At an iPhone factory in central China, thousands of workers clashed with riot police and tore down barricades.
In the southern city of Guangzhou, protesters broke into locked buildings to confront health workers and ransack supplies.
And online, many Chinese have raged against authorities after the death of a 4-month-old girl, whose father said access to medical care had been delayed due to Covid restrictions.
As China’s tough Covid rules stretch deep into their third year, there are growing signs of discontent across the country. For Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the unrest is a test of his unprecedented third term in power and underscores the pressing political question of how he can lead China out of the Covid era.
The rare displays of defiance over the past two weeks are the most visible signs of frustration and desperation at the lockdowns, quarantines and mass testing that have upended daily life. The anger, combined with Covid outbreaks across the country that have pushed cases to an all-time high, bodes for a dark winter ahead.
Earlier this month officials said they would adjust Covid restrictions to limit the impact of the disruption on the economy and government resources. The latest surge in cases has called that commitment into question, with many officials falling back on familiar heavy-handed measures to try to stop the spread of the virus.
Whether Mr. Xi can find common ground will reflect on China’s status as a global factory and a major driver of global economic growth. Some multinationals are already looking to expand their production elsewhere.
“What we’re seeing at Foxconn is the collapse of the ‘China model,'” said Wu Qiang, a policy analyst in Beijing, referring to the Taiwanese operator of the central China factory that produces the half of the world’s iPhones. “It’s the collapse of China’s image as a production power, as well as China’s relationship to globalization.”
Many will be watching to see if the recent chaos at the Foxconn factory spills over elsewhere. Even before the riot that broke out at the factory this week, Apple had warned that a poorly organized containment would have an impact on its sales. Analysts have predicted longer wait times for holiday purchases of the iPhone 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max.
“If the government continues with its zero-Covid policy, Foxconn would be just the start. There is Foxconn today, but other factories will face similar situations,” said Li Qiang, founder and executive director of China Labor Watch, a New York-based Chinese labor rights group.
Foxconn workers were complaining about a delay in paying bonuses as well as the Taiwanese assembler’s inability to properly isolate new workers from those who had tested positive. The new recruits had been recruited recently after thousands of workers fled the Foxconn factory last month due to a Covid outbreak.
From Tuesday evening until dawn Wednesday, thousands of workers clashed with riot police and health workers, according to four workers who spoke to The Times. Protesters destroyed barricades, stole food and threw pieces of fencing at authorities.
“We protested all day, from day to night,” said Han Li, a new worker from Zhengzhou who had joined the protests. He said he felt cheated and that bonuses and living conditions at the factory were different from what he had been promised. Mr. Han said he saw workers being beaten and injured.
Videos that Foxconn workers shared with The Times showed workers, in their thousands, shaking and throwing steel beams at police wearing riot gear and protective suits. A video, taken at dawn, showed the apparent aftermath: a worker cowering motionless on the side of the road as a team of security personnel stomped and kicked him. Another sat in the road with a bloody sweater and a towel rolled up over his head.
In a statement, Foxconn attributed the delayed bonuses to “a technical error” in its hiring system. Regarding the violence, he pledged to work with employees and the government to “prevent similar accidents from happening again.”
An Apple spokesperson told The Times that Apple team members on the ground in Zhengzhou are “reviewing the situation” and working with Foxconn “to ensure their employees’ concerns are addressed.”
On Wednesday night, Foxconn promised $1,400 to workers who wanted to quit, offering them free transportation home.
“It’s just tears,” Han said on Thursday. “Now I just want to get my compensation and go home.”
In some ways, China’s struggles are of Mr. Xi’s own making. China has clung to tough “zero-Covid” policies aimed at stamping out Covid infections, even as its vaccination efforts have lagged. For three years, Beijing has been spreading propaganda in favor of strict controls, arguing that they are the only way to protect lives. He also described the terrifying consequences of the virus spreading out of control across much of the rest of the world.
At the same time, many others have questioned the need for containment. This week, as millions of Chinese watched the World Cup in Qatar, they saw unmasked crowds supporting their favorite teams. Chinese social media users posted messages expressing sarcasm and envy, as they contrasted their cloistered lives with the raucous celebrations on TV.
Mr. Xi, one of China’s most powerful leaders in decades, has used heavy censorship and harsh penalties to silence his critics. This makes the public airing of grievances particularly striking, as in Guangzhou last week, when crowds of migrant workers staged a vigorous protest after being confined for more than three weeks.
In the gated Haizhu district, home to around 1.8 million people, workers, many of whom work long hours and are poorly paid in Guangzhou’s textile industry, rushed to the streets to protest food shortages . They pulled down fences and barricades, and videos circulating online showed another confrontation between residents and police.
As cases continue to rise, government pandemic prevention resources – which include food, hospital beds and quarantine facilities – have been depleted in some places, forcing workers to sleep rough or, in Haizhu’s case, in a tunnel, the workers said. .
People have also been angered by reports of deaths caused by delays in medical care resulting from Covid restrictions. Earlier this month the death of a 3-year-old boy in the city of Lanzhou after coronavirus restrictions prevented him from being rushed to hospital sparked an outpouring of grief and anger as well as a new examination of the costs of “zero Covid.”
A similar outcry erupted online last week after the death of a 4-month-old girl whose father took to Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like outlet, to describe delays in the emergency response. Due to Covid protocols, dispatchers refused to send an ambulance, and when one arrived responders refused to take her daughter to hospital. In total, it took him 12 hours to receive help.
“I hope relevant departments will step in, investigate a series of epidemic prevention loopholes, inaction and irresponsibility, and seek justice for us ordinary people,” wrote Li Baoliang, the baby’s father. . On Sunday, authorities released the results of an investigation into the incident. While the government has expressed condolences to the family, it has blamed the tragedy on individual medical staff who it says have a weak sense of responsibility.
Under Mr. Li’s online complaint, many pointed to the damage caused by policies designed to protect the public.
“What takes people’s lives? Is this Covid?” asked one commenter.