Locked down in Shanghai

Domestic News

Chang Che, a freelance journalist and business editor for SupChina, shares his insight and experience under Shanghai’s chaotic lockdown.

Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with Chang Che.

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily, newly designed China Access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China from hundreds of different news sources. Or check out all the original writing on our website at supchina.com. We’ve got reported stories, essays and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns, and, of course, a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region to China’s travails as it wrestles with a surging wave of COVID-19. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.

I’m Kaiser Kuo coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

This show was supposed to feature former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, but he had to cancel last-minute because he lost his voice. A lot of talking from his book tour, but we will reschedule and put that out as soon as we can. Meanwhile, I reached out to my colleague at SupChina, Chang Che — Che Chang in Chinese. Chang has been our business editor but has been shifting his focus to do more editing and to work on feature writing, which he’s excellent at if you haven’t seen some of his work. He was recently published in The New Yorker, in fact. After spending the holidays here in the U.S., he decided…what was it? In late February, Chang, to fly back to China?

Chang Che: Yep. Early March.

Kaiser: Early March. Yeah. So, fly back to China and endure quarantine. Little did he know…

Chang: What was waiting for me on the other side.

Kaiser: Yeah. I had a very genteel lockdown with an extra freezer that I bought in February 2020 and stocked it full of everything I could possibly need. Bought a 50-pound bag of beans, two 50-pound bags of flour…I was good, but you poor guy. Anyway, you’ve been on the ground in Shanghai experiencing that whole thing firsthand. Well, we’ve only been reading about the chaotic lockdown, dynamic clearing in response to this outbreak of the Omicron variant. Chang, anyway, welcome to Sinica. I should have said that earlier, but welcome to Sinica and great to have you on finally.

Chang: Thanks for having me, Kaiser. I’ve always dreamed of being on the Sinica Podcast. I thought about it as like a checkpoint of my career, but fate has a funny way of doing things because I was not expecting to be here to talk about this.

Kaiser: Yeah. Sorry I gave you such short notice, but you’re the perfect person to talk about it because you are on the ground. So you flew back in early March. You went into quarantine, and then what?

Chang: I went into quarantine for what was supposed to be three weeks, which ended up being two for some reason. And then I came out. And that first day…I came out on March 27, and I had one day of freedom before the city lockdown in the two-part lockdown, which started on the 28th.

Kaiser: Was it Puxi first or Pudong first?

Chang: It was Pudong first for the first four days.

Kaiser: And you are in Pudong?

Chang: I am in Puxi. So I did have an extra four days to prepare everything.

Kaiser: Okay. And so were you able to prepare? How much did you prep? Did you prepare for just the four days or for expectations of a longer lockdown?

Chang: So, just to give a little bit of context for listeners, Shanghai had been logging really high case counts as early as early March. So when I was in –

Kaiser: Oh really?

Chang: When I was in quarantine, the city had already been in what I could call like a “soft lockdown.” It was not as stringent as other cities like Shenzhen.

Kaiser: Or Jilin. Yeah.

Chang: Yeah, exactly. But it had already been under this batch lockdown where individuals — when cases came up, the neighborhood would be locked down for, I think, 14 days. And as long as your neighborhood didn’t register a case, you could move about semi freely.

Kaiser: So that was like Beijing. Like Beijing is right now.

Chang: Exactly. Yeah.

Kaiser: On a xiǎoqū 小区 by xiaoqu basis.

Chang: Exactly. A xiaoqu by xiaoqu basis. So when I came out, there was a notice that the city was going to go into a more severe lockdown, which is this two-part lockdown. And it began in Pudong for the first four days. And then it was supposed to end in Pudong and switch to Puxi. It was very clear that that didn’t happen.

Kaiser: Right, right, right.

Chang: So when we started in Puxi, our lockdown began on April 1. Pudong was still locked down. In terms of how I prepared… It’s funny that you ask, because the lines on that day were, on the first four days, were crazy. The grocery stores were just completely bought out, and you got a sense of what Chinese people like and don’t like. You saw a bunch of potatoes were left and there was like celery, like people didn’t really buy celery. But I just remember people in front of me just buying, just bulk ordering the entire selection. I remember being at the egg counter and the woman in front of me ordering 400 eggs.

