In a Challenge to Beijing, Unrest Over Covid Lockdowns Spreads

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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 broke out of locked buildings to confront health workers and loot food supplies.

And online, many Chinese were furious with 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 harsh Covid rules stretch well into 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 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 turned everyday life upside down. The anger, combined with Covid outbreaks across the country that have driven cases to an all-time high, portends a dark winter ahead.

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

Whether Mr. Xi can find a middle ground will depend on China’s status as the world’s factory floor 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 that 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 spreads elsewhere. Even before the riot that broke out at the factory this week, Apple had warned that a poorly organized lockdown there would affect sales. Analysts predict 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 be just 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 organization.

Foxconn workers lashed out at a delay in bonus payments and the Taiwanese mechanic’s failure to properly isolate new workers from those who tested positive. The new employees were recently hired after thousands of workers fled the Foxconn factory last month due to a Covid outbreak.

From Tuesday evening until dawn on Wednesday, thousands of workers clashed with riot police and health workers, according to four workers who spoke to The Times. Protesters destroyed barricades, stole food supplies and hurled pieces of fencing at authorities.

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

Videos shared by Foxconn workers with The Times showed thousands of workers wearing riot gear and protective suits beating and hurling steel beams at police. A video, taken at dawn, showed the apparent aftermath: a motionless worker lay curled up by the side of the road as a team of security personnel stamped and kicked him. Another sat on the road with a bloody sweater and a towel wrapped around his head.

In a statement, Foxconn attributed the delayed bonuses to “a technical flaw” in the hiring system. Regarding the violence, it pledged to work with workers 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 “assessing the situation” and working with Foxconn “to ensure their employees’ concerns are addressed.”

On Wednesday night, Foxconn promised $1,400 to workers 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 work. China has maintained a strict “zero-Covid” policy aimed at eradicating Covid infections, even as vaccination efforts have lagged behind. For three years, Beijing pumped out propaganda in support of tight controls, arguing that it was the only way to protect lives. It also described the frightening 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 at all. This week, as millions of Chinese tuned in to watch the World Cup in Qatar, they saw unmasked crowds support their favorite teams. Chinese social media users posted messages expressing sarcasm and jealousy, contrasting their monastic life with the raucous celebrations on TV.

Mr. Xi, one of China’s most powerful leaders in decades, has used heavy censorship and severe punishment to silence his critics. That makes the public outpouring of grievances particularly striking, as last week in Guangzhou, when crowds of migrant workers staged a strong protest after more than three weeks in detention.

In the closed-off Haizhu district, home to about 1.8 million people, workers, many of whom work long hours and low wages in Guangzhou’s textile 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.

As the number of cases continues to rise, the government’s resources for pandemic prevention — including food, hospital beds and quarantine facilities — have been depleted in some places, forcing workers to sleep on the street or, in Haizhu’s case, in a tunnel, workers said . .

People have also been angered by reports of deaths due to delays in 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 an outpouring of grief and anger, as did a new investigation into the cost of “zero covid”. .”

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 outlet, to describe delays in relief efforts. Due to Covid protocols, dispatchers refused to send an ambulance, and when one arrived, paramedics refused to take his daughter to a hospital. In total, it took her 12 hours to get help.

“I hope the relevant departments will intervene, investigate a series of loopholes in epidemic prevention, passivity and irresponsibility, and seek 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 offered its condolences to the family, it blamed the tragedy on individual medical staff whom it says have a weak sense of responsibility.

Under the online complaint of Mr. Li pointed out to many the harm done by policies designed to protect the public.

“What costs human lives? Is it covid?” one commenter asked.