The explosive nexus of labor and social reproduction in China.
Source > Tempest
In October, footage of masses of workers fleeing by foot from the Foxconn factory in China’s Zhengzhou—the world’s largest iPhone production site—surfaced online. To keep up production demands for Apple, the factory has employed a “closed-loop system” to not allow workers to return home, with minimal necessities provided. This has sparked a new wave of attention on China’s labor politics since the pandemic and provoked some response among overseas Chinese communities, though less prominent for now than the global diaspora mobilization in solidarity with the protester in Beijing’s Sitong Bridge last month. It provides a telling background to the broader social uprising in China sparked by the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Promise Li: Can you describe in your own words what happened at the Foxconn factory, its general significance, and if you think there is any link you can draw to other experiences and expressions of discontent in Chinese society recently, like the protest at Sitong Bridge?
Yige Dong: In late October, in a Foxconn plant that is located in the inland Chinese city called Zhengzhou, there was suddenly an outbreak of COVID-19 (due to stringent lockdown policies, COVID-19 was tightly controlled and massive outbreaks were very rare in this region). This Foxconn plant is the largest among its 45 campuses in China and it is also Apple’s largest iPhone manufacturing center, with a workforce of more than 250,000. Until the outbreak, Apple was counting on Zhengzhou Foxconn to produce its newest iPhone 14 for its global supply chain. After the outbreak, instead of offering proper measures to care for the sick and mitigate the spread of the cases, Foxconn management forced workers to continue churning out iPhones, leading more workers to be infected. Then, the management initiated this “closed-loop system,” which did not allow workers to leave the factory campus but confined them in the workshop and the dormitory, feeding them with meal boxes that were barely edible, according to workers’ own posts on Chinese social media. Meanwhile, due to lack of essential workers, no one was doing basic cleaning, garbage piled up, occupying all spaces in and outside the dorm buildings. What’s even worse, workers who tested positive were put in “quarantine” facilities without adequate water, food, or medical supplies.
In early November, rumors that eight workers in one dorm had all died of COVID-19 became the last straw. In panic and despair, thousands of workers started a “great exodus,” breaking through roadblocks that Foxconn set up and going home on foot because there were no transportation services in a city that was under COVID-19 lockdown. For the majority of the workers, they could get home by walking a couple days, as they came from nearby counties within the same province, Henan. Some county governments then dispatched shuttle buses to pick up these workers, putting them into local quarantine facilities instead of sending them home.
Having lost a significant number of workers, Foxconn has been under tremendous pressure to meet its iPhone production targets. And this is where the close ties between the company and the Henan local governments started to surface. A central reason that Foxconn chose to establish its largest campus in Zhengzhou was that in 2010 the local governments promised they would offer significant tax reliefs and help recruit labor for the company. The local officials, governing one of the most populous provinces, and one with a relatively low level of development, saw Foxconn as a goose laying golden eggs. And they were right. Today, Foxconn’s production accounts for eighty percent of Zhengzhou’s exports and more than sixty percent of the exports of the whole Henan province. So, in the aftermath of the “great exodus,” it became the local governments’ top priorities to help Foxconn recruit new labor. It has been reported that the leader in each village was ordered to recruit at least one worker—almost like a military draft. In a very short period of time, 10,000 new workers, coming from Henan and other provinces, showed up in Zhengzhou, temporarily lifting Foxconn’s pressure off.
To be honest, I don’t think this type of workers’ resistance, spontaneous and mostly out of fear, carries much explicit political intention. It is the most natural and reasonable reaction when one’s life and health is being threatened. Another reason I am saying this is because Foxconn has developed a set of sophisticated measures of labor control, making sure workers are highly atomized and alienated from each other, difficult enough for them to build any form of solidarity. Of course, during the exodus this time, I’m sure workers were in one way or another working together to figure out the routes to escape. But these actions, I would say, were more spontaneous instead of expressing the clear political consciousness as was seen in the case of Sitong Bridge. That being said, workers’ reactions in itself against exploitation and abuse have always been an important foundation for potential labor struggles for itself in Chinese labor history. So, I’m not dismissing its significance and would like to see how this historic event, which laid bare many of the deep-seated issues of China’s current state-sanctioned capitalism, can inspire future activism.
PL: Can you briefly describe how you first got into your research topic and methodology, and were there previous political experiences of yours (especially in activism) that informed this interest?
