Zero-Covid policy: Violent protests at iPhone largest factory in China

As China continues with Zero-Covid policy religiously, large-scale protests have broken out at Foxconn’s iPhone factory in Zhengzhou, as workers clashed with security personnel over Covid restrictions at the plant.

Images circulating on Weibo and Twitter show hundreds of workers marching on a road in daylight, with some being confronted by a row of riot police and people in hazmat suits.

Other videos reveal workers complaining about the food they had been provided while others said they had not been paid bonuses as promised.

Earlier on Tuesday, authorities in Beijing shut parks, shopping malls and museums. The move comes as more Chinese cities resumed mass testing for Covid-19, as China fights a spike in cases, deepening concerns about its economy and dampening hopes for a quick post-coronavirus reopening.

One clip taken from a livestream showed dozens of workers at night shouting, “Defend our rights! Defend our rights!” as they confronted a row of police officers and a police vehicle with flashing lights.

As clouds of smoke billowed from the vehicle, one worker dragged a metal barricade along the ground, with the streamer saying in the background: “They are rushing in! Smoke bombs! Tear gas!”.

One photo taken during the day showed the charred remains of a gate, apparently burned down during the night.

The Weibo hashtag “Foxconn Riots” appeared to be censored online by Wednesday, while some text posts referencing large-scale protests at the Foxconn factory remained live.

The Zhengzhou plant is the world’s largest iPhone factory with some 200,000 workers. Since late October, many workers have fled – their escapes captured on social media – as frustration mounts over treatment of employees and how Covid cases were being handled, including what they said were insufficient provisions of food.

In a bid to restore production, the manufacturer began a drive to convince workers to stay and to recruit more staff, promising higher per-hour salaries and bonuses.

The factory has maintained so-called closed-loop operations at the plant – a system in which staff live and work on-site isolated from the wider world – due to the Covid situation in Zhengzhou.

The curbs and discontent have hit production, prompting Apple to say earlier this month that it expected lower shipments of premium iPhone 14 models.

In one daytime video, several fire trucks surrounded by police in hazmat suits were parked near residential blocks while a voice on a loudspeaker was heard saying: “All workers please return to their accommodation, do not associate with a small minority of illegal elements.”

China’s unrelenting zero-Covid policy has caused fatigue and resentment among wide swathes of the population, some of whom have been locked down for weeks at factories and universities, or unable to travel freely.

The Weibo hashtag “Foxconn riots” appeared to be censored by Wednesday noon, but some text posts referencing large-scale protests at the factory remained live.

Foxconn, also known by its official name Hon Hai Precision Industry, is the world’s biggest contract electronics manufacturer, assembling gadgets for many international brands.

The Taiwanese tech giant, Apple’s principal subcontractor, recently saw a surge in Covid-19 cases at its Zhengzhou site, leading the company to shutter the vast complex in a bid to keep the virus in check.

Since then, the huge facility of about 200,000 workers — dubbed “iPhone City” — has been operating in a “closed loop” bubble.

Footage emerged this month of panicking workers fleeing the site en masse on foot in the wake of allegations of poor conditions at the facility.

Multiple employees later recounted scenes of chaos and disorganisation at the complex of workshops and dormitories.

In the place of the fleeing workers, the firm has offered large bonuses and other incentives for employees who stayed as the local government bussed in fresh labourers in a bid to keep the factory afloat.

Apple this month admitted the lockdown had “temporarily impacted” production ahead of the holiday season at the Zhengzhou factory, the Taiwanese company’s crown jewel that churns out iPhones in quantities not seen anywhere else.

Foxconn is China’s biggest private sector employer, with over a million people working across the country in about 30 factories and research institutes.

China is the last major economy wedded to a strategy of extinguishing Covid outbreaks as they emerge, imposing lockdowns, mass testing and lengthy quarantines despite the widespread disruption to businesses and international supply chains.

The policy has sparked sporadic protests throughout China, with residents taking to the street in several major Chinese cities to vent their anger against snap lockdowns and business closures.

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