Xi’an residents face shortages of food and critical supplies as lockdown continues

Society & Culture

COVID-zero policies in Xi’an are tough after the recent outbreak. People are complaining on social media.

Image from Weibo

As the 13 million residents of Xi’an entered their seventh day of home confinement, an outcry about shortages of food and other essentials has erupted on Chinese social media, setting off a rare public debate about who should bear the costs of the country’s zero-COVID strategy.

Since China sealed off the northwestern city of Xi’an, which is roughly 600 miles southwest of Beijing, on December 23 to stamp out a substantial outbreak of COVID-19, complaints have piled up in the past week on Chinese social media about a lack of groceries and a steep rise in food prices faced by Xi’an residents. On Tuesday, the cry for help reached a fever pitch as several hashtags related to the issue started trending on Weibo and brought the alarming situation to public light.

According to one person’s description of the condition, when the sudden lockdown was imposed, people were advised not to stock up on food as local officials told households that they could send one member shopping every two days. However, on Monday, in response to a cluster of new community infections, the local government strengthened the already strict lockdown restrictions, essentially barring people from leaving their homes except for COVID testing. 

“Food delivery drivers were stopped at the entrance of my residential compound. I was yelled at when I asked police officers about food. They told me to contact community workers in my neighborhood and assured me that I wouldn’t starve to death. After much struggle, I bought a ‘luxurious’ vegetable package online for 98 yuan [$15] but then got my order canceled due to low stock,” the person wrote (in Chinese). “It looks like I need to eat bland noodles for a few more days just to survive. This is terrible. The Xi’an government is rotten to the core.”

Out of desperation, some Xi’an residents started creating mutual-aid groups in their apartment buildings, where neighbors could exchange information about food supplies and trade goods with each other. In a screenshot (in Chinese) that has been making the rounds on Weibo, which showed a WeChat group chat among residents in a housing community, a person asked her neighbors: “Does anyone need a math tutor? I’ll give you a one-hour session for three potatoes.”

Other Xi’an citizens said on Weibo that they regretted not panic-buying groceries and other essential products when rumors about a potential lockdown started swirling around two weeks ago. In a string of Weibo posts that exemplified the negative shift in sentiment about pandemic controls in the city, a Xi’an resident wrote on December 18 that she had confidence in local health officials to handle the outbreak properly, only to find herself posting pleas online 10 days later, begging Weibo users to save her from starvation. “Somebody please help me! I will pay whatever it costs to just have some food. I am losing hope here,” she wrote. “Those false assurances about sufficient food supplies screwed me over.”

The China Vibe.

Subscribe to The China Vibe, our society and culture newsletter, to get a free weekly roundup of the most interesting stories from China.

Medical services appeared to be in a state of chaos, too. In a viral Weibo post (in Chinese), a university student in Xi’an documented the difficulties she faced while seeking treatment for her fever. She claimed that after she woke up with a high temperature on December 26, a total of six hospitals rejected her, citing concerns about taking in patients showing COVID symptoms. At the same time, her calls to multiple health departments and COVID hotlines went unanswered. After she shared her experience on Zhihu, a Quora-like Q&A platform in China, she said that several community workers, who previously ignored her calls for medical assistance, asked her to delete the post. Eventually, the story was censored on Zhihu for reasons unbeknownst to her. “If these community workers keep focusing on controlling public opinion, playing the blame game, and deceiving people, instead of containing the spread of the virus, when will the outbreak in Xi’an end?” she wrote.

As of today, the hashtag “It’s difficult to buy groceries in Xi’an” #西安买菜难# has been viewed over 290 million times on Weibo. Many Xi’an residents sought to tag news outlets, journalists, and other prominent individuals in their Weibo posts in the hopes that their messages would be shared widely and eventually answered.

Facing public outrage, local authorities said at a press briefing today that the government was aware of the plight of many residents and had taken a series of measures to ensure their access to food, including incentivizing major vendors to keep up with the demand and encouraging establishing volunteer teams to deliver necessities. 

The efforts can be seen in a barrage of posts made by social media accounts associated with the local government and state media. On Tuesday, the official Weibo account of the Xi’an government published an article (in Chinese) titled “Actions are happening in Xi’an tonight to ensure supplies,” while the People’s Daily reposted (in Chinese) photos taken in several Xi’an districts that showed community workers and volunteers shopping at grocery stores and making deliveries. 

But judging from some posts online, there were still no fresh groceries in sight for many people in Xi’an. “Where is the food? I don’t know. All I know is that some people received deliveries and many people didn’t,” a person wrote on Weibo, while another one joked, “It seems like all the promised groceries only exist in photos released by the government.” 

In the wake of the crisis in Xi’an, many observers have drawn parallels to food shortages earlier this year in Tonghua, a small city in China’s northeastern Jilin Province. In January, Tonghua went into a snap lockdown in response to a resurgence of new COVID-19 cases, leaving the city’s over 2 million residents trapped in their apartments without supplies for more than a week. After a social media outcry, the deputy mayor of Tonghua apologized to the locals for the “delayed delivery of living necessities” and promised to take more measures to meet people’s needs.

The lockdown of Xi’an is the latest escalation in China’s efforts to extinguish local transmission of the coronavirus as it becomes the only country in the world still chasing full eradication of the virus at all costs. The stakes are particularly high in Xi’an’s case as the city is only a two-hour flight southwest of Beijing, where the Winter Olympics will be held in February. So far this month, Xi’an has reported 810 local symptomatic cases, making it one of the worst community outbreaks in China since the virus first emerged in Wuhan in 2019.