YD: My study of Zhengzhou Foxconn was not planned at all but out of contingency. In the past decade, I have been studying Chinese labor and gender politics and am particularly interested in the interaction between the politics of industrial production and that of social reproduction. Initially, I chose Zhengzhou—a historical textile mill town as my primary research site, because textile is one of the most feminized manufacturing sectors where the contradiction between production and social reproduction is most salient. I am always interested in making a feminist intervention in conventional labor analysis, which oftentimes carries a masculinist tone and is gender-blind. Then, a few years into my research, one summer when I was in Zhengzhou, I found out that one of the textile mills that I study stopped operating due to lack of profitability and the owner of the factory decided to rent the factory workshop to Foxconn. This became a satellite plant off the main Foxconn campus that we are talking about. My hunch then was that I should just follow this curious change and see what would happen next. In retrospect, I realized that this incident was not random but reflected some profound transformations in Chinese industrial structure and labor politics in general, which I will lay out later.
PL: This is a bit tangential but if we were to contextualize some of the response toward the lockdown measures in Zhengzhou in broader dissatisfaction with lockdown measures in different Chinese regions, where do you think the lockdown protests are headed, do you think that they are a useful example of expressing dissent in this current moment?
YD: Generally speaking, yes, all expressions of dissatisfaction and anger toward the current atrocious lockdown measures are meaningful. They are important channels for Chinese citizens to express dissent. Given increasing censorship and tightening political control in recent years, there is almost no space for social protests and collective actions, which have always been difficult and dangerous in China. Nonetheless, many social groups from workers to feminists to environmental activists managed to do a lot until recently.
Now, spontaneous protests and resistance against lockdown measures have become arguably the only viable form of dissenting (the Sitong Bridge case caught so much attention precisely because it was such an anomaly), because there are just too many cities under lockdown, for too long, and even the most effective censorship technology can’t wipe out all voices immediately. Most of these grievances and accusations are from citizens who are suffering from starvation, economic difficulty, mental crisis due to isolation, and, sometimes, life-threatening denial of medical services—these issues themselves are not explicitly political, but can actually resonate more effectively with fellow citizens. In fact, precisely because they are not seemingly political, they are more tolerated by the regime, relatively speaking. However, seeking justice in the realm of social reproduction and demanding fundamental rights to living is no less political than activism in the conventional, public arena of struggles. The crisis of social reproduction is a more essential question that manifests across different sociopolitical systems; it has the potential to involve and mobilize everyone.
PL: What is the significance of Zhengzhou Foxconn in the landscape of Chinese labor politics as a whole?
YD: As I mentioned earlier, Foxconn’s relocation from Shenzhen, where 18 workers’ suicides shocked the world in 2010, to inland China including Zhengzhou, is not a random case but elucidates some major changes in China’s industrial structure and labor politics in
First, nationwide, with the rising cost of Chinese labor, capital (including Foxconn) has been fleeing China or moving to its inland areas in search of cheaper labor. As a result, electronics manufacturing has replaced cotton textile production to become the primary employer of low-skilled manufacturing workers in Zhengzhou. Meanwhile, low-end service has surpassed labor-intensive manufacturing to become the largest sector employing low-skill workers in the country. In my own research I have found that many laid-off textile workers switched to the service sector, becoming postpartum nannies and other types of care workers.
Second, as a result of capital’s inland move and the resulting rapid industrialization, some fundamental changes have happened to the Chinese migrant labor force. While in the past the majority of migrant workers left their hometowns, which were typically interior regions specialized in agriculture, and worked in the coastal Special Economic Zones (SEZs), today, an increasing number of them become in-province migrants, working in nearby towns and cities which have been rapidly industrialized. This is why, in the case of Zhengzhou Foxconn, more than 90 percent of the workers are Henan natives, some of whom were able to go home on foot in the recent “great exodus.” Moreover, the manufacturing workforce is aging rapidly, with the average age about 40 years old. In other words, it is not the “factory girls and boys” who are making our iPhones anymore, but it’s the uncles and aunties instead.
Third, surprising to many, China has seen a process of labor “formalization” recently. In 2014, the central government promulgated a new law that restricts employers from hiring dispatch workers, who are temporary contractors recruited by a dispatch agency independent from the enterprise—a practice that Foxconn used to be infamous for. When I worked in Zhengzhou Foxconn a few years ago, most new recruits would be offered a formal contract with social insurance, at least on paper. Yet, a large portion of these Foxconn workers would rather turn themselves into de facto informal labor: they enter the factory, work there for a few months, and then voluntarily leave after the peak season; the next year, many return to the same factory as new hires. While in the past the Chinese migrant workforce would usually stay in the same factory or city for multiple years and only visit home once a year, today, a manufacturing job today resembles a temporary job in the “gig economy” that has prevailed in post-industrialized neoliberal societies. In the forthcoming paper, I call this phenomenon “gig manufacturing.”
So, how do we explain this puzzle? Why would workers rather give up benefits coming with a formal contract and stay in a more precarious position? I argue that dynamics both at the point of production and at the point of social reproduction are at work.
