Home » What the Workers’ Riots at China’s iPhone Factory Tell Us – Pierre Haski

What the Workers’ Riots at China’s iPhone Factory Tell Us – Pierre Haski

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What the Workers’ Riots at China’s iPhone Factory Tell Us – Pierre Haski

November 25, 2022 10:06

It is a health crisis, of course, but not only. The images of the clashes that took place this week in the huge iPhone factory in Zhengzhou, in central China, show that the crisis is also social and political, as well as a sign of the transformation underway in globalisation.

In the Taiwanese Foxconn factory, which employs around 200,000 workers and which constitutes a sort of city within a city, the explosion of anger was caused by the exasperation over repeated isolations and a promise of prizes not kept. On November 24, the factory management spoke of a “computer error” and promised that the bonuses would be paid. But the damage was already done.

Also on November 24, the entire city of Zhengzhou, populated by ten million people, was isolated, and the same happened in some areas of the capital Beijing and other Chinese megacities. Hundreds of millions of people in isolation in the face of 31,000 infections announced by the government, the highest number for two years but also a condition in which people live almost normally elsewhere.

Xi Jinping remains adamant on the “zero covid” policy where the rest of the world has moved on, including neighboring countries that previously adopted the same policy as China, such as South Korea or Taiwan. The Chinese are forced to face massive and inflexible lockdowns as tens of thousands of people gather in Qatar’s stadiums for the soccer world cup. Is it really the same planet?

The answer is linked to a political choice. After the first wave of the pandemic in Wuhan in early 2020, China closed its borders. This inflexible strategy worked in 2020, when everyone was confined. But the advent of vaccines has changed everything, allowing us to return to a near-normality. Not in China, though.

In fact, the Chinese vaccine proved to be less effective, especially against the omicron variant, and Beijing did not want to buy Western vaccines out of pride. The result is that the population at risk is less protected. With an insufficient healthcare system, the lifting of restrictions would cause a catastrophe.

The government is ready to pay the economic and political price for this choice. China is already experiencing a sharp economic slowdown, while the exasperation is now palpable after the brutal lockdown imposed on Shanghai in the spring. At this point, the risk is not so much an expansion of protests (this regime is not afraid to use force) but the destruction of a social contract that has worked for thirty years.


The story also concerns globalization, of which the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou is the absolute symbol. The problems for Apple will accelerate an increasingly clear trend in recent years: China “factory of the world” loses its power of attraction while many multinationals invest in other Asian countries. For the first time, Apple has also started producing its iPhones in India, while Samsung has moved the business to Vietnam.

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China’s intransigent “zero covid” policy, combined with geopolitical tensions between Beijing and Washington, has the effect not so much of totally “separating” the economies (it would be impossible) but of creating a gap in the field of the most important technologies, to avoid to be dependent on a single country.

The workers of Zhengzhou, in spite of themselves, show us the end of a fundamental feature of globalization as we had known it.

(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)

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