By COOPER B.
Shanghai workers at the Quanta Computer plant, a manufacturer of Apple products, have been engaging in escalating clashes with management over the draconian “closed-loop” system. Initiated by Chinese capitalists in order to maintain productivity of their firms during a surge in COVID-19 cases, the closed-loop system effectively conscripts workers into a cycle of isolation from the larger world, including sleeping and living at the workplace.
The closed-loop system was first implemented at the Shanghai factory in March. Rather than a standard lockdown (in which workers or small business people are told to “stay at home”) the closed-loop allows the Taiwanese company Quanta to exploit Chinese workers—with the blessing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—in order to continue making products for the American Apple to sell.
In this example, we can see in a clear manner how capitalists from many countries conspire to exploit labor in one part of the globe more efficiently. Of course this, by necessity, results in a fall in the quality of life for the exploited laborers.
Workers who live and work in the same compound share 12 persons per room in bunks. By the time COVID had surged again, several workers in the facility had gotten sick and initiated outbreaks. This caused a domino effect, in which management had to simultaneously bus sick workers to makeshift hospitals, force workers who worked from home into the closed loop, and subject all workers to daily testing. Needless to say, weeks of isolation at work can also have a damaging psychological effect. A typical worker at one of Quanta’s facilities makes $450 a month, much less than the average income in one of China’s wealthiest cities. .
The procedure has been emulated at numerous companies. Employees at the Tesla plant in Shanghai, for example, work 12-hour days, six days a week, and then bed down at the facility in sleeping bags provided by the company. The closed-loop is more profitable than a lockdown, and less risky for capital than removing all restrictions. It attempts to insulate workers from the pandemic while maintaining full or near-full production. Presumably, this would result in less worker deaths than the American option.
Shanghai’s closed-loop may end up being a test run for the Chinese ruling class in disciplining the workers, but they are not alone. As the ruling classes around the globe continue to compete for resources and strategic advantages, they will keep coming up against the hazards of climate change, as well as pandemics such as COVID-19. The capitalist governments—the U.S., Russia, France, Brazil, China, etc.—will seek new and inventive ways to keep us working for them, even if the world is burning. However, its unclear how far such austerity measures can be implemented when they provoke actions in protest.
Workers clash with guards, halt production
Since the latest lockdown began in March, the workers at Quanta have escalated their resistance in the face of mounting difficulties.
In one example, hundreds of workers at the factory stormed past the guards because some of them had been infected . The closed-loop did not protect them from COVID and the confined space only worsened the infection rate at Quanta. Obviously, the guards couldn’t do all that much to a crowd of determined workers. Especially with the low wages in these factories, it’s difficult for workers to accept hesitation when it comes to securing their basic needs. Indeed, individuals would also pass barriers in multiple instances to look for supplies.
The weekend of May 14 saw yet another escalation: workers from Quanta stormed a housing complex for Taiwanese managers of the plant, demanding both a lifting of the closed-loop system and better pay. This resulted in a tense standoff that lasted hours.
As reported by Bloomberg, the ongoing pandemic has harmed the profits of many tech companies, due to slowed production and delays in shipments. It is certain that mass disruptions by workers at any factory in the chain would have an additional ripple effect on the bosses’ profits.
Shattering the “Marxist” veneer in China
Despite the CCP’s lip-service to Marxism, the Chinese government is clearly not a government of the working people anymore. In fact, the workers never had real representation in government, as filtered through the Maoist bureaucracy.
Since the early 1990s, Chinese state-owned enterprises have been progressively “restructured” to operate on a capitalist basis. Since the 2000s, more and more Chinese companies have entered the Fortune 500 list, and China now has more companies on that list (135) than the U.S. (126). China has 539 billionaires, second to the 735 of the United States, and well ahead of the third place India at 166 billionaires. Many of these billionaires are members of the CCP, who became so rich partly due to their bureaucratic influence and control of the original state-owned enterprises. The Chinese economy operates on the capitalist principle of exploiting the labor of the vast majority to produce only a tiny handful of fabulously wealthy individuals.
Within this context, companies both of foreign and Chinese origin exploit the Chinese working people. Shanghai is set to lift its latest lockdown and end the closed-loop system, for now. It is certain that, as soon as the need is required again, the system can be re-introduced in improved form. Such is the nature of capitalist production—the continuous advancement of the methods of production, including methods of managing the workforce and exploiting labor.
These upsurges in one of Shanghai’s largest factories show us several things. First, it demonstrates that class struggle has not come to an end in China, and all the blabber in the world about communism from a “Communist” party won’t make humans less hungry, less tired, or less angry.
Second, because the workers are not like any other factor of production (raw materials or tools) you cannot run them into the ground infinitely. After a certain point, the balance will shift from exploitation of labor to the resistance of labor. In a world context progressively getting worse and worse—via climate change, inter-imperialist war, pandemics, etc.—the ruling class is forced to exploit harder to maintain their power and profits. It is, for the rulers, a choice between wealth and the common weal. They will inevitably choose their own wealth, and will thus instigate a revolution.
Third, attempts to maintain all production in the face of global calamity will fail. Even the most efficient closed-loop will not recover the full profits of the bosses. These measures can, at best, temporarily bury the woes of capitalism and profit-seeking. As the climate crisis worsens, the choice will become obvious: stop capitalist production and introduce an ecological economy. The capitalists would prefer we keep working no matter how bad things get out there. We, the workers, will need to invent a new way of living that solves, not defers, the problem.
Photo: People bring food supplies to workers barricaded inside offices and factories in Shanghai. Ali Song / Reuters