In the wake of widely reported 2,000-man riot at a Foxconn plant in China’s Shanxi Province, much of the Western media focused its attention on how the disturbance and consequent factory shutdown would affect production of the iPhone 5, some parts of which are believed to be assembled there.

There has been less clarity about what exactly happened. According to a Sina report on Weibo flagged on Tea Leaf Nation, the fight had its seeds in a cross-cultural clash spurred in part by the sudden influx of out-of-towners to the plant’s home city, Taiyuan. Workers from Shandong and Henan provinces were shipped in to speed up production of the iPhone 5. The clash started when a worker from Shandong Province got into an altercation with security, who then dragged him to a van and beat him up. Intent on revenge, his co-workers from Shandong, with the assistance of the workers from Henan, took the fight right back at the security guards.

The resulting four-hour brawl, which resulted in 40 hospitalizations (but no deaths), led to the shutdown of the plant for a full day. Normal operations at the 79,000-worker plant have since been resumed.

The tensions between the guards and the workers had apparently been a longstanding issue. One 19-year-old worker who Reuters tracked down in hospital said security guards at the plant were rough and there is a culture of managers verbally abusing workers. “It doesn’t matter who you are, you shouldn’t curse people like that,” the worker told Reuters. “They do it all the time. If it happens over a long time, it builds up and of course it makes people angry and they go crazy like that.”

Despite public efforts to improve labor conditions, which have included pay raises, Foxconn has been getting a lot of bad press about the way it treats its workers. As Tea Leaf Nation first reported, Foxconn was hammered earlier this year for forcibly conscripting students to work as “interns” on iPhone production lines. The company has also been plagued by suicides (which were blown out of proportion by the media) and the unfair attentions of Mike Daisey’s theatrical fabulism. But the reality is that Foxconn’s labor issues are complex, with the company having to balance intense demands from American technology companies with the nuanced needs of an emerging workforce of young Chinese intent on improving their lots in life.

The macro issues behind the Foxconn brawl are ultimately more important than the riot itself. This is actually an unfolding story about how the country responds to an economic slowdown when it seems like just yesterday everything was looking rosy for the hopeful younger generations. In a post to Sina Weibo translated by Tea Leaf Nation, Caijing, one of China’s leading business magazines, had one of the most poignant thoughts on the riot:

The living costs of the society is soaring beyond that of the UK and the US, and the large population of poor young workers are plunged into hopelessness about their futures. If this problem is not faced or not resolved, and no social mobility is provided to this generation of poor workers, there will be no peace in Chinese society in the future. Good night.

We may not have heard the end of violent outbursts in the “factory of the world.”

[Photo via Cult of Mac]