If you ever doubted the potential importance of the tech sector in the politics of nations, events in China should cure your skepticism. Protests against the country’s strict zero Covid policy first erupted at the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, home to the world’s largest iPhone manufacturing hub. These protests are now spreading to some of China’s biggest cities, including Beijing, the country’s capital, and Shanghai, home to its financial hub.
Some protesters even called on President Xi Jinping to step down.
An unprecedented action
This is a positively unprecedented action in modern communist China, where vocal dissent from the government line can frequently – if not systematically – result in significant sanctions.
It is of course true to say that the protests come after three solid years of zero Covid policies making life increasingly difficult across China, with mass testing, quarantine procedures and sudden lockdowns deemed necessary. interrupting the flow of life, work, family and society at large in what remains the most densely populated country in the world.
Anyone in the West need only think back to the (first) Trump presidency – everyone back then felt like they were living under the Trump presidency, thanks to the news media’s obsession with the most powerful man in the world and the existence of Twitter as a pulpit of intimidation – to remember what life was like in a country trying to manage a global pandemic. Masks, social distancing, the danger of communal living, such as in seniors’ residences, and lockdowns that have transformed our lives and businesses into the hybrid model we have today.
Now imagine the restrictions never been lifted. It’s China.
End of a tie?
So, understandably, the resentment of some Chinese people is running high, and potentially, the government’s unwavering and unwavering policies to completely eradicate Covid-19 from China is rubbing on their last nerve.
But arguably the protests in Beijing and Shanghai would never have found their flashpoint had it not been for the events at the Foxconn iPhone factory in Zhengzhou.
This factory, which typically employs 300,000 people and produces iPhones for the world, has been bubbling for months, with its workforce living and working on site, and any Covid cases being referred to onsite quarantine facilities.
These cases – with the last outbreak in October and information on the scale of that outbreak being hard to come by – saw dramatic images emerge of workers desperately trying to flee the factory, even trying to scale the perimeter fence. The imagery of prisons or concentration camps is unfortunately predominant.
Reminder of Veterans
The Chinese government’s announcement last week that it was “requesting” its military veterans, who “remain in the service of the Communist Party” to come and work at the Zhengzhou plant, and therefore submit to the bubble of the The indefinite factory to ensure production shortfalls have been corrected feels increasingly grim as events unfold.
Regardless of isolation and potential Covid risk, there has been significant skepticism about whether veterans would necessarily have the stamina to work demanding shifts crafting iPhones, with reports predicting a grim reckoning of the number of those who showed up for work would potentially never leave the factory alive.
These measures – put in place by a Chinese communist government to help a Taiwanese construction company (Foxconn) manufacture products for an American company (Apple), in a move that would normally defy political logic – have shown how important for China to maintain a healthy supply relationship with Apple right now. The Mac and iPhone maker currently generates around 17% of its revenue in China, but it has pivoted significantly to relationships outside of China in 2022.
This in itself is partly due to the colossal drawbacks of China’s zero-Covid policy, but it is also largely due to the economic pressure coming from the Biden-Harris White House, in particular to deter American companies from trading. technology and chips with China. .
protest without protest
If these moves inadvertently (or deliberately?) lead to a change of president in China, the dice will be loaded as to which direction the next president will choose: appease US economic protectionism or make a big China-centric geopolitical move. , like the invasion of Taiwan.
But it was certainly the events at “iPhone City,” the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, that first broke the dam of silent suffering in China because of the prevailing zero-Covid rules.
In a satire of security, some of the new protesters in Beijing and Shanghai took to brandishing blank sheets of paper, acknowledging the general atmosphere of censorship in China – they in no way criticized the government, but the statement they do make is colossal and deafening.
Protests against Covid policy have so far seen Shanghai police arrest several people and cordon off the streets.
Meanwhile in Beijing, hundreds of peaceful protesters gathered to ostensibly sing the national anthem (another way to protest without protesting) and listen to speeches.
There have also been protests in the city of Chengdu and the central cities of Xi’an and Wuhan – the last of which is known to be the origin of Covid nearly three years ago.
And then ?
While the anti-Covid measures were already making life and business very difficult for companies in China, Western companies with business interests in this country will be looking very carefully at the Chinese government’s next measures, to see if any of the most the world’s major economic superpowers – and very in particular, one of its technology and manufacturing hubs – has become too toxic a place to continue investing.
This consideration may well be more keenly undertaken at the heart of Apple itself, as the longer the Zhengzhou factory remains a hot spot of Covid discontent, the more Apple is likely to find itself associated with labor practices that could be judged inhuman.
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