Kaiser: Oh, geez.

Chang: And I just thought to myself, just what are you doing? Are you trying to eat a hundred eggs a day? And I think it just didn’t dawn on me that there was this kind of sense among some people who are maybe more experienced than I, that don’t necessarily take the government’s word for it. If they say four days, it could go longer. And it just, it didn’t dawn on me. To answer your question, I prepared for four days.

Kaiser: You sucker. Oh, man. That sucks. So I see that you’re famished now and barely able to speak — no I’m kidding. So, how are you doing now? What are things like now? And how have you endured? Have you been getting shipments of food and stuff?

Chang: So I’m doing okay. And the reason is quite simple. It’s because over the days there has been a gradual easing of food orders. And one means of accessing food is through this, which has kind of emerged in the days when this lockdown became an indefinite lockdown, is this idea of group buying, tuángòu 团沟, in which the neighborhood clumps together into groups and basically goes straight to like a wholesaler and ask them to ship food over. It’s sporadic. But, and I think what’s really important to stress is my situation is I think not necessarily representative of what’s going on in Shanghai. A lot of places, a lot of people in the city don’t have the buying power to tuangou.

Kaiser: Right.

Chang: People who don’t live in neighborhood compounds don’t have that luxury. And there are people who have been locked down longer than I was, right? So anybody who was in Pudong was locked down four days longer, if not more, if their compound had registered cases. And those people would have been going without food potentially for 14, 20 days.

Kaiser: Yeah. So the really big issues that are trending on social media seem to be obviously the availability of food, but also things like children being isolated from their parents, people unable to go to emergency rooms for other non-COVID-related emergencies. Of course, there’s quite a bit on the plight of migrant workers who, as you say, they don’t live in compounds. And sometimes they’re locked down in the places that they were working, on the sites that they were working in very, very bad conditions.

So what are you hearing right now? What’s the mood in Shanghai? If… to read Western media reports, it’s like Shanghai is seething, it’s on the brink of uprising. This is the… that Chernobyl moment that everyone’s been waiting for. This is a gigantic threat to Chinese Communist Party legitimacy. What are you sensing there? Is it an exaggeration or is that true?

Chang: That’s a good question, Kaiser. And I think I was just alerted today of the massive misinformation that’s going on on Twitter and all of these social media sites. I think the range of experiences in Shanghai really varies. So there’s extreme cases. Whenever you make a severe lockdown, the way that China has decided to do in Shanghai, you’re going to get very extreme cases, right? You’re going to get people who are starving. You’re going to get people who… There may have been suicides. There were certainly people who did not have access to medical care, like important, necessary medical care, and who’ve passed away. Those are anecdotes that I’ve read and heard of.

But I think the best way I think to sum it up is that Shanghai’s policies have slowly become more and more absurd over time.

In the beginning, in the period in which it was a two-part lockdown where everyone was locked down for four days. China… Shanghainese were relatively and not just Shanghainese, anyone who was in Shanghai, I think, was relatively compliant. In fact, I remember in the first four days, just the absolute silence from the city. It was just staggering. The idea of having 26 million people all comply. Coming from the United States, you know that that is just unheard of. And I just remember being just struck by how cooperative the city was. But it became very clear early on that the authorities had not thought around this situation. They did not think of all the externalities that would emerge from extending the lockdowns indefinitely. The very basic question of food distribution, right, that the private sector once basically handled a hundred percent, needed to be replaced by the government.

There needed to be medical services for people who needed medical care, people who need to give birth in the period of time that has been going on in the lockdowns. And as I said, migrant workers don’t have the same access to neighborhood committees and neighborhoods who can make their voice better heard. So all of these externalities were not considered. And so the situation in Shanghai, while diverse, is deteriorating slowly. There was a case of a… There was a document that I shared with you earlier of a neighborhood committee worker who was writing about her experience.