At the point of production, that is, the iPhone workshop, because the company has kept the base wage so low—almost identical with Zhengzhou’s minimum wage (2100 yuan/month, or approximately $300/month), all workers count on having opportunities to work overtime to make extra incomes. In the peak season, usually the summer time before Apple’s new product release in September, a worker can make as much as 6000-8000 yuan/month as a result of long hours of overtime. But after the peak season, they would find it not worthwhile to only take regular shifts.
Meanwhile, at the point of social reproduction, which is essentially workers’ families in rural communities, there has been an increasing intensification of demand for workers’ caring labor for the children and the elderly—a highly gendered demand that affects moms working in Foxconn disproportionately. Such a rising emphasis on care work is a result of rapid commodification of social reproduction including privatization of childcare, eldercare, and education in rural China.
Put together, these factors create a dilemma for these workers: dire need of cash income keeps propelling rural parents, who make a significant portion of the workforce, to come to work at Foxconn; the family’s demand for caring and emotional labor, on the other hand, is pulling workers, especially mothers, back to the family. In the end, many of the workers end up turning this job into a seasonal gig.
PL: Marxist social reproduction theory is an important theoretical framework for your research. In your writings, you have talked about how China has been moving toward a model of a “public-private regime of social reproduction,” where childcare, eldercare, and other social benefits have been increasingly privatized, while the responsibility for other benefits, like pensions, have been shifted to local governments. How can we understand the labor abuses in Zhengzhou’s Foxconn factory—and larger developments in China’s labor economy during the pandemic—in the framework of social reproduction?
YD: As I elaborated above, the perspective of social reproduction is crucial in understanding the factory politics here. So far, the “hybrid public-private regime of social reproduction” that I mentioned in my earlier article only works for those with urban residency. In the case of Zhengzhou Foxconn, only those who have a Zhengzhou hukou [legally mandated household registration—eds.] can benefit from the formal contract, which promises employers’ contributions to public healthcare and pension schemes. However, for those without a Zhengzhou hukou, which are the majority, they won’t be able to claim these benefits unless they keep working in the same city for 15 years or longer—an option impossible for many. But for all workers, their individual contributions to the insurance schemes are deducted from their paycheck anyway. What they can make monthly, then, is even lower than 2100 yuan—it’s in fact only about 1600 yuan. Basically, this hybrid regime of social reproduction in urban China works against migrant workers’ interests.
In addition, there is an implicit complicity between Foxconn’s pay system that is highly volatile across seasons and the system of social reproduction in rural China, which expects a woman to be both a breadwinner and caregiver. In other words, what capital needs and what the family needs complement each other, co-producing a large reserve army of labor that always shows up at the “right time.”
Finally, having followed Foxconn for years and seeing it from a social-reproduction perspective, I find what happened in Zhengzhou this time is not shocking; it is just the manifestation of all the existing problems in a most extreme form. What culminates in this sensational case is the clash between capital’s demand for worker’s alienated labor and its tendency to externalize all costs to maintain such labor. Equally important, this case also exposes the long-existing complicity between capital and the local governments (backed by the Chinese state): capital tosses out workers right away when the cost of sustaining their daily reproduction is “too high”; governments serve as capital’s handmaiden by helping Foxconn recruit and disperse labor, facilitating capital’s free ride on the social.
PL: Given the repressive political conditions in China, what do you envision are ways forward for the workers’ movement and solidarity domestically? Independent unions are disallowed, and much organizing in recent years in China has shifted into much more decentralized models powered by social media. You’ve mentioned that “while potential formalization may provide more protections and benefits for domestic workers, it may also be used by employers as a way to control labor, as evidence from the formal manufacturing sector shows” (2020, 14). Given these circumstances, what are the best ways for the rapidly-growing population of informal workers and more “traditional” factory workers to organize for power together? Do you see ways of linking up labor struggles with feminist, student, and environmental ones in China?
YD: I think with the rise of “gig manufacturing,” it is getting increasingly difficult to organize at the point of production. Individuals come and go frequently, with extremely high turnover rate—the five people sharing the same dorm with me barely talked to each other. This is true not only in China but many places globally, as a result of the informalization of work. Here, I’m with other social reproduction feminists; I believe the site of social reproduction has become more important than ever, as it occupies a key strategic position in organizing—we should articulate our discourse around the all-encompassing notion of social reproduction, demanding universal welfare provisions from childcare, healthcare, eldercare, to universal rights to housing and education, to labor protections in these sectors. While in a 20th century factory, it was the same space and labor process that unites workers, in 21st century China and beyond, it is actually the unconditional rights to a decent livelihood that should become the foundation for solidarity building. And it is precisely for this reason, I see great potential that struggles based on class, gender, sexuality, environmental justice, and beyond can link each other up—because they are all part and parcel of the politics of social reproduction.
