On Tuesday, Foxconn Technology Group reopened its factory in Taiyuan after approximately 2,000 workers rioted, setting fires and overturning at least one government vehicle. Authorities brought in 5,000 police earlier in the week to quell the disturbance at the northern Chinese facility, which reportedly manufactures, among other items, the back plate to Apple’s iPhone 5.
Foxconn, the world’s largest contract manufacturer of electronics, has been plagued by highly publicized labor troubles, beginning with more than a dozen suicides at another of its Chinese factories in 2010. Since then, the Taiwan-owned company—and Apple—have come under global scrutiny for harsh working conditions.
There are conflicting stories as to the origin of the disturbance in Taiyuan. Local authorities maintain that a brawl between workers from two different provinces caused the disruption, but bystanders say the fighting was triggered by company guards beating employees. Foxconn quickly issued a statement declaring that the origin “appears not to have been work-related.”
Really? Foxconn runs what has been described as the world’s most efficient factories, but its system is extremely regimented and oppressive. Geoffrey Crothall, of the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin, states that Foxconn treats its workers “simply as units of production, essentially robots, not human beings.”
Foxconn has tried to improve conditions at the margins and has raised pay repeatedly in the last two years, but its system is the problem. “Clearly there is deep-seated frustration and anger among the employees and no outlet, apart from violence, for that frustration to be released,” said Crothall in a statement this week. “There is no dialogue and no means of resolving disputes, no matter how minor. So it is not surprising when such disputes escalate into violence.”
The same can be said for China as a whole. Last week, protests scarred more than a hundred cities as authorities permitted—and even encouraged—the outpouring of anti-Japan sentiment. Yet at the same time many Chinese used the opportunity to voice frustration with society in general and the one-party system in particular, sentiments evident from the banners decrying corruption and urging political reform. Also striking were the many posters of Mao Zedong, who has become an icon for those opposing the current crop of leaders.
At the moment, Chinese society is restive, with people lashing out at just about any target. During the demonstrations of September 16th, a crowd of at least 2,000 protestors tried to charge the American consulate in Chengdu. On the 18th, anti-Japan demonstrators surrounded the car of US Ambassador Gary Locke, and damaged it while he was inside. Last week, some of the looting and destruction targeted non-Japanese brands like Rolex, Dior, McDonald’s, and Samsung.
Observers have likened the country-wide demonstrations, many of which were violent, to the Cultural Revolution and the anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion, which began at the end of the 19th century. China is a volatile society, and the Communist Party’s coercive system—like Foxconn’s—has just about reached its limits. Many, if not most, Chinese believe that a one-party system is no longer appropriate for China’s modernizing society. People want a new bargain, and it looks like they are even willing to use violence to get it.
China seems to be entering a new phase of instability—in which any incident can start a riot. That’s the greater meaning of the most recent troubles at Foxconn.