Kaiser: Yeah, that was fascinating. Yeah.

Chang: And you also get that sense of just things slowly going out of control.

Kaiser: Yeah. Yeah. The real foot soldiers, as you say, have been these neighborhood committees, the jūwěihuì 居委会 or shèqū wěiyuánhuì 社区委员会. For most of our listeners, I think these are very familiar. A lot of us have spent time in China, but I suppose there are probably some who don’t know what these neighborhood committees are, and maybe you can explain what they do in ordinary times and how they are mobilized in these extraordinary times.

Chang: So that’s a good question. And I actually, to be honest, I don’t entirely know what they did in ordinary times. My initial thinking is that… So neighborhood committees are in charge of probably a cluster of compounds, of neighborhoods, of specific xiaoqus, or like of kind of the smallest unit of residential life in Shanghai. And I think in normal times, they would be basically in charge of like when, if there were emergencies, people in the residence could contact the juweihuis, the neighborhood committees were connected to other sources of power. So they were your go-to, your initial contact for anything that might happen. And I’m sure that they also work with public security and others. So I think that was what they did in normal times.

In pandemic times, they’ve basically become the frontline workers of the pandemic prevention. So they are the ones who ensure that we get tested every day or we get tested however frequently we do now. And they are the ones who collect the tests and log them and they send the data to this basically like the CDC of China, where they do, where they find, where they count how many cases are positive that day. They’re also the group that handles all of the externalities that have basically emerged during these lockdown times.

And that is where the fundamental tension, I think, has emerged in this city. That is this tension where the externalities such as lack of food, lack of medical supplies, separation of children, of their COVID positive parents. All of these are being sent to the neighborhood committees and they are powerless to do anything about it.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah. I can imagine. So if people are having trouble imagining who these people are, if you’ve been to China and if you’ve lived there at all, you know the older, matronly woman walking around with a red armband on her arm and getting, sticking her nose in other people’s business, always sort of keeping track of who you’re dating or… That was the juweihui representative.

So, Chang, one of the big questions is, what accounts for the low vaccination rates among the elderly in Shanghai? That seems to be the chief or one of the chief problems here. I’ve heard that it’s only about 65% for the elderly compared to 89% is the nationwide vaccination rate. That’s two doses with over 90% having had at least a single dose, but older people — this sounds very much like what happened in Hong Kong. So what do you think explains why there was such a low rate of vaccination in Shanghai among the elderly?

Chang: So I think I’m going to be basically taking from an article that I read in The Economist about this question, which is basically that, and first of all, it’s a fantastic question. And I think it really it’s the biggest hurdle that China needs to overcome in the coming months, to basically not have a repeat of what’s happening in Shanghai. And it’s not the only one, but it’s one of the biggest ones. And I think the reasoning is partly, I think part of it is that the population of the elderly was not a part… It wasn’t a big part of the Chinese vaccination studies. And so I think there was a general skepticism among the elderly about whether vaccinations… Of course, COVID is especially dangerous and deadly to the elderly. And so I think there was just a fear among the elderly more so than the young that the vaccination could make them sick. And there’s also, I think, just rhetoric about Western vaccines or Chinese rhetoric that is, I think, also contributed to some skepticism around whether the vaccines, especially if they have this kind of… you know, if elderly mix this idea of vaccines with the west and they may be skeptical. But my confidence on this…

Kaiser: Wait, so you’re saying that they’re skeptical because they think that vaccines are a Western idea, or they are skeptical of the Chinese versus the Western vaccines?

Chang: I think that they think that this general idea of vaccines is suspect, but that’s something that I am not confident about.

Kaiser: Okay. Yeah, no, fair enough. Yeah, who can know? I don’t think there’s been systematic research done on this. But I’m just sort of struck by the parallels between Shanghai and Hong Kong. One of the things that I thought might be a major factor in this is simply that China was kind of a victim of its own success, is that the threat of COVID just didn’t loom very large. They could read it — just like the rest of us — the very, very, very low case rates in China all the way up until the end of last year until the emergence really of the Omicron variant. There was very little threat and very little incentive to get vaccinated because it was like being vaccinated against being struck by lightning. It was just so rare.

