Authorities in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou have placed the city’s 6 million residents under COVID-19 lockdown following clashes between workers and police at Taiwan-invested iPhone maker Foxconn’s huge factory on the city’s outskirts.
Eight districts of Zhengzhou have been designated high risk, with residents told to stay home and barriers and checkpoints across major streets and outside apartment complexes, Agence France-Presse reported.
The five-day order comes despite just 145 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the city as of Nov. 23, and after riot police were deployed at the Foxconn campus to quell protests by hundreds of newly arrived migrant workers who said they were getting paid less than the amount promised during the recruitment process.
Dozens of workers, who had been hastily recruited by the government to replace hundreds of workers who quit last month due to lack of food or medical care during a COVID-19 outbreak, left the factory on Thursday, taking the proffered 10,000 yuan payouts, AFP cited social media video clips as saying.
Meanwhile, workers who have yet to start at the factory are now stuck in quarantine hotels outside the factory, the report said.
Foxconn, formally known as Hon Hai Precision Industry Co, declined to comment, while Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday, Reuters reported, confirming reports that some of the new hires were already leaving.
“The incident has a big impact on our public image but little on our (current) capacity. Our current capacity is not affected,” the agency cited a source at the company as saying, adding that labor issues have nonetheless meant the plant has lost around 30 percent of its former capacity in recent months.
It said the world’s largest Apple iPhone factory has been grappling with strict COVID-19 restrictions that have fuelled discontent among workers and disrupted production ahead of Christmas and January’s Lunar New Year holiday, as many workers were either put into isolation or fled the plant.
Chang Meng-jen, convener of the diplomacy and international affairs program at Taiwan’s Fu Jen Catholic University, said the French Embassy had issued a complaint about the zero-COVID policy on behalf of French businesses in China, shortly after the Foxconn clashes, which were also prompted by dissatisfaction over quarantine arrangements, according to social media posts.
The French Embassy said via its official Weibo account that a directive from the Central Committee earlier this month announcing the easing of some requirements under the zero-COVID policy hadn’t delivered the expected results.
“French companies welcomed China’s announcement on Nov. 11 of [the new measures], as something that would greatly reduce the negative impact of disease control and prevention on economic activities and people’s lives,” the embassy said.
“However, the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry has noted that the actual implementation [on the ground] hasn’t met the expectations of French companies,” it said. “The Chamber of Commerce calls on the Chinese government to truly implement the [measures] and to cancel unnecessary and excessive restrictions.”
It said French companies were hoping for an end to the zero-COVID policy “as soon as possible.”
Chang said the timing of the statement was politically very sensitive.
“It just so happens that the Foxconn protests in Zhengzhou have intensified over the past few days,” Chang told Radio Free Asia. “Maybe the French foreign ministry saw the police beating up protesters with batons at the Zhengzhou plant, and dispersing the … workers.”
He said the unrest at the Foxconn plant was due at least in part to unhappiness with pandemic restrictions.
“Now they’re at it again”
However, New York-based labor activist Li Qiang, who heads the rights group China Labor Watch, said Foxconn’s quasi-military management style has led to labor issues in the past, too.
“They have done similar things before, using hidden clauses to get out of paying previously promised bonuses,” Li said. “Now they’re at it again.”
Yen Chen-sheng, an international relations researcher at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, said European businesses find the zero-COVID policy hard to accept, given that most countries have abandoned mandatory disease control and prevention requirements now.
“Many workers from European companies with factories in China are unable to go to work due to zero-COVID,” Yan told RFA. “Europeans, like Americans, are not able to accept long-term isolation constraints.”
“The problem now is that this policy is unlikely to change, given that it has been extended beyond the party congress [in October],” he said.
European Council visit
Several European media outlets reported on Friday that European Council President Charles Michel will visit China next week to meet with Xi Jinping, the first such meeting since 2018.
Chang said it remains to be seen whether Michel will bring up the zero-COVID policy with Xi during that meeting, although some human rights issues are on the agenda.
He said German companies could wield considerably more influence in China than French companies, but the sheer size of their investments in the country could be holding them back.
“The five German giants account for one third of investment coming from EU member states in China,” Chang said. “Germany has always said it can’t decouple from China, so it wouldn’t be possible for Germany to be the first to stand up and criticize zero-COVID.”
“France is throwing the message out there first, then waiting until President Macron visits China … which may happen early in the new year,” Chang said.
Li Hengqing, director of the Washington-based think tank, the Institute of Information and Strategy, said Foxconn is hugely important to local authorities in Zhengzhou.
“Foxconn’s production … will drive a large number of other related or supporting industries,” Li told RFA. “So the Chinese authorities will naturally be looking to work with the company to keep up tax revenues.”
Apple said in a Nov. 6 statement that the ongoing production difficulties at Foxconn’s Zhengzhou plant have affected the global supply of the latest iphones.
Neither the Henan provincial government nor the Zhengzhou municipal government had responded publicly to the Foxconn clashes at the time of writing.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.