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Some say a protest could worsen a delay in Apple's latest iPhone production

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

China's strict zero-COVID policy has been blamed for a delay in production of Apple's latest iPhone. But this week, a huge protest over a pay dispute in the world's largest iPhone plant may have made the situation worse. In the last 24 hours, some angry workers clashed with people in hazmat suits and riot police. Our China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch is monitoring this. Hey, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHAPIRO: There's a delay on your line. Just let us know what's been happening at this huge iPhone production facility.

RUWITCH: Yeah. This is an assembly plant run by the Taiwanese Apple supplier called Foxconn that employs around 200,000 people. And it's in the central province of Henan in the city of Zhengzhou. Last month, Ari, you'll remember there was an outbreak there, and it made the news when workers fled. They literally climbed the fences of this facility to get away. They were upset about quarantine rules, conditions in the factory and then, generally, feared catching COVID. So the factory went and recruited a bunch of new workers. They promised generous bonuses. And now there are these reports and videos showing workers protesting angrily over it, saying that the deal was changed without their consent and that they were apparently also animated by these rumors that they were being forced to live and work with others at the factory who actually had COVID-19. Foxconn says that it's fulfilled its contractual obligations and that reports of, you know, these new workers being mixed in with others who have COVID are not true. But look, we're three years into the pandemic, and this is happening while China is grappling with its biggest outbreak, at least since last spring and, potentially, ever.

SHAPIRO: And so how are authorities in China dealing with this?

RUWITCH: Well, you'll remember last spring, the epicenter was Shanghai. And the city, like others have been, was subject to a total lockdown that lasted two months. This time around, the authorities seem to be taking a slightly less heavy sledgehammer approach. But it's still the old playbook, you know? Nationwide, they've identified thousands of high-risk areas. They're doing mass testing and targeted lockdowns. What's interesting is that the central government earlier this month issued 20 new measures that appeared to be designed to sort of ease off of this tough COVID policy a bit. At the same time, though, they said they're not willing to jettison zero COVID yet and have said that letting go just isn't an option. It's all a bit confusing. So I asked Yanzhong Huang about this. He's a China health care expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

YANZHONG HUANG: Basically, what they're asking local governments to fulfill, you know, a policy goal, you know, that is like a mission impossible.

RUWITCH: It's like a mission impossible because the local authorities in localities where the rubber meets the road, they're being asked to loosen up, but also to be vigilant and to snuff out COVID when it pops up. And those are two hard things to do at the same time.

SHAPIRO: And so does the government have an endgame? Is there an exit strategy here, or do they just keep going around in circles?

RUWITCH: If they have an endgame, they haven't really spelled it out that clearly. The economy is struggling. They know it. They are taking steps to boost growth. You know, patience is also wearing thin, but they've also been clear that they don't think they can let the pandemic get out of control. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is moving on. And Xi Jinping saw this up close last week at the G-20 and APEC meetings in Southeast Asia.

SHAPIRO: Speaking of Xi, just briefly, has his calculus changed after not leaving the country for two years?

RUWITCH: Might have - you know, he was mingling maskless with world leaders, clearly prioritizing diplomacy last week. The risks are real, though. He met Hong Kong's leader, John Lee, down at APEC. Lee tested positive a few days later. So that may be the closest that Xi has come to the coronavirus in the three years since it emerged.

SHAPIRO: Thank you. That is NPR's John Ruwitch. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.

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