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Fearing COVID Lockdown, Over 10,000 Workers Break Out of China’s Biggest iPhone Factory

Aided by locals, escapees from Foxconn plant travel dozens to hundreds of miles on foot to reach home
Leo Timm
Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: November 3, 2022
Workers face off with "big white" epidemic prevention enforcers outside the Zhengzhou Foxconn plant. (Image: Screenshot via social media)

In the latest — and one of the most dramatic — examples of Chinese forced to the brink by the communist regime’s draconian pandemic curbs, thousands of employees at a massive iPhone factory in the central Henan Province overwhelmed blockades and fled their workplace to avoid crushing conditions under “zero-COVID” isolation. 

The Foxconn plant, located in the provincial capital of Zhengzhou, produces 10 percent of the iPhones made in China. Foxconn is a Taiwanese company that supplies parts and production for Apple. 

But the factory had been under quarantine with its 200,000 staff since mid-October after a number of COVID-19 infections were detected among the workers. 

Workers reported being locked in their dormitories without adequate food or supplies, and some claimed to see workers being forcibly hauled away by epidemic prevention workers to put them into quarantine. 

Epidemic prevention staff and police form a cordon in Zhengzhou, central China. (Image: Screenshot via social media)


One worker surnamed Yuan told Reuters that the number of people put into isolation was around 20,000. “We were shut in on Oct. 14, and we had to do endless PCR tests, and after about 10 days, we had to wear N95 masks,” he said. “People would be called away in the middle of work, and if they don’t show up the next day, that would mean they had been taken away.”

Things came to a head in the night of Oct. 29 and Oct. 30, when thousands of the workers smashed doors and charged through checkpoints while wielding fire extinguishers to ward off the dreaded “big whites,” as the lockdown enforcers have come to be called due to their full-body protective clothing. 

Fleeing on foot

Footage from the scene shows workers breaching the large yellow blockades that had been set up around their factory. In one video, a female worker reports that the “big whites” fled their posts when faced with the surging crowds. Multiple witnesses said that more than 10,000 people left the Foxconn plant. 

Police stopped or detained a number of workers fleeing the scene in the early hours of Oct. 30, but the latter’s numbers were so great that only a fraction were prevented from escaping.

Foxconn plant workers locked down in central China’s Zhengzhou city break through a COVID-19 checkpoint on Oct. 29 or Oct. 30. (Image: Screenshot via social media)
Workers walk through a breach made in the quarantine barricades. (Image: Screenshot via social media)
Workers walk outside the premises of the Foxconn plant. (Image: Screenshot via social media)

Footage on social media shows some police officers and epidemic prevention personnel staying put as Foxconn workers swarm around them. 

After breaching the premises, the absconded workers had no access to public transport, given the various levels of pandemic restrictions throughout Zhengzhou. 

According to the state-run Henan Daily, the provincial governor Wang Kai paid a visit to Zhengzhou on Oct. 29 to “inspect and give instructions” on pandemic controls. He demanded that “zero-COVID” be achieved citywide in the shortest possible time. Meanwhile, Zhengzhou Chinese Communist Party (CCP) secretary An Wei called for “strict control of at-risk persons” to achieve prevention of “spillover risk.” 

Wang Kai, governor of Henan Province, called for stricter “zero-COVID” measures. (Image: Screenshot via CCTV)


A multitude of posts on Chinese social media sites document the journeys many of the workers took to reach home or simply get as far away as they could from the lockdowns. Though information related to the break-out was quickly suppressed, the news spread widely generated heated discussion among Chinese internet users. 

“Many walked to [districts of] Kaifeng,” one man recording a video said, referring to another major city in Henan Province. “That’s 30 to 50 kilometers. Some people walked four to six hours straight.”  

“There are so many people,” one woman who escaped the plant said. “I have no idea where we’re headed.” 

Workers leaving the Zhengzhou Foxconn plant walk on a roadside. (Image: Screenshot via social media)

While the Zhengzhou police on Oct. 30 announced on its official social media accounts that a number of employees were free to leave or stay, many netizens doubted this was actually the case, sharing information about authorities in various communities tracking down workers to put them under quarantine. 

Yuan, the worker who spoke with Reuters, walked 50 kilometers (around 30 miles) to the city of Xinxiang, where he was detained and placed in quarantine. 

Aided on the road 

Some traveled even further than Yuan, reporting that they walked day and night to get away from Zhengzhou. 

In a video posted on social media, a woman speaking with a vehicle driver said that she was returning to her home in Guizhou Province, over 1,500 kilometers south of Zhengzhou. 

Videos taken on the highways show throngs of people resting by the roadside. 

Some workers described how, hearing of their situation, locals they encountered would prepare food and equipment for them, including tables, chairs, and even phone charging stations. Others would give the workers directions and reportedly chased after them to give them provisions for the journey. 

Workers from Zhengzhou use a phone charging station set up by supportive locals. (Image: Screenshot via social media)

One woman told of how she walked for 14 hours from evening to afternoon, but still wasn’t able to find her way home. Another woman shared her food and battery pack, allowing her to contact her family and let them know she was safe. 

Some escaped employees told overseas Chinese media that they tried to steer clear of other people out of concern that they would cause them to get into trouble with the authorities. 

More fortunate workers were able to hitch rides with generous truckers — some of the few drivers who have the wherewithal to travel on China’s expensive toll highways and get past the myriad COVID checkpoints across the country. 

A man throws a box of supplies to workers leaving Zhengzhou on a truck. (Image: Screenshot via social media)

The CCP has since the early months of the initial outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in Wuhan maintained a zero-tolerance policy on the pandemic, hoping to exterminate it completely. However, the “zero-COVID” requirements have taken a political life of their own, being pursued by Party officials at all levels to the severe detriment of local economies, livelihoods, and often resulting in absurd and enraging human tragedies. 

Because of supply chain disruptions caused by the frequent and extensive lockdowns, many major industries in China have implemented a so-called “closed-loop” system wherein workers spend weeks on end living and working on factory campuses, with food and other essentials brought to them by designated staff. However, such arrangements have often fallen short, turning the factories into veritable concentration camps.