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Reports of Foxconn factory riot spread through Chinese social media

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These days, if a news story percolates up and out of China, chances are pretty good that it reached your ears via the medium of “weibo.” The weibo are Chinese microblogging sites, home-grown Twitter equivalents, the largest of which is Sina Weibo, where over 100 million messages are posted each day.

The latest news to reach shores outside the Middle Kingdom is the shutdown of one of Hon Hai Precision Instrument Co.’s Foxconn Technology Group’s factories. Foxconn is one of the largest producers of electronic components in the world and is well known in the West for producing parts for many popular devices, including Apple’s iPhone and iPad. It is also well known for a litany of labor problems, resulting in, among other things, workers threatening suicide.

Although Apple has insisted it is working with Foxconn management to improve conditions by eliminating mandatory overtime and cramped living conditions, tensions are apparently still high among Foxconn employees.

The company confirmed that approximately 2,000 workers rioted at Foxconn’s central Chinese plant in Taiyuan Sunday, according to Want China Times. The factory has 79,000 workers.

Foxconn spokesman Louis Woo described the altercation, which resulted in the intercession of thousands of Chinese police, as “a group confrontation near the staff dormitories between workers from different production lines.” He insisted in a statement that the riot was not work-related.

China’s official news agency, Xinhua, said the fight resulted in 40 injuries, attracted 10,000 onlookers and required the actions of 5,000 riot police to stop. A government spokesman told the agency the rioters were from two different provinces, Shandong and Henan.

To calm the situation, Foxconn has closed the entire plant for at least one day.

The story first broke on Sina Weibo and on a citizen journalism site, Boxun (blocked in mainland China but often still accessed and contributed to there), with a host of photos of the altercations posted.

Weibo requires registration, but Engadget has posted a host of night-of photos. A video shot on the night of the riot is available on Boxun, as is a series of photos surveying the aftermath of the riot.

The direct access that microblogging and other social media provides has proven popular around the world. In China, the highly-controlled media has led to a reliance on such sites. But in China, as elsewhere, the professional media often look to them as a way to prospect for stories and to gauge possible reader interest.

“The Sina Microblog service has absolutely hit the mainstream in China,” Robert Kong Hai, an American writer and educator resident in China, told the Daily Dot. “It’s estimated that 30% of all China Internet users, use (it.) We’re talking about 300 million users posting 100 million messages every day. It's taken very serious by the Chinese government, and therefore it’s closely monitored to control supposed false rumors, and anti-government postings.

“These days, the China press is being forced to cover stories that are originating from these microblogs,” he said. “For example, if an unfavorable story about a government official hits the microblog service and one million users start talking about it, the Chinese media is forced to cover the story, even if they don't want to, because if they don't, they themselves will feel the backlash.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story mispelled the name of Robert Kong Hai. We regret the error. 

Photo via Boxun