Chang: Absolutely. I think that’s definitely one aspect of it, because I think one thing that we know China does well is mass mobilization, right? And if they wanted to, I think that they could easily bring up the vaccination rates of the elderly, but like you said, it’s not… It wasn’t the primary priority given that COVID, the cases were so low. I also think your point about China being a victim of their success is interesting in another sense, which is that I think that China had convinced itself in April 2020 that a really hard, severe, rapid lockdown was the way to go in handling COVID.

And I think that the situation and the circumstances have changed over time. For one, the virus has changed, right? The virus virality, the strain is different, the severity is different. And I think that that approach, this kind of the old 2020 toolbox of pandemic prevention, which includes mass testing, frequent mass testing, isolation, all of these tactics, and of course, severe lockdowns, they were basically applied to Shanghai April 1st. And I think that that’s one of the problems that we’re seeing now.

Kaiser: Just an outdated solution to a very new problem.

Chang: Yeah.

Kaiser: It wasn’t any longer possible to just do systematic contact tracing. And, yeah-

Chang: Well, I think it was just that the idea of having this policy, it was always more nuanced than the narrative that China had presented to itself. It was always more nuanced in that cities are different. It’s nuanced in the fact that different cities have different needs. And there are certain kinds of externalities that emerge that need to be handled by the neighborhood committees. So by putting that cookie-cutter toolbox into Shanghai, we’ve seen basically a lot of problems.

Kaiser: Yeah. Yeah. So how much of the decision to implement this style of approach was really just about people wanting to toe Xí Jìnpíng’s 习近平 line about how the zero-COVID policy must be continued without change. How much of it was based instead though on like a sober assessment of the actual downside of what might happen if you took a less draconian approach? Assuming for the moment that it did make sense to try to lock down an entire city of 25, 26 million people. It’s not entirely without reason. We need some perspective on the sheer scale of the threat, right? Allowing Omicron to spread unchecked — it would represent a pretty serious threat. Look, we’ve all been told about the number of ICU beds per 100,000 people. In China, it’s only about 4.6. I’ve seen estimates from about 3.7 to 4.6 beds per 100,000 people. Whereas in the U.S., it’s 34 beds per 100,000 people. So, nine or 10 times the number per 100,000. And there’s the fact that those ICU beds are concentrated in first-tier cities and medical infrastructure and resources are even worse in the surrounding areas. And the concern ultimately is not about Shanghai itself. It’s about what happens if Shanghai bleeds out to the surrounding countryside, densely populated places with not anywhere close to the kinds of medical resources that are available, in neighboring provinces of Zhejiang, in Jiangsu, in Jiaxing, in Anhui, that would be disastrous, right?

So the idea was that Shanghai needs to make the sacrifice to prevent something truly, truly terrible from happening. It makes some sense to me. I’m not saying that the execution was good. Of course it was terrible, but it’s a little bit like the Afghan war. There are a lot of people coming out to criticize the way the final evacuations were carried out or carried out poorly, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the policy of withdrawal was wrong.

Chang: Absolutely. I think you’re right. So my view is this, if people are talking about this as a knock on zero-COVID policy in general, in the abstract sense, I don’t actually have a strong view about that. In fact, I think that China can still follow a zero-COVID policy, I think in the abstract. What’s happening in Shanghai is really not about zero-COVID versus a different policy. I think what’s really… like you said, it’s about the execution. There’s a range of executions that could have happened in Shanghai while still maintaining zero-COVID. You could have had — I had this list that I recently wrote on Twitter, where I just mentioned, a couple of things that could have still happened in Shanghai that could have prevented what is happening now under zero-COVID.

