Foxconn protests and China’s ineffective vaccine 

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By: Arindam Mukherjee
Updated: 08 December, 2022 12:11 pm IST
A few days before Xi’s re-election, a banner in the middle of a Beijing flyover that addressed him as a ‘traitor’ also escaped out in the media.

The re-election of Xi Jinping and the ensuing celebrations among his followers and lobby have hit two roadblocks: a fresh bout of Covid-19 infections, and leaked videos of state crackdown on workers protesting harsh restrictions.

In early November, China reported a spike in Covid-19 cases – the reported number was 5496 – highest since May 2022. This case of the spread of Omicron variant was building up since October, as reported from central provinces like Henan to Guangdong in southern China. To be honest, while there was a slight cause of concern with this fresh wave, China’s obsession with its zero-Covid policy exacerbated an already frustrated domestic population.

I use the word ‘slight’ for a reason. Omicron by its nature is a significantly weaker stain. Medical reports as early as ones coming out in August 2022 confirmed that while it was more contagious, its severity was significantly lesser. But China’s obdurate refusal to a) use vaccines manufactured outside China that are proven to be far more effective than their own Sinovac vaccine, and b) to allow the Covid-related restrictions to phase-out gradually, taking a cue from its equally populous neighbour India, has cascaded into something that has brought fresh focus on the state’s manner of control of its population, and its relationship with the big brands and their manufacturing units.

Foxconn, the Taiwan-based electronics contract manufacturing giant (which has the largest iPhone maker factory in the world, in China) has recently found itself staring at widespread protests that have not only received adequate coverage in the print media, but whose videos have escaped out from China and have gone viral on social media platforms. The videos detail police brutality on workers who were protesting non-payment of their dues. Since then, the whispers about dubious arrangements between the different manufacturing giants and the Chinese government have begun resurfacing once again.

There are three major characteristics to this incident. Let us have a look at them.


First is, of course, Foxconn – and in a manner that is representative of the underbelly of the manufacturing behemoth that is China. The workers’ protest erupted over unpaid wages and bonuses and subhuman working conditions at the factory.

Foxconn’s concept called the ‘closed-loop’ system has come under sharp criticism from its factory workers. Under this system, the workers are mandated to live and work inside the factory – isolated from the rest of the world. The idea behind this is to keep the units running irrespective of the condition of the pandemic outside. The closed-loop system predicates itself upon poor conditions of working, living and quarantining; these include lack of food, basic hygiene, and sanitation facilities. This led to serious problems between the company and its workers. As a result, hundreds, if not thousands of laborers, fled the unit.

To address its dwindling manpower supply, Foxconn announced an attractive joining bonus and wages. As is the nature of China where manpower is aplenty, Foxconn soon began registering fresh employment in its manufacturing unit.

But the promised payments were not made. Frustrated workers eventually took to loud protests outside the factory, which were met with brutal force by law enforcement agencies. The videos of both the protest and the clashes leaked online, and the global media jumped into attention.

Now it turns out that Foxconn has not only reneged on promised joining bonus and wages, but they have also started putting out stories across four different directions to fudge the whole affair – 1. they are trying to lure the workers who have left with a re-joining bonus; 2. they are flooding the media with stories that the initial joining-bonus amount flashed was a technical error; 3. but they are committed to paying all the workers their due (which they have not specified); and 4. they are pushing the bona fide bonus-eligible workers to work for an extra month to earn their promised joining-bonus.

Foxconn, by the way, is a repeat offender. Back in 2010, 14 workers from its Shenzen factory in China committed suicide due to appalling working conditions. In 2017, they were reported to have employed high-school students for 3 months to assemble iPhones in their Zhengzhou unit – as unpaid laborers. There have been other records from different other independent agencies about unpaid or underpaid labours that Foxconn employed (or still employs) in its different units in China.


The second characteristic is China. 70 per cent of Walmart products, 75 per cent of Apple products, 24 per cent of Adidas, 45 per cent of Nike products come from China. Add to that, brands like Tesla, Amazon or Starbucks, business giants from over the world prefer staying invested in China. Some of them talk about moving out; headlines regularly catch our attention of this or that industry intending to ship investments out, but they remain like those headlines: momentary. A survey conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce among big manufacturers showed a shrink in the number of investors mulling to move out of China in 2022, compared to 2021. These giants also went on to add that China’s zero-Covid policy, or Beijing’s crackdown on its population is of no impact to their investment decisions. With a pool of a billion workers where supply always outstrips demand, China is bound to remain the top choice for investors when it comes to cheap supply of labour, a faster turn-around-time, and near-zero compliance with environmental, legal, safety, and wage mandates.

The irony of a communist government running nearly the entire globe’s manufacturing and supply chain with a negligible eye towards labour-welfare is a picture that is difficult to overlook. But companies like Foxconn apparently do not mind that.


The third characteristic is the act of the protest and those videos escaping to the rest of the world. Incidentally, this is not the only ongoing protest in China. There have been continuous protests for some time now. From protests against bank failure and Shanghai’s draconian Covid-policy, to more diffused decentralized and leaderless series of protests across at least 10 locations of China, these demonstrations have been persistent. In the case of Foxconn, it is the workers. In the case of the Urumqi fire that killed 10 people, it is the residents. And in the case of the college campuses, it is the students. The one behaviour that is remarkable is that there is a fair awareness among the crowds of the other ongoing protests and perhaps some coordination too, as observed by Mark Wintour, the Diplomatic Editor of the Guardian. Scores of protest videos have been shared on Twitter; the Chinese youngsters have taken to using VPN en masse to bypass the state control over the Internet. A few days before Xi’s re-election, a banner in the middle of a Beijing flyover that addressed him as a ‘traitor’ also escaped out in the media.

An ego-driven vaccine-nationalism for an ineffective vaccine, their government colluding with companies like Foxconn to continue exploitation of domestic workforce, and at the same time maintaining an iron-grip on a useless zero-Covid policy has been driving the Chinese population crazy this year. Now with more videos leaking out of Beijing showing the government mobilizing riot trucks to rein in on the protestors, one wonders where this would lead to.

[Arindam Mukherjee is a geopolitical analyst and the author of JourneyDog Tales, The Puppeteer, and A Matter of Greed.]

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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