Major Chinese city in near-lockdown after record Covid cases and iPhone worker protests

HONG KONG — The Chinese city of Zhengzhou, home to the world’s biggest Apple iPhone factory, largely went into lockdown Thursday amid a growing Covid outbreak, as China reported more new cases nationwide than at any point in the pandemic.

In the previous 24 hours, the number of new Covid cases in China rose by 31,444, the National Health Commission said, beating a record previously set during the two-month lockdown in Shanghai last spring. China has also reported six new virus deaths since the weekend, its first in six months, as it battles outbreaks across the country driven by the highly transmissible omicron variant.

The restrictions in Zhengzhou, a city of more than 10 million, came a day after violent protests broke out near a factory there run by the Taiwan-based company Foxconn, Apple’s main supplier. The factory’s iPhone 14 production has been slowed by a labor shortage that began last month, when a Covid outbreak and an accompanying lockdown sent workers fleeing back to their hometowns.

To keep production lines working, Foxconn has offered bonuses and higher salaries to lure workers back and to recruit new employees. In the protests this week, footage of which was posted on Chinese social media and verified by NBC News, security personnel could be seen beating workers who said the terms of their payment had abruptly changed.

Foxconn apologized Thursday for what it called a “computer information input error in the onboarding process,” saying pay was the same as advertised.

Apple said in a statement Thursday that it had team members on the ground at the factory and was “working closely with Foxconn to ensure their employees’ concerns are addressed.”

Under Zhengzhou’s new “mobility controls” — a government euphemism for lockdown — residents in eight “high-risk” districts were told to stay home for five days except to buy food or obtain medical treatment, and to submit to daily PCR tests. The restrictions affect about 6.6 million people, though residents in other districts have been urged to stay home as well.

China’s “dynamic zero-Covid” measures make it an outlier among the world’s major economies, causing growing public frustration and economic pain. Though officials announced new “optimized” measures this month, they are struggling to ease the burden without setting off a major exit wave.

An image taken from a video recording shows workers from Foxconn’s iPhone factory in Zhengzhou, central China, clashing with riot police in a dispute over pay and living conditions.AFPTV TEAMS / AFP – Getty Images

The Chinese government argues its pandemic strategy has saved lives and is necessary to protect the fragile health care system from being overwhelmed. The latest deaths bring China’s official toll to 5,232, compared with more than 1 million in the United States.

Despite the purported easing of measures in China, a single case can still bring targeted lockdowns and sudden quarantines.

Covid measures were further tightened Thursday in the capital, Beijing, which is already in near-lockdown with schools, parks and shopping malls closed and a negative Covid test required every 48 hours to enter public places anywhere in the city. Hundreds of residential buildings are currently sealed off, with people unable to enter or leave as officials say Beijing is facing its most serious outbreak of the pandemic.

Shanghai Disneyland is set to reopen Friday “with limited daily capacity,” almost a month after a single visitor’s positive test prompted it to close.

Hannah Lee, Associated Press and Reuters contributed.

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