For example, we could have had more time to prepare for the lockdown. We could have had an expectation that there was potentially an indefinite or a longer lockdown so that people could prepare better. There could have been a plan to secure food. There could have been a slightly… asymptomatic case just could have stayed at home and not gone to quarantine facilities. And that still would’ve been considered a zero-COVID policy, if you take zero-COVID to just mean to basically minimize as much cases as possible. I think there’s a really important point about this that I want to make, which is that some people say that Shanghai needs to take the pain in order for the rest of the country to triumph over COVID. The truth is though that when you have these externalities that I mentioned such as food and medical supplies, all of these essentials in the city are important for zero-COVID.

When you have the disorder and unrest and unease from the people of Shanghai, when they don’t have the food and the medical supplies, first of all, you get a public that starts to stop cooperating with you, right? We got this sense from the diary of the neighborhood committee worker, where you could just sense that she was losing control of the situation because the residents were pissed at her. And that kind of anger comes with poor transparency, with not thinking around the policies. And so I think we need to stop having this narrative where the choice is between a zero-COVID policy and eating. It has to be, you have to have people eat and you have to have people well fed. You have to have people have access to medical supplies if they need it, you have to have parents and children together and families together in order to have a full, effective zero-COVID.

Kaiser: Right. Right, right. No, I couldn’t agree with you more. I wonder though, if there’s something about the Shanghainese that makes their reaction different to what you might have seen in other major Chinese cities. They have never exactly been known for just taking things lying down. They are always the first to get mad on a plane that’s delayed. They’re always… I’m invoking a regional stereotype here, but I’ve been around the Shanghainese enough to know they can be pretty feisty. And we’re told that this thing we’re going to… there’s places in China where people would be a lot more quiescent about it. Let’s just say that.

Chang: I think so. I think that’s possible. And I also think that China, I mean, Shanghai has more voice just generally in the international sphere, not just because there’s foreigners here, but also just because Shanghai is just more affluent. They have more of a say, which is why I think it’s important to note places that may not have a say, right? So places like Jilin. We haven’t, actually, there’s a lot of cities that have been locked down that have not had as much exposure in the Western media, and I think that’s just a testament to this sad reality that these kinds of centers of power and influence do get a say. A little bit more.

Kaiser: So, Shenzhen, it went really well. Right? I think that’s generally the consensus is lockdown was not only executed well, but also seems to have been effective in flattening the curve as it were. What was different about Shenzhen? Do you know?

Chang: So Shenzhen was locked down before Shanghai. And they were locked down, I think for seven days and then they were basically let go. So the answer is, I don’t know. The attempt at an answer is that I think that there were just a level — I think, first of all, one potential factor is that the situation in Shanghai was actually worse than it seemed. Because in the soft lockdown phase, they weren’t testing everybody. And so there were probably positive cases in the population that just was not accounted for. And I think this is what happened, the reason why the policy slipped from sensible to farcical on April 1st, when the lockdown went indefinite, was because authorities were just shocked at how many cases they were seeing. And they were surprised. And I think that there was more of a sense in Shanghai that authorities were basically racing against the clock than in Shenzhen.

Kaiser: I feel like a lot of this could have been solved by them not treating asymptomatic cases in the way that they have. Treating every positive case, whether asymptomatic or not, by moving them to quarantine centers and stuff, that has to be extraordinarily disruptive to people. And it seems to me pretty unnecessary. Now, granted Shanghai homes are not so big that everyone who is asymptomatic and with family members who aren’t can be effectively isolated within a home. But I think they could have approached it with a little more granularity, left it to the discretion of individual neighborhood committee workers to decide, okay, this person can be effectively quarantined within their home. That seems like a huge piece of it. The other of course is the food piece of it. Yeah. That’s my sense from reading a lot of the reports that I’ve read, and I’ve looked at a lot of these first-person accounts. And that seems to be one of the common conclusions that a lot of people are coming to.

