Geopolitics

China's 'Apple City' - Assembling iPhones In The Urban Shadows

Employees who toil long hours for low wages at the Chinese factories that assemble the iPhone are part of the dark side of the country's rush to urbanization.

Zhengzhou, aka "Apple City"
Zhengzhou, aka "Apple City"
Brice Pedroletti

ZHENGZHOU — “Apple City,” where the Foxconn factories build the iPhone and other products for California-based Apple, is a strange new town, a patchwork of defaced countryside and overpopulated urban areas on the outskirts of southern Zhengzhou.

When the Taiwanese company Foxconn’s factories and their 300,000 workers established themselves here in the capital of the Henan province two years ago, the area was deeply disrupted by a chaotic urban boom. Some villages were destroyed, others were pierced by four-lane avenues, and corn fields are still surrounded by contruction sites.

In Dazhai, one of the villages at the edge of the immense square factory buildings, farmers just finished hastily building three-story, cube-shaped brick towers that offer “standard rooms, with hot water and Internet.” The little streets between them, paved with poor-quality concrete or simply covered with clay, are swarming with young people.

Needless to say, the village landlords are very happy. “Business is running smoothly,” murmurs a slightly stout woman whose family rents 62 rooms, each for for 600 yuan ($100) a month.

Apart from the few workers unwilling to stay in the dormitory or who live with their partners, these slumlords put up the thousands of employees and students attracted by this sweat economy with tiny profit margins and fierce competition. Though they are underpaid, Foxconn employees do spend in the local economy. But already, the barracks are in a pitiful state.

Apple City is in the early stages of urbanization, where nothing is made to last, with inadequate infrastructure and poor-quality material. “It seems like a joyful place after work with lots of young people,” says Liu Yang, a 27-year-old man from Sanmexia, a town bordering the Yellow River west of Zhengzhou. “Everybody has fun, but don’t go by appearances.”

Liu is distraught by this incredible concentration of young proletarians left to their own devices. He himself had become a supervisor at Foxconn and had managed to save a little nest egg, but he tried to start a business and lost everything. He’s now back at square one as an unqualified worker.

Inside the factory, discipline is sacred. But off duty, the law of the jungle prevails. In other words, the workers can’t rely on the police or on security forces to help them if they have a problem. A small mafia network is sucking the lifeblood out of the most fragile ones.

What, you don’t want to work here?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Foxconn is having trouble recruiting workers. Xiao Bing, a former employee who owns a small recruitment agency, complains about how difficult it is to find “clients.” At best, he finds one or two per day. To interview, applicants need only an ID card. The maximum age of candidates was raised from 35 to 40, because people “are in constant transit,” he says.

One worker, 36-year-old Wang, a strong man with short graying hair, says he initially wanted his wife and son to come here and join him. “But it’s unthinkable,” he says. He comes from a rural area in the north of the province, where he left a steel mill job he found was too “hard” and “dirty.”

It didn’t take him long to become disillusioned at Foxconn. For starters, the dormitory is an hour away by bus and costs him 900 yuan ($150) a month, food included. Without extra hours, he is left with 1,000 yuan ($165 dollars) after tax per month, less than at the steel mill, where he earned 3,000 yuan monthly for eight-hour workdays. “They’re robbers,” he says of his new employer.

Wang’s crushed hope is telling. By bringing factories closer to pools of workers — such as in Henan, a poor province with close to 95 million inhabitants — industrial relocations were supposed to facilitate the urbanization of local migrants. But for these young workers, ending up in a dormitory in their region of origin tastes more like defeat than social promotion.

“I earn less here than I did working in electronics in Shanghai in 2008,” Xiadeng says angrily as he sits on the upper mattress of a bunk bed in the room he shares with five other workers. And these living conditions don’t exactly encourage job retention.

And yet, the airport economic zone in which Foxconn is located is undergoing a massive administrative reorganization. Established in 2013 as a new district of Zhengzhou, its population is expected to rise from 600,000 to four million.

Citizens in transit

The goal for the zone is to “avoid being too dependent on Foxconn and to vary the types of industries,” explains Liu Shaojun, professor of urbanism at Zhengzhou University. Five years from now, some villages will have been razed and absorbed by the suburbs. Their population will have been relocated. There will also be social housing, but not for those who work at Foxconn. “For that, they would need to have the same rights as people who live in the city, but they move too much,” he explains.

Indeed, Foxconn employees are officially still living in their hometowns because none of the numerous localities situated around the factories would be able to legally integrate that many new inhabitants in one go. Besides, those villages, where the land is owned collectively, are self-managed. The inhabitants, who are responsible for the infrastructures, don’t care about urban rationality or the environment. Only profits matter.

This ecosystem enables Foxconn to build iPhones at an enviable cost. “Quality” urbanization promoted by Chinese leaders is not a consideration for Foxconn or for the local authorities. “The dominant approach in China is very pragmatic,” explains Chinese studies expert Chloé Froissard. “Big cities integrate those they’re interested in, who have qualifications or take care of themselves. There is no logic of welfare state or of equal rights.”

In the karaoke rooms set up in the cellars of the dormitories, the young workers maintain that they have no intention to rot in Apple City. Of course, they would like to live in Zhengzhou, but their priority is to save money before trying to obtain an urban “hukou” (China’s domestic passport and household registration system). They are frightened of unemployment.

“If there’s no more work, I'll have nothing left,” says Liu Yang, the former supervisor. “At least with my hukou, I’ll always have a piece of land.” In the meantime, like hundreds of thousands of others, he will have to make do with being a citizen in transit.


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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.

[*Italian]

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• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

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• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

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📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

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📣 VERBATIM

"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

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Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com!

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