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After brief respite, China re-imposes strict COVID restrictions as infections rise


We turn now to China, where that country's COVID policy could be at a tipping point. Earlier this month, the government said it would relax some part of its strict "zero-COVID" rules. But with infections now rising across the country, local authorities have begun to resort to extreme, sudden lockdowns and mass testing. Dissatisfaction with the country's "zero-COVID" policy is growing. And this was the scene earlier this week at a Chinese factory that makes Apple's iPhones.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #1: (Yelling in non-English language).

SIMON: Workers there were protesting the COVID regulations and overdue pay. NPR's Emily Feng is in Taiwan and joins us.

Emily, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: It is unusual to hear the sounds of protests in China. What happened there?

FENG: Yeah. You just heard some extraordinary scenes. They happened at the Foxconn plant in central China. And Foxconn is a big factory that assembles a lot of our consumer electronics, including the iPhone. And according to videos and texts shared by workers with this, at least hundreds of these workers were just fed up with COVID controls and the lack of pay they were getting. So they effectively went into hand-to-hand combat, as you just heard, with security guards who were dressed in this head-to-toe protective COVID equipment. And there's acts of dissent like this that are continuing across the country. Last night, I was watching with the rest of the country as China was gripped by these videos showing more extraordinary scenes of mass unrest spreading across the capital of Xinjiang in the country's west.

SIMON: And tell us more about what's happening there, please.

FENG: Well, parts of Xinjiang have been under continuous lockdown for more than three months and counting. And then on Friday, there was this residential fire there that killed 10 people. And what pushed people over the edge was video from that fire show fire trucks were unable to reach the fire immediately because the building that caught on fire was under partial lockdown, and the entrances were blocked after months out of use. And what's horrible is, in the video, you can hear people inside screaming for help, but the firefighters just couldn't reach them.

Now, Xinjiang is effectively a police state. But despite these controls, according to the videos, what looked like hundreds, if not thousands of people came out after the fire, and they protested because they just had enough with COVID controls. And here's one of the videos they shared.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #2: (Chanting in non-English language).

FENG: I mean, you can hear the raw emotion. These people are chanting repeatedly, liberate the city, meaning lift the lockdown. And there are smaller protests like this that are happening in other Chinese cities right now, including Beijing, actually, just outside the home of my Beijing producer, where residents are pushing back against being locked down in their own homes.

SIMON: Emily, it sounds like something's got to give.

FENG: That is the real question. You know, what is the ultimate goal of China's "zero-COVID" policy? At first, it was really popular. It was to keep people safe against an unknown virus. But there was supposed to be an end to these policies, and they haven't ended. And that's created this huge cost to not just the economy, but to people's health and, in this case, their safety.

And there was some hope just a few weeks ago when some of these rules were relaxed slightly. But then as soon as you saw COVID cases go up, the same extreme lockdowns and testing came back immediately. And this time, these policies are a lot less publicly supported than they were three years ago, when this pandemic began.

SIMON: NPR's Emily Feng in Taiwan. Thanks so much.

FENG: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.