Chang: Let me just add another thing, which is, you mentioned discretion, which I think is absolutely important. I think one of the lessons of the Shanghai lockdowns is that neighborhood committees needed to have a certain amount of discretion because they were the ones who were basically receiving all the signals. All the pain points of the citizens doing the lockdown was first heard by the neighborhood committees, but they didn’t have any power to solve even extreme scenarios, even cases where somebody needed dire medical attention was not solved because neighborhood committees didn’t have the power. So I think discretion is important. I think there was also a sense that after the lockdowns turned indefinite, there was a shift in power. Beijing had come and the Vice Premier, Sūn Chūnlán 孙春兰 had basically taken over the management of the city.

And as the center of power shifted to Beijing, first of all, things got a lot worse and that fits into a lot of the stereotypes of Shanghai and Beijing and whatnot. But as the power shifted, there was also an ambiguity in who was in charge of what, I think. And I think that is also part of the reason why you had these extreme cases where nobody really knew what to do, right? There was nobody who knew who to report to, I think because the direct reports were in flux and that shift led to these kinds of vacuums and voids of power. When citizens needed somebody to respond most, there was nobody there.

Kaiser: What you said about discretion, the problem is systemic, right? Discretion, it means responsibility and responsibility means culpability ultimately. So if somebody makes the wrong call, their ass is on the line in a way that if they were just following orders, it wouldn’t necessarily be. So I can understand why in the Chinese system, there would be a lot of reluctance even to have that kind of responsibility devolve onto you as a neighborhood committee worker. Yeah. It’s…

Chang: I think theoretically, that’s the case, but in the practical moment, we’re living in, there’s dire situations here in Shanghai, right? Somebody, elderly person faints and needs medical attention. At that point, the neighborhood committee needs to know what to do and they need to have the means to do it. Right? But I think you’re right in the sense that when you organize a system in pre-pandemic times, you may think twice about whether empowering or offering discretion to neighborhood committees would give them more responsibility. But I think the problem in Shanghai is that the neighborhood committees are already responsible for everything because they are the ones who are collecting the results and doing all the testing. And so they’re the people who are interacting with residents the most. They have all the information and they do have a lot of the burden, but they don’t have the power to fully address all the problems.

Kaiser: Yeah. Yeah. Completely agree. How much reputational damage do you think China takes from this? It had this reputation for having handled the outbreak of coronavirus, not the initial outbreak, of course, but handled the spread of the virus pretty well. It was quite a point of pride for many Chinese people. It certainly was something that they often compared to the poor handling of it in other countries and especially to the United States. How much damage has been done to China’s reputation, to the party leadership’s reputation, do you think internationally because of Shanghai? I don’t know how to quantify that.

Chang: I think a lot.

Kaiser: Yeah.

Chang: I think a lot, I think the damage is done. And I think that the narratives of the two countries will diverge even further because China is going to come out of this, provided that things don’t get completely out of hand, which it might, but provided it doesn’t China will come out of this saying that they’ve managed to beat the pandemic again, that’s what they will say. And of course, and this is not a knock on zero-COVID, there’s a lot of nuances as I’ve been trying to discuss with you about the execution of zero-COVID here. I think that one can reasonably be supportive of a zero-COVID, zero-tolerance policy, but I think that there are still lessons to learn from Shanghai.

But I think that the narrative in the Chinese government at the very top is going to be more simplistic than that. I think it’s going to be, we’ve conquered the pandemic again. We’ve vanished the Omicron. And I think that’s going to be increasingly less credible to Western audiences who are paying attention to foreigners’ accounts of Shanghai. I think if this did not happen in Shanghai, if it happened somewhere in the middle of the country…

Kaiser: Where there wasn’t a huge foreign population. Yeah.

Chang: I think it would’ve been less covered and the gulf perhaps would have been less severe in the sense that China would have been able to control the narrative. But now in Shanghai, China is not going to be able to control the narrative of what comes out from here to the west. There’s too many foreigners who live here and they’re letting people know what’s happening. So I think this is an important turning point for China. I think China’s going to have to reckon with a really big dent in their credibility if they decide that the narrative coming out of this is that we vanquished the Omicron virus in Shanghai.

