by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Online Image

VIDEOS THAT went viral in China last month showed FoxConn workers fleeing factories in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan, because of mandated lockdowns because of COVID-19. FoxConn is the Taiwanese-owned company that plays a large role in global iPhone production and is one of Taiwan’s major tech giants. FoxConn founder Terry Gou is one of Taiwan’s richest men, Gou having made forays into politics in recent years such as seeking the KMT’s presidential nomination in 2020. 

In light of China’s continuing COVID-zero policies, migrant factory workers at FoxConn’s massive Zhengzhou complex were to be quarantined last month after traveling home by bus. But to avoid quarantines, some workers have instead taken to walking home, trekking across fields and roads on foot. 

For its part, FoxConn stated that it will not prevent workers that want to leave their factories. Local governments have urged workers to inform authorities that they are departing, but FoxConn workers feared being tracked down by state security forces. Some local residents set up stations to help traveling FoxConn workers, however. 

FoxConn has 200,000 workers at the Zhengzhou complex, which is responsible for close to half of global iPhone production. It is not clear how many workers have COVID-19 and are to be quarantined. Zhengzhou has a population of six million. Other cities in central China, including Wuhan, have seen COVID waves in November, as had Hainan and Xinjiang. 

Since the wave of FoxConn workers fleeing their jobs, however, the situation further escalated earlier this week. Video showed hundreds of FoxConn workers clashing with state security workers. This was in reaction to new regulations that would have required workers to stay in their positions until March 2023, working through the Lunar New Year holiday, or forfeit their bonuses. 

The situation facing FoxConn workers illustrates the precarious situation of migrant workers during COVID-19. Given China’s adherence to COVID-zero, migrant workers have been locked away in crowded dormitories, in unsanitary conditions, as a response to COVID-19 clusters. 

This perhaps more broadly points to how migrant workers are treated as disposable sources of labor by capital. Migrant workers were treated much the same way in Taiwan after clusters broke out at electronics factories in Miaoli, with migrant workers continuing to be confined to their dormitories even after the clusters subsided. There was a clear racial component to this treatment, seeing as migrant workers in Taiwanese electronics factories were mostly from southeast Asian countries. Nevertheless, the issue more broadly points to how in either context, migrant workers are treated as disposable “low-end populations” to be thrown away when providing for their care proves inconvenient. 

The treatment of migrant workers in China has made international headlines several times in recent years, such as the mass eviction of migrant workers from districts in November 2017. This took place after a fire that killed 17, which was subsequently used as a pretext for migrant worker evictions, occurring at a time in which the Chinese government was aiming to institute population controls on the Chinese capital. 

In the case of FoxConn, the Chinese government has intervened to benefit the Taiwanese tech giant in facilitating FoxConn’s mass recruitment of migrant workers. This proves a case of collusion between the state and capital at the expense of workers. Indeed, where FoxConn is concerned, FoxConn simply seeks to derive maximal interest from the state in order to maximize its gains, at the expense of workers–Taiwanese or Chinese alike. 

Since the Zhengzhou clashes earlier this week, the situation further escalated following a fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang that killed ten and injured nine. Some suspect more died in the blaze than has been reported by Chinese state-run media. Particularly outraging of the public was that firefighters seemed to be prevented from the building where the fire took place because they were locked inside, as part of restrictive quarantine measures. 

In the wake of the Urumqi fire, public outrage has spilled out into demonstrations in major Chinese urban centers. Protests have taken place in a number of urban areas, including in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Urumqi, Szechuan, and other places. Many demonstrators have taken to holding blank sheets of paper in order to demonstrate, seeing as the Chinese government has reacted against signs with slogans. 

As Urumqi Street in Shanghai was a major site of protest, there has been much mockery through online memes of how city authorities’ response to the protest was to remove street signs indicating the name of the street. Images of the protests have quickly become iconic, including an image of a lone man and woman confronting amassed police. 

Both the Zhengzhou protests and the Urumqi blaze were precipitating events for the present set of protests. Outrage is directed against the restrictions that the public at large has faced for three years as part of the Chinese government’s insistence on COVID-zero policies, with protesters calling for an end to testing and lockdowns. Particularly in light of the fact that Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang, the fire also points to how disprivileged groups, such as Uyghurs and migrant workers, have been among those disproportionately impacted by COVID-zero policies.

Some protests have spilled over into calling outright for democracy and freedom of speech, including calls for Chinese president Xi Jinping to step down. It is probable that multiple demands overlap within the present protest, including more direct opposition to the CCP and specifically an end to COVID-zero. The protests are thought to be the largest demonstrations in China since the 2011 Wukan protests and possibly since the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests. 

That the protests have not yet been put down may indicate that the CCP leadership is evaluating its options. Spontaneous solidarity rallies have been held internationally, including in Taiwan.

While the Chinese government may be pushed to relax COVID-zero policies, this will necessarily lead to an uptick in cases, which China is less equipped to deal with given that the authorities do not appear to have spent the time bought by adhering to COVID-zero building up medical capacity in preparation for an eventual transition away from COVID-zero and because though Chinese domestically-manufactured vaccines are less effective. Before the protests, major Chinese cities were already seeing an uptick of cases. Moreover, the Chinese government tried to avoid importing more effective western-developed vaccines as part of efforts to tout Chinese vaccines, as a product of vaccine nationalism. 

It may have been the hope of the Chinese leadership to maintain COVID-zero indefinitely, since it may fit their purposes to put increasing distance between China and the rest of the world. One expects the economic shockwave that results from the eventual uptick in cases to have large ramifications, as well as deal a further blow to the political legitimacy of the present CCP leadership, which has staked so much on COVID-zero. 

In this sense, regardless of the outcome of the protests, one can expect unrest in China for some time. The situation will continue to be unstable. 

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