China has imposed a new series of Covid lockdowns, including in a city where workers at the world’s largest iPhone factory clashed with police this week, as a record daily level of coronavirus cases tests its commitment to follow the rest of the world in easing pandemic restrictions.
The National Health Commission reported 31,444 new locally transmitted Covid cases on Wednesday, the highest daily number since the coronavirus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.
The government responded by tightening Covid restrictions in cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and ordering mass testing.
In Zhengzhou, in the central province of Henan, where police and protesting workers from Foxconn’s iPhone factory clashed on Tuesday and Wednesday, authorities announced a five-day shutdown for approximately 6 million people. Residents were ordered to stay at home and conduct daily PCR tests in a “war of extermination” against the virus.
A worker told the AFP news agency that the protests had started over a dispute over promised bonuses at the Foxconn factory and “chaotic” living conditions.
Foxconn, the Taiwan-based owner of the factory, which employs about 200,000 people in Zhengzhou, has been desperate to keep operations going after a handful of Covid cases forced it to close the plant, and it has been recruiting new workers from across the country favorable packages to replace the thousands who went away last month. Workers said protests started after the company changed the terms of their pay.
Videos online showed thousands of people in masks facing lines of police in white protective suits with plastic riot gear. Police kicked and clubbed a protester after he grabbed a metal pole that had been used to beat him.
Many employees accepted wages from the company and went home on Thursday. Some said on social media they had received bonuses of 10,000 yuan (£1,150) in return for terminating their contracts.
Foxconn apologized Thursday for what it called “an input error in the computer system” and said it would guarantee the salary was the same as promised in official recruitment posters. “Regarding the violent incident, the company would continue to communicate with staff and the government to prevent similar incidents from happening again,” a company statement said.
The strict enforcement of China’s “dynamic zero Covid” policy for nearly three years has weighed on the country’s economy and fueled frustration among the population.
On November 11, the government announced it would shorten quarantines and ease other restrictions, a move seen to be aimed at easing economic pressures and cooling public discontent. But at the same time, senior officials warned cadres not to let down their guard.
Among the new measures, Guangzhou imposed a five-day lockdown in Baiyun district from Monday to slow the rise in cases. Residents are required to stay at home and public transport has been suspended, although areas that have not reported infections for three consecutive days can lift restrictions.
The government in the northeastern city of Changchun in Jilin Province urged residents to halt non-essential movement and avoid going to public places, restaurants and public gatherings.
Shanghai tightened restrictions on arrivals into the city. A message on the city’s official WeChat account said people traveling to the city from Thursday would be tested for Covid and barred from going to restaurants and shopping malls, among other public venues, for five days after their arrival.
Beijing has introduced new testing requirements for incoming travelers and residents. It requires a negative PCR test result within 48 hours for those seeking to enter public places such as shopping malls, hotels and public buildings. Schools across the city have moved to online learning.
Although case numbers are relatively low compared to global numbers, even small outbreaks in China often lead to district and city lockdowns. Authorities this week reported China’s first Covid death in six months, bringing the total to 5,232.
A Zhengzhou resident who was among those who tried to buy food at a market before the shutdown said on the social media platform Sina Weibo: “All the stalls were full of people and the prices have gone up … no one smiled.”
While China’s borders remain largely closed, the government has drawn up measures to ease the exit and entry process for foreign business executives, a foreign ministry spokesman said.
Additional reporting from the Associated Press, Agence France Presse and Reuters.