Kaiser: So that’s true. And I know that that narrative is going really grate on a lot of people, but at the same time you’ve noticed for sure, there’s been a lot of schadenfreude over this right, in the west. There’s a lot of, you’re getting your comeuppance. Anna Ashton, who’s at the Asia Society and was for many years at the U.S.-China Business Council, she wrote in a tweet, I would like there to be a lot more obvious empathy for people in Shanghai and less of the weird excitement that this could be bad for the party. That’s exactly how I feel about it. It’s like once again, we’re not centering often in the Western coverage, we’re only using the suffering of people instrumentally as a way to try to discredit the party or to get this almost suffering porn thing.

Chang: Absolutely. And, Kaiser, I’m just going to stop you there because I completely agree with you. And that’s why I’m not making this into a question of zero-COVID, because a lot of the people who have schadenfreude are saying, this has been the reality of zero-COVID all along. I think that there’s a credible argument that China did the right thing in terms of implementing the zero-COVID policy from 2020 to now. And I think that there’s a defensible argument for zero-COVID, but what I’m saying here and the criticisms that I’m making have to do with that execution.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah, no, yeah. I get you.

Chang: And that’s very much… that can be an internal critique from the inside as much as an external critique, the schadenfreude.

Kaiser: So Beijing may be in for a Shanghai-style lockdown. I was just talking to our colleague, Anthony in Beijing. He said that everyone’s a bit worried about that and they’re stocking up just in case, but already we’re seeing the shelves emptying. What should Beijing be learning from the whole Shanghai experience? What are some of the key lessons that Beijing should take away in case it has to go into this sort of a lockdown as well? I’ve got plenty of family there and they’re telling me, some of them, my sister-in-law, and then my parents-in-law at various points had their own xiaoqus locked down, but it was only for three or four days at a time. And they said they were extremely good about making sure everyone had food, making… so what should they be learning?

Chang: So the first thing I think is that communication is so important.

Kaiser: Yeah, for sure.

Chang: Because the Shanghai people, communication has really broken down. I think a lot of people are just getting info from rumors and it hasn’t been… having residents know what they’re in for is so important for something like a lockdown where you need the cooperation of everybody in the city. I also think that the biggest lesson of Shanghai is that you need to balance in order to have an effective zero-COVID policy. You have to balance COVID cases with other circumstances of suffering and pain. You have to balance the food supply and distribution. You have to balance the medical supplies. You have to have humane policies of treating those with cases with children. All of these are important in a holistic comprehensive zero-COVID plan. Because if you have a population that is jittery, agitated, that are willing to protest, then you create a situation where cases can multiply.

Kaiser: What do you think are lessons to be taken away when you stand back and look through the comparative lens and look at the United States and other big populous countries, Brazil or Russia in their responses?

Chang: Well, obviously I am no defender of the way that the United States handled the pandemic, but I will say this. I think one thing that I’ve learned about my experience here is that the U.S. and China have very different kinds of — governments is obvious, but they have very different approaches to people’s agitations because in the U.S., I just feel that everything is… the U.S. is very sensitive to people’s voices. Like signals of duress get amplified very fast in the social media. And then, all of a sudden Biden comes out in the press conference and has to address it immediately. In China, one, there’s a sense that people don’t have a way to congregate with each other. I remember it was striking that this is the first time that I’ve got to know my neighbors.

Kaiser: Wow.

Chang: Everybody is in their own silo. And you get this in the very beginning of this lockdown, you saw all of these accounts, but they were all individual accounts. There wasn’t this mass Twitter mob, or there wasn’t this major collective anguish. And I think China has organized its government in a way that it is so good at mobilizing toward a single goal, but in that approach, it can be myopic at times and avoid other signals. Because the government is just not set to be open to various inputs while they’re mobilized toward a single goal. A really great example of this in Shanghai right now is that the government is insanely competent about testing. They tested the entire city in the span of five hours. That’s 25 million tests in a span of five hours. And the results came within days. Nowhere in the world could that possibly happened besides China.

Kaiser: Right. Right, right.

