key point to note: After the Communist Party conference, Beijing signalled a slightly more flexible approach to pandemic controls. The state-run newspaper reported that local officials are being warned against taking an overly harsh approach. And it set the stock markets aflutter—shares rose more than 7% in Hong Kong and 2.5% in Shanghai. But that optimism now seems misplaced. And that may be the biggest fallout of this uprising in Zhengzhou.
The bottomline: Is the great Chinese dragon being held hostage by a microscopic virus? What does the future hold for a pandemic-battered economy? Why can’t/won’t Beijing budge on its zero Covid policy despite the very obvious price? Or does the mysterious Mr Xi have a different plan in mind? We look at all that in our next instalment.
Reuters, Al Jazeera and Quartz are best on the Foxconn riots. South China Morning Post has the latest on Foxconn’s response. BBC News and New York Times have solid explainers that cover the basics on China’s zero Covid policy. This older Conversation piece explains why zero Covid may be impossible—and even undesirable. For a counterview and counter-example, read New Scientist’s op-ed on why zero Covid worked for New Zealand. For a detailed overview of the consequences in China, we recommend this paper over the Centre for Strategic & International Studies.