When the Chinese government tells its citizens to do something, it is rarely wise for the citizens to disobey. But when instructions come with the warning that obedience could cost them their lives, you might expect citizens to think twice. Such is the current situation in China, where the government requires veterans to attend at the world’s most productive iPhone factory, in Zhengzhou, to make good shortages of the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max models — despite the plant being regularly vulnerable to Covid outbreaks.
The reason for the shortage is that By no means has Covid-19 gone away, Despite the apparent weakness in the Western response to the virus. In China, there has been a hardline “zero Covid” policy for some time, which has made factory operation particularly difficult – when someone tests positive for the virus, it can empty entire processing floors, or even entire buildings – and extraordinarily dangerous, as continued proximity of your fellow workers could exacerbate situations unnecessarily.
Apple’s Zhengzhou factory in particular has paid its workers increasingly large bonuses to stay and work on the Pro and Pro Max iPhone 14 models, amounting to an extra $55 per worker per day to try to reduce production backlogs. Unfortunately, this backlog now extends to January 2023 for Chinese iPhones from Zhengzhou, traditionally responsible for delivering about 70% of iPhone models in the world.
So, in a mind-boggling move, the Chinese government sent out an invitation to retired military veterans to come to the factory in Zhengzhou and help them as much as they could.
The call actually came from the People’s Liberation Army Veterans Affairs Office in Zhengzhou – and (in a sign of the degree of technological uptake by China’s older generations) it came in the form of an open letter sent to WeChatthe so-called “everything app” which is increasingly spreading everywhere in the country.
The ongoing communist leadership
The speech essentially scrapped the idea of ”retired” status, declaring that veterans had “always been under the command of the Communist Party and should appear when needed”.
He went on to tell them to “heed the government’s call” and “take part in the resumption of production”.
It is worth considering the Chinese government’s perceived importance to iPhone production that underlies this extraordinary message.
This is a communist government – one might say Leadership The Communist Government of the World – instructing military veterans (i.e., retired state soldiers) to volunteer their service not in direct defense of the nation, but to make iPhones (by Apple, a US-based company), as part of their ongoing commitment to the Communist Party.
It becomes even more surreal when you realize that the Zhengzhou factory is technically owned by Foxconn, which is headquartered in Taiwan, a country that considers itself an independent country, but is considered part of Chinese territory by the Chinese government.
In addition to all this, conditions at the Zhengzhou factory have kept workers there in a Covid “bubble” since the start of 2022. This means that employees there can safely work with each other — but cannot interact with people outside the bubble, including their family and friends. Anyone with Covid is sent to an on-site quarantine centre, rather than being sent home to self-isolate.
This policy did not stop the disease from spreading within the bubble—which is at least one reason why directing veterans to work there has faced so much criticism. There are, of course, also questions about whether veterans have the flexibility to stand around making iPhones day in and day out, and questions about the ethics of ordering veterans out of retirement to do manual labor in factories at all — at least outside of wartime.
It is known that the Zhengzhou factory has a shortfall of 10,000 workers over its usual capacity of 300,000 employees. No one is yet sure if enough veterans will answer the call to help financially with the iPhone’s lack of productivity.
The importance of iPhones
Since the factory suffered a covid outbreak as recently as October, which resulted in workers jumping fences trying to flee the factory bubble, it is by no means certain how many veterans necessarily enter the Zhengzhou factory. again once the deficiency has been addressed.
To have a communist government instruct its military veterans to go and work in a factory that produces consumer goods for sale, the importance of those goods must necessarily be very high in that government’s estimation. It would be easy to infer from this move that the Chinese government is very nervous about the increasing moves by Apple and other Western companies to distance themselves from their ongoing relationships in China.
Those companies have been trying to withdraw from, or at least reduce, their investments in China after a year-long campaign by the US Biden-Harris administration to restrict sales of chips and equipment to China, in favor of boosting local manufacturing and use.
The ongoing — though dismissive — Cold War between the United States and China over high-tech semiconductors, advanced chips, and cutting-edge consumer electronics has pushed the two countries into an ever more strained relationship, so China will want to make sure it pulls out of both. A downtime is available to preserve as much of Apple’s business as possible.
It remains to be seen if recalling veterans to correct production shortfalls actually achieves this — especially since Apple may have to deal with the optics back home.