Chang: But at the same time, a lot of people were running out of food and there was no response, there was nobody who had to answer for it. And in the U.S, I think they have the opposite problem. They would answer for it, but they would also have to answer for a lot of things, like if somebody said that you were born in Kenya and you had to respond.

Kaiser: So how bad is the food situation right now for people around you? I know you were able to organize this tuangou, but what are some of the worst stories that you’ve heard? Are there people who actually have gone days without eating at all? Is that where we’re at?

Chang: I have not heard it, but I am sure that in a population of 26 million people, having been locked down for 21 days, I’m sure that there’s people that have gone without food. The stories that I’ve heard, the extreme ones are just that people have been left on their last batch of vegetables or people have been subsisting on rice for many days. Those are the accounts that I’ve heard.

Kaiser: Okay. No one has actually starved to death as far as you know?

Chang: I don’t know — no one that I know, but death has been an important consequence, a significant consequence of these lockdowns.

Kaiser: Yeah. No, for sure.

Chang: Not necessarily just in food, but just in medical care.

Kaiser: Yeah. Yeah, again, those are the stories that we hear most often, because they’re really poignant about the pregnant woman who, because she doesn’t have like a PCR test within the last X number of hours, hasn’t been admitted to an emergency room, that kind of thing. Right? Somebody dying from asthma, unable to get into a hospital. Yeah. These are obviously terribly, terribly tragic stories. So all in all, what has this told you about China’s vaulted state capacity when it comes to actually mobilizing in situations like this? On the one hand, you see testing overnight practically of a population of 26 million people, which is almost unthinkable. It seems to speak very, very highly of state capacity, but the inability to deliver 2000 calories a day to residents, that strikes me as a gigantic failure. What’s the score at the end of the day?

Chang: I’m not sure about the score, but I think that the lesson is that China has over time amassed a government that is really, really good at achieving a single defined goal, and not very good at responding to other signals that can potentially get in the way of it.

Kaiser: Yeah.

Chang: And I think that over time, these things matter, we’re going to see this, not just in pandemic prevention, we can see this in any kind of mass mobilization that the government is currently setting. So potentially, in technology, it’s important I think to think about those costs, right? Who falls through the cracks in a mass mobilization movement? I think this is a question that we can ask throughout Chinese history. Right? And it’s one that I think has become sadly relevant again. And it’s also the important lesson of that is to see what that means for the future and the method, as a academic exercise would be to look at a mass mobilization movement, such as tech superiority, self-sufficiency, I don’t know, data security and see what are they missing, right? What are the externalities that they have basically put their blinders on? Because I think that’s what is a fundamental aspect of Chinese power that I’ve learned here, which is that, in order to basically sharpen your vision towards a goal, or in order to sharpen your mind and vision towards a goal, you also have to narrow it.

Kaiser: Yeah. So you end up missing out, like you say, so many people who fall through the cracks and in the west, we’re fond of saying that it’s ultimately the fate of those people against whom a government’s performance needs to be judged. Right? So, it’s how it treats its most vulnerable people. And clearly in this case, Shanghai, and to the extent that Beijing is responsible for it, Beijing can certainly be blamed when we look at the plight of migrant workers, for example, people who are truly vulnerable already, who already exist in a state of real precarity. And then when something like this happens, the state really fails them.

Anyway, sorry that your first turn on Sinica had to be such a depressing topic. I’m really glad that we had you on the ground there to witness this. I think this is really valuable. And I imagine that we’ll be talking about this a lot going forward. Chang, thanks so much for taking the time and for staying up so late to be with me.

Let’s move on now to recommendations. But first before we do that, just a quick reminder, the Sinica podcast is powered by SupChina. And if you want to support the work that we do here with the podcast and with the other shows in the network, the best thing that you can do is subscribe to our China Access. It really helps to support all the work that we do here. So please check out the newsletter. It’s fantastic. And let’s move on to recommendations. So Chang, what do you have for us?

Chang: So I actually have a great recommendation. I just, during this lockdown started watching Tokyo Vice on HBO Max. It’s the film