PL: And as we know, Foxconn workers’ struggles do not exist in isolation: they are a pivotal part of the global supply chain and their conditions are directly tied to the interests of regimes, corporations, and consumers in the rest of the global North. As the U.S.-China inter-imperialist rivalry continues to play out, what is the global significance of the situation in Zhengzhou, and how can it connect to other anti-capitalist struggles abroad, especially in the U.S.? What roles can overseas Chinese communities and other movement allies on the Left play?
YD: I’ve been following Foxconn’s politics for many years, and it has become the prototypical case for labor scholars and activists to expose exploitation and abuses in the global commodity chain. However, to my surprise, few of my students in the U.S., who are born after 2000, know about all these. So, the first thing we should do is to continue to tirelessly talk about the case of Foxconn, making more workers and consumers in the global North aware of these issues. In fact, when I use Foxconn as a case to teach Marx’s theory of exploitation and alienation, Durkheim’s analysis of suicide, as well as Weber’s concepts of rationalization and bureaucracy, I see light in my students’ eyes—they find stories of these workers in a remote country quite compelling and relatable.
I think Zhengzhou Foxconn’s case is both extraordinary and ordinary. It’s extraordinary because it is an extreme case in which the contradiction between capital accumulation and people’s social reproduction has led to a massive crisis. It is ordinary because such a contradiction, as well as the complicity between capital and the state, are built-in features of our current global capitalist system. As Foxconn continues its “spatial fix” by relocating many facilities to Vietnam, India, Wisconsin (a failed deal) and Ohio, and many other places of the world, we are going to see many more tragic stories resembling that of Zhengzhou today, and that of Shenzhen ten years ago (the serial suicides), unfolding in the years to come. It is precisely the “globality” of global capitalism that connects each and every one of us.
PL: In late November, there was a bigger uprising taking place in Zhengzhou Foxconn, a surprise to many. Can you comment on that? Do you see a connection between these Foxconn workers’ resistance and the urbanites’ and college students’ protests in multiple cities?
YD: Yes, soon after the new recruits arrived in Zhengzhou, they found what they were promised was elusive: Instead of working two months and receiving a bonus of 6,000 on top of wages, they have to work at least until March 2023 to receive any bonus; moreover, they were forced to live with existing workers who tested positive for COVID-19. Out of tremendous outrage, these new workers rose up, which triggered police violence and tear gas. Thanks to the footage taken by many individuals, workers’ clashes with the police have been widely reported. Finally, to preempt further turmoil, Foxconn agreed to compensate each new recruit 10,000 yuan and send them back home immediately. The majority of the new recruits opted for this route.
I mentioned that I didn’t think this type of labor resistance carried much explicit political intention but workers’ reactions in itself against exploitation and abuse have always been an important foundation for potential labor struggles for itself in Chinese labor history. I believe my observation still hold true. I want to further elaborate on this a bit:
As we have seen, most workers who participated in the uprising agreed to leave Foxconn once they received the payment. So, on the one hand, what the workers demanded and what the students and urban citizens demanded are not the same. The latter apparently had more explicit, yet not necessarily, homogenous political agendas, making demands from ending the stringent lockdown to ending the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime. Also, as I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest obstacles to workers building solidarity and organizing is Foxconn’s adept control tactics. In regular times, Foxconn atomizes workers, pits them against each other, and intentionally keeps high turnover to make sure labor’s self-organizing is nearly impossible. This time, the offer of 10,000 yuan worked quite effectively in dispersing labor immediately after the uprising. In all these, the government is of course an accomplice.
Again, I am not dismissing the legitimacy and importance of workers’ demands for economic benefits and better livelihood. Quite the contrary, historically, these demands turned out to be the most powerful platform to organize labor—the CCP itself organized labor along these lines in the earlier decades of the 20th century, and ironically accused workers who pursued the same goal in the 1950s and during the Cultural Revolution of having “economism.” All this just shows that there is great political potential for labor to focus on material conditions and, in a broader sense, social reproduction concerns, in their struggles.
On the other hand, it is undeniable that this time, Foxconn workers’ militancy and courage inspired the other forms of protests and demonstrations that carry more explicit political demands. For a country that has been under increasingly tightening political control in the past decade—a system that has almost exterminated all types of dissent and opposition, and that has ruthlessly crushed the anti-extradition protest in Hong Kong in 2019—a mass uprising in its industrial heartland by a group of young migrant workers certainly sends an unmistakable signal: Wherever there is oppression, there is resistance; and not everything can just be quelled by the iron fist.
One thing I noticed in the past couple weeks is that with the quick unfolding of events, the initial excitement about the workers’ unrest has started to fade away. Attentions have been refocused on the streets and college campuses in major cities and on narratives offered by folks in these more visible spaces. While these are absolutely important, however, what the workers did and what their anger and actions reveal—the nature of the CCP regime, that is, a state-sanctioned mode of ruthless capital accumulation that is tearing apart its own social fabric—shall stay at the center of our conversation.
Featured image credit: Photo from iphonedigital; modified by Tempest.
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