Chinese leader Xi Jinping insists there will be no deviating from zero-Covid – but the ongoing chaos caused by his government’s policies is on display at the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou city.
Fear, panic and ignorance fueled the massive outbreak at the world’s largest Apple computer assembly line.
Foxconn, the company that runs this massive factory, must take some of the blame for this, but the real cause is this country’s inflexible, strict, zero-covid approach.
The BBC spoke to workers there who paint a picture of an urgent need to escape for their own safety. It may not be rational, but some say they feared for their lives.
Take a 21-year-old Foxconn employee who has been hearing the rumors for a while. The more the stories and speculations continued, the more extreme they became.
It didn’t help that its immediate bosses at Foxconn said there were no Covid infections at the plant while the company told the media there were no “symptomatic” infections. And yet there were plenty of known examples of employees who had tested positive.
Hundreds of thousands of employees had been ordered not to leave this huge industrial complex. After the workers were confined to only the dormitories and other areas of the factory, the rumor mill took off.
This young factory worker heard that the military would come in and take control to force a kind of giant “living with Covid” experiment that could make anyone in that part of Zhengzhou city sick.
According to these rumors, the idea was to see how many of them would die. If the carnage wasn’t too bad, it would guide whether the rest of China could open up or not.
Sentiments spread across their chat groups like, “Foxconn is going to take my life.”
She was clearly not the only one to hear this and workers started breaking out. On Saturday night, images circulated of a yellow barrier being pushed down to allow some to escape.
The next morning she had already had word from some of her friends that they had made it all the way back to their hometown.
Half of those in her eight-person dorm had disappeared. She grabbed a bag, but couldn’t take everything with her.
Rapid spread of Covid
Another employee told us that she too suddenly panicked before leaving. “Honestly, I didn’t think it would be this bad at first,” she said.
“But then people around me started getting infected. Positive cases in other dorms weren’t quarantined for several days. Those I know who continued to work all started to confirm as positive.”
Aside from the Foxconn employees, as most of Zhengzhou city is currently locked down in some way, phone app health codes don’t allow anyone to leave, at least officially.
This means that even if public transport were running, you would not be allowed on board and this also applies to taxis.
The solution for employees at Foxconn – jump over the fence and just start walking. For some, this meant traveling more than 100 km on foot with everything they can carry.
You don’t have to search hard to see long lines of mostly young people dragging luggage along the sides of highways.
Ordinary people driving through it took pity and picked up workers and took them as far as they could.
In scenes reminiscent of the Great Depression a century ago, workers piled on the backs of trucks, sometimes lighting small fires to keep warm.
The images of this kept coming, spreading first across Henan province and then across China and around the world.
This is full tilt zero-Covid economic disruption.
A major problem is the widespread ignorance about the nature of the disease. In much of China, people are as afraid of contracting the virus as if it were cancer.
The Chinese government has done little to clear up these misunderstandings and has often made them worse.
The story of those in charge here is that Covid has cut a swath through the population elsewhere, but Chinese people should consider themselves lucky because they have the Communist Party to protect them with the zero-Covid approach.
It is true that this strategy has prevented the country’s hospitals from being overrun and it is true that Covid has resulted in a tragic loss of life.
However, it is also true that – for the vast majority of infected people who have been vaccinated – contracting the virus means a few days sick at home and nothing more.
This last point is something that many in China are completely unaware of.
So when Foxconn workers reached their hometowns and were placed in hastily built quarantine facilities at local high schools, it wasn’t as bad for them as the Covid hell they imagined descending on them at their factory.
Staff the BBC spoke to say they don’t know if they can return to work at Foxconn; or that they can even pick up their remaining belongings in their dorm rooms. They expect to have lost their attendance bonuses at work, which increases the pay after you put in a certain number of days at work. But again, none of this is as important as feeling safe.
Of course, the sight of workers fleeing their workplace has sparked protest and Foxconn has responded.
The company announced that those who want to go will be allowed to depart on secure buses that have now been organized in partnership with other cities and that will take people directly to quarantine sites, ensuring a much calmer and orderly process.
It has also announced the quadrupling of bonuses for employees who remain on-site and do not take leave.
In an announcement, Foxconn said this was part of an effort to “gradually resume orderly production.”
As an official lockdown has once again been imposed on the entire economic zone of Zhengzhou Airport, the exodus from the factory appears to have slowed down to a trickle for the time being.
A volunteer, who distributed food and water along the roads, told us that what looked like thousands were getting away last weekend had dwindled to dozens at once and even fewer by the middle of this week.
If Foxconn cannot manage this crisis properly, it will soon affect global supply chains for Apple and other products.
But in the long run, this shows a much bigger problem for China.
The government’s system to control Covid cannot work without causing significant disruption not only to people’s lives, but potentially to key sectors of the economy.
For Chinese leader Xi Jinping, this may not be as important as maintaining political control. But there are only two avenues ahead: change the zero-covid approach or see more Foxconn-style upheaval in the future.