In 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 locked-down buildings to confront health workers and ransack food provisions.
And online, many Chinese raged at authorities after the death of a 4-month-old girl, whose father said access to medical treatment was delayed because of COVID restrictions.
As China’s harsh COVID rules extend deep into their third year, there are growing signs of discontent across the country. For China’s leader, Xi Jinping, the unrest is a test of his precedent-breaking third term in power and underscores the question of how he can 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 desperation with the lockdowns, quarantines and mass testing that have upended everyday life. The anger, combined with outbreaks of COVID across the country that have driven cases to an all-time high, augurs a dark winter ahead.
Earlier this month, officials said they would adjust COVID restrictions to limit the impact the disruptions have had on the economy and government resources. The latest surge in cases has called that pledge into question, with many officials falling back on familiar heavy-handed measures to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Whether Xi can find a middle ground will reflect on China’s status as the world’s factory floor and a major driver of global economic growth. Some multinational companies are already looking to expand production elsewhere.
“What we’re witnessing at Foxconn is the bankruptcy of ‘the China model,’ ” said Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing, referring to the Taiwanese operator of the plant in central China that produces half of the world’s iPhones. “It’s the collapse of China’s image as a production powerhouse, as well as China’s relationship to globalization.”
Many will be watching to see if recent chaos at Foxconn’s plant spreads elsewhere. Even before the riot that broke out at the plant this week, Apple had warned that a poorly organized lockdown there would impact its sales. Analysts have predicted longer waiting times for holiday purchases of the iPhone 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max.
“If the government continues with its zero-COVID policy, Foxconn would only be the beginning. There is Foxconn today, 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 group.
The Foxconn workers were lashing out about a delay in the payment of bonuses as well as the Taiwanese assembler’s failure to properly isolate new workers from those who had tested positive. The new hires had been recruited recently after thousands of workers fled the Foxconn plant last month because of a COVID outbreak.
From Tuesday evening until the dawn of Wednesday, thousands of workers clashed with riot police and health workers, according to four workers who spoke to the New York Times. Protesters destroyed barricades, stole food supplies and hurled pieces of fencing at authorities.
“We protested the whole day, from day to night,” said Han Li, a new worker from Zhengzhou who had joined the protests.
He said that he had felt deceived and that the bonus payments and living conditions at the factory were different from what he had been promised. Han said he saw workers get beaten and injured.
Videos that Foxconn workers shared with the Times showed workers, by the thousands, thrashing and hurling steel beams against police wearing riot gear and protective suits. One video, taken at dawn, showed the apparent aftermath: a motionless worker curled up on the roadside as a crew of security personnel stomped and kicked him. Another sat on the road with a bloodied sweater and towel wrapped over his head.
In a statement, Foxconn attributed the delayed bonuses to “a technical error” in its hiring system. Regarding the violence, it vowed to work with employees and the government to “prevent similar accidents from happening again.”
An Apple spokesperson told The Times that Apple team members on the ground in Zhengzhou were “reviewing the situation” and were working with Foxconn “to ensure their employees’ concerns are addressed.”
On Wednesday evening, Foxconn promised $1,400 to workers who wished to resign, offering them free transportation home.
“It’s all tears,” Han said Thursday. “Now I just want to get my compensation and go home.”
In some ways, China’s struggles are of Xi’s own making. China has clung to harsh “zero-COVID” policies aimed at eradicating COVID infections, even as its vaccination efforts have lagged. For three years, Beijing pumped out propaganda in support of tough controls, arguing they were the only way to protect lives. It also described the terrifying consequences of the uncontrolled spread of the virus in much of the rest of the world.
At the same time, many others have questioned the need for lockdowns at all. This week, as millions of Chinese tuned in to watch the World Cup in Qatar, they saw unmasked crowds rooting for their favorite teams. Chinese social media users posted messages expressing sarcasm and envy as they contrasted their cloistered lives with the raucous celebrations on TV.
Xi, one of China’s most powerful leaders in decades, has used heavy censorship and severe punishments to silence his critics. That makes the public airing of grievances particularly striking, such as in Guangzhou last week, when throngs of migrant workers staged a forceful protest after being confined for more than three weeks.
In the locked-down district of Haizhu, home to roughly 1.8 million people, the workers, many of whom toil for long hours and low pay in Guangzhou’s textile industry, rushed into the street to protest food shortages. They tore down fences and barricades, and videos circulating online showed another confrontation between residents and police.
As cases continue to climb, the government’s pandemic prevention resources – which include food, hospital beds and quarantine facilities – have in some places been depleted, forcing workers to sleep on the streets or, in the case of Haizhu, in a tunnel, workers said.
People have also been angered by reports of deaths caused by delays in medical care resulting from COVID restrictions. Earlier this month, the death of a 3-year-old boy in the city of Lanzhou after coronavirus restrictions kept him from being taken promptly to a hospital drew an outpouring of grief and anger as well as fresh scrutiny of the costs of “zero COVID.”
A similar outcry erupted online last week following the death of a 4-month-old girl whose father took to Weibo, a Twitter-like Chinese social media outlet, to describe delays in the emergency response. Due to COVID protocols, dispatchers declined to send an ambulance, and when one arrived, responders refused to take his daughter to a hospital. In total, it took 12 hours for her to receive help.
“I hope the relevant departments will intervene, investigate a series of loopholes in epidemic prevention, inaction and irresponsibility, and seek justice for us ordinary people,” wrote Li Baoliang, the baby’s father.
On Sunday, authorities released the results of an investigation into the incident. While the government expressed condolences to the family, it blamed the tragedy on individual medical staff who it said have a weak sense of responsibility.
Beneath Li’s online complaint, many pointed to the harms being done by policies designed to protect the public.
“What is taking people’s lives? Is it COVID?” asked one commenter.
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