China’s closed crisis: ‘I’m a human being, not a machine’

China’s “closed-loop” system is designed to keep the global factory running during the coronavirus outbreak.

But the system, used in factories that make Apple devices and Tesla cars, is quickly becoming unsustainable as supply chains are choked and foreign companies risk reputational damage from human rights abuses against marginalized workers.

Over the past month, Covid-19 cases have flared up again in China, re-focusing on the controversial Xi Jinping Zero covid policy That entails sudden closures, quarantines, mass testing, and careful contact tracing.

The closed loop system It was published to host athletes, officials and the media at this year’s Beijing Winter Olympics. In theory, the system protects workers from contracting the virus by keeping them separate from the outside world, ensuring factory production is stable.

“I don’t know how long I can hold out [in the closed loop]. “Accommodation and food in the factory is terrible,” said a worker named Xiao in Jiangsu Province, north of Shanghai, “I am a human being, not a machine.”

Workers fled a factory owned by Apple-manufacturer Foxconn after complaining about dwindling food supplies © Hangpai Xingyang/AP

After the outbreak of the disease inside the 200,000-person Zhengzhou factory complex owned by the manufacturer Apple FoxconnStaff, who complained of a lack of food and medical supplies, escaped by climbing over the fences.

The local government on Wednesday ordered a week-long closure of the surrounding area, threatening to further disrupt Apple’s iPhone production.

Renewed pressures in Chinese manufacturing, which analysts warn will spill over into global supply chains, come just weeks after the zero-Covid policy was emphatically reaffirmed by health officials and official state media.

Ma Xiaowei, a senior official with the National Health Commission, reiterated on Wednesday that China will continue to “resolutely” implement the zero-Covid policy. The statement, issued by Beijing’s top health authority, came on the heels of a rumor on Chinese social media that a policy change was imminent.

Ernan Cui, an analyst with the Beijing Gefical Research Group, noted that more than three-quarters of major Chinese cities reported new cases last month, at a record pace of more than 100 cities each day.

“The increasing number of severe shutdowns increases the potential for serious impediments to production activity and supply chains as well,” she said in a research report.

“With no clear end in sight to the country’s stringent containment policy, a tightening of the lockdown and more supply-side disruptions appear inevitable in the coming months.”

Alicia Garcia-Herrero, chief Asia Pacific economist at Natixis, warned that the closed-loop system was “unsustainable” given the risks from mistreatment of workers and the potential for further disruptions.

“You can do it for a month, two months or three months, but once that becomes the norm, it becomes very inefficient for a company,” she said, adding that there would be increasingly “reputational risks” for foreign companies doing the manufacturing. In China.

Hardest hit are the more than 400 million Chinese immigrants, many of whom work in manufacturing and related services, far from their homes and families.

“I could not see my wife and children because of the closed-loop system, although they live not far away. I miss them very much,” said a 35-year-old worker surnamed Zhang in Jiangsu.

After spending most of the year living behind closed doors at low pay, Zhang decided to quit his job and return to his hometown before the Chinese Lunar New Year, in early 2023.

Since the initial spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant in China in late 2021, labor rights groups have highlighted numerous abuses and repression by the authorities.

There are fears of a repeat of the episode at the Quanta Computer campus in Shanghai in May, when workers clashed with security guards in hazmat suits as they tried to escape their confinement indoors due to Covid-19 cases. Quanta produces electronic components for Apple and Elon Musk’s Tesla.

Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the deployment of the strict closed-loop system was just a scourge in China’s long history of exploitation by domestic and foreign groups.

“The company is balancing, ‘How do I fulfill requests made by Apple’ and ‘How can I ensure my compliance with government Covid policy to the extent that the government is not being penalized,'” she said. ‘Workers’ rights are not what they have in mind.’

Cui, from Gavekal, also noted that official reports from Zhengzhou before the Foxconn virus outbreak showed only a few daily new cases.

“This disparity highlights a more serious problem: the possibility that many local governments have recently either avoided reporting cases or imposing restrictions in order to demonstrate a positive public health condition,” she said.

“The risk is that by doing this, more cities will find themselves in the Shanghai situation in late March: at first tolerate low levels of cases to avoid disruption, only to find that the virus starts to spiral out of control.”

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