It was Sunday when Dong Wanwan decided to give up her job at the world’s largest iPhone factory and walk home.
The 20-year-old had been working for the past three months on the production lines at Foxconn Technology Group’s factory in Zhengzhou, one of tens of thousands helping put together Apple Inc iPhones that would be sent around the globe. It was a coveted job, among the country’s best-paid blue-collar gigs.
Then Covid began spreading on the manufacturing campus. The factory went into a "closed loop,” walling off the giant complex from the outside world. Trash piled up in hallways. Food was harder to come by. Many who got infected said they were forced to subsist on bread for a spell.
That’s when Dong collected her 19-year-old brother and set off on a journey where they walked some 40 km (25 miles), with luggage in tow, to get home. The trip to a small town southeast of Zhengzhou took almost nine hours.
"Foxconn really messed up, I don’t think a lot of people would want to go back. I know I wouldn’t,” Dong told Bloomberg News.
In Xi Jinping’s China, millions live with the fear of getting caught up in an abrupt lockdown and forced to fend for themselves - a nightmare scenario that’s become more and more common this year as cities from Shanghai to Chengdu grind to a halt to stop the virus. It was no different within Foxconn’s vast worker populace, a contingent of some 200,000 forced to share cramped dormitories with up to 11 other people.
Something snapped over the weekend, when hundreds if not thousands of workers walked, hitched rides or dipped into their savings to escape the Covid flareup. Their collective ordeal was captured in videos and photos that flooded social media in China, exposing the toll of Covid Zero, a policy that’s already up-ended parts of the world’s second-largest economy and global supply chains. While still largely popular for avoiding the scale of death seen in places like the US, pushback against the strategy is emerging. Videos about workers walking home along highways with their luggage received hundreds of likes on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok.
For Dong, the experience was far more visceral.
It started when she went into quarantine after reporting a cold in late October. She developed a fever of 39.5°C (103.1°F) and couldn’t get out of bed. Dong tried calling an employee assistance hotline, then hospitals nearby. None of her calls got through.
Even a messaging group for Foxconn employees set up on WeChat – the WhatsApp-like platform most Chinese use religiously as a real-time forum – went silent despite multiple pleas for help. If it wasn’t for Dong’s line supervisor, who got her colleagues to send over food and medicines, she would have run out of supplies.
That experience sealed her decision. Dong set out for a small town near Kaifeng, to the southeast, at 8am on Sunday, beginning what was to become a nine-hour trek across Zhengzhou’s open plains.
Dong got a lot of help along the way. Despite Zhengzhou effectively being in lockdown, sympathetic residents, alerted to the mobilisation on social media, left bottled water and snacks by the main highways. Those acts of kindness, captured in detail on Douyin, lifted her spirits. She and her brother even managed to snag a ride on the back of an open truck for part of the way.
Dong got assistance in part because these desperate experiences are becoming commonplace around China, creating a groundswell of resentment. While the strict measures have kept China’s official Covid death toll below 6,000, they’re exacting a heavy economic cost, fomenting discontent and isolating the country from the rest of the world.
As the virus mutates into ever-more transmissible variants, stopping its spread has become a Sisyphean task: China reported 2,675 new local Covid cases for Sunday, 802 more than the day before, marking the biggest nationwide surge in infections since Aug 10.
Many China watchers expected Xi to signal a pivot away from what has become a signature policy when he took the podium at the Communist Party’s congress on Oct 16. Instead, he defended the no-tolerance strategy as one that saves lives, and offered no steer on when it’s likely to end.
It’s unclear how many workers have left Foxconn in the past few days. Dong said the talk among her colleagues was of thousands, though that wasn’t immediately possible to verify. The company has scrambled to mitigate the potential disruption, raising wages and arranging for backup from its other Chinese plants should assembly lines stall in Zhengzhou. The company has repeatedly emphasised workers are their top priority.
Dong said she didn’t know much about that, focusing instead on her journey.
It helped that the local government eventually pitched in, she recounted. It was 4pm by the time the siblings finally reached an ad-hoc assembly point that officials had set up to help transport departing Foxconn workers back to the surrounding towns.
Dong estimated there were about 500 people waiting for buses. From there, they were sent to a quarantine facility converted from an elementary school, finally reaching their hometown, though still subject to China’s Covid rules.
"I was completely spent from walking, I got a massive blister filled with blood,” she said. – Bloomberg