Last weekend, protests broke out in major cities across China. These protests, relatively few in number and mostly from the middle class, were dominated by demands to end the official policy of zero COVID-19 and end mass testing, quarantine and lockdown. Their slogan “We want freedom” reflected their hostility to necessary public health measures that undermined their way of life and, in some cases, their business interests. The end of COVID zero, which the Chinese government is implementing, will only result in a social disaster: mass infections, millions of deaths, and many more lingering cases of COVID.
The voice of the working class is rarely highlighted on Chinese social media, and especially in online discussions about the zero COVID policy. Two posts by workers from different parts of China paint a starkly different picture of US and international media coverage misrepresenting last weekend’s protests as the voice of the people. Despite the difficulties they face, workers are very aware of the danger of infection and support the measures necessary to avoid it.
Food delivery people in Beijing
About two weeks ago, a food delivery man from Meituan, one of the two largest food delivery platforms in China, posted a message on social media.
On the morning of November 20, the apartment complex where he lived was under quarantine and no one was allowed in or out. A number of food delivery people decided not to live there anymore and left the complex before the lockdown was imposed. They feared they would lose their only source of income if they stayed put, as was the case last time the resort was closed for a week.
Together with 15 other deliverymen, they have been homeless ever since. As the worker describes in his post: “Some of us live in food delivery stations, some live in cheap hotels, but most of us sleep in the corridors of office buildings or at the entrances of restaurants. Temperatures in Beijing in late November reached the freezing point in the evening. Most of these “lodges” had no heating.
However, even these options were no longer possible. The worker continues: “As the restaurants in Beijing have stopped offering catering services, they are no longer letting people in.” [dormir] in place. As most people began to work remotely, it became more difficult to get into office buildings. Most of the working-class neighborhoods where you could find short, cheap lodgers were also locked down, and hotels were simply unaffordable.
The worker shared this post only to advocate for an affordable place to sleep at night. This situation is shared by many food delivery people who do not want to lose their income due to isolation and decide to be homeless.
In an interview with another food delivery group titled “Food delivery workers try to sleep through cold nights during the pandemic,” workers camped out in office buildings and slept on the floor near bathrooms because that was where most of the waste heat was. If the weather was colder, they would switch from beer to liquor to warm up. Sometimes two workers would huddle under one blanket. Although they had a “roof” over their heads, they were constantly in danger of losing their property. The interview summarizes: “during that cold -10 night, they were accompanied by stomach medicines, alcohol and snoring colleagues in labor”.
Despite the extremely difficult conditions imposed on them by the confinement measures, the feelings of the workers were very different from those of the middle class who sought “freedom”. In his message, the delivery man asked for help, he said: “We have been homeless for days, but we still do the PCR test every day and follow all the measures related to COVID. We left the apartment complex before it was put on lockdown just because we don’t want to lose our only source of income.”
Coal miners in Yangquan, Shanxi
On November 28, a miner from Yangquan, a city in China’s coal-rich northern Shanxi province, shared a Weibo post that began with “HELP!!!!” The miner worked in Yangquan Coal Mine No. 5, which is part of the Shanxi LuAn Group, one of the seven major coal mining companies in the province. Yangquan City also produces the largest amount of anthracite in the country.
Since November 18, the number of infected people in Yangquan has been increasing, and several thousand workers have to stay in dormitories at the mine to avoid the risk of quarantine at home and to maintain production.
In the mine, there were no appropriate quarantine measures to separate workers who tested positive. Sometimes a worker who tested positive was given a protective suit but was not moved out of the dormitory. More than a dozen workers crammed into one dormitory with no furniture or appliances except a bed and a fountain. Living space was so limited that some workers had to sleep in the shower. This only encouraged the transmission of the virus among the miners, many of whom had fevers.
The living conditions are terrible. There was a shortage of food. The miner who shared the post reported that they ‘had less food for the whole day than they usually had for one meal’. He also wrote that a boxed meal was provided for them, only rice, grated potatoes and carrots and “two or three pieces of meat”. This dish was brought to them around 6 pm and it was their lunch. Workers who were sick were not taken care of, because there were few medicines. Some workers who had high fever ate only noodles. Despite all these difficult conditions, the workers had to stay at work.
In his post, the worker commented, “To meet the country’s demand for coal, workers perform high-risk work in the mine every day. But when workers need warmth and security the most, where will they find the warmth and support they need?”
“Yangquan is a small city that most people have probably never heard of, but it has the largest production of anthracite in the country, which is responsible for heating many places in the country. Please don’t remember us only when you’re cold. When we face a harsh winter, we also need other people to surround us with a warm coat”.
After the message spread on social media, the company eventually transferred workers who tested positive to local hospitals or nearby Fangcang Hospital and began providing additional supplies to workers who remained at the mine.
What happened in this coal mine is similar to the conditions faced by workers at the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, the world’s largest iPhone factory. Foxconn imposes a similar “closed loop” management on its workers, not separating those who have contracted COVID from other workers. This situation led to an exodus in October and protests by thousands of mostly newly hired workers in mid-November. They protested about non-payment of bonuses, poor nutrition and the fact that they were forced to work and sleep with workers who tested positive. Management’s only concern, as in a coal mine, was production and profit.
Many workers have faced great hardships due to the zero COVID-19 policy. For temporary workers, who are mostly rural migrants, a day of quarantine means a day without pay. As for those who work on the assembly lines, they are forced to stay on the job, often without livelihood and basic medical supplies.
However, food delivery workers, coal miners, Foxconn assembly line workers and many others understand that these restrictions surrounding COVID are necessary to avoid infection and mass death. The workers’ posts on social networks do not call for “freedom” from COVID zero, but for accommodation, proper nutrition and measures to stop the spread of the infection.
The difficulties encountered are not the result of the COVID zero policy. Instead, what is emphasized is the need for workers to receive financial and daily living assistance from the government and employers. Workers should not have to choose between feeding and the risk of infection.
The Chinese government’s Zero COVID policy over the past two years has shown that eliminating the virus is possible, but only if it is implemented internationally. Now, faced with enormous pressure internationally and from certain sectors of business and the country’s middle class, the regime is rapidly abandoning measures that have proven effective in eliminating the virus.
As infections and deaths rise, the working class will inevitably be hit the hardest. Employers at Foxconn and coal mines, along with countless other workplaces, will see the easing of COVID restrictions as a green light to end even the limited measures currently in place to prevent infections.
(Article published in English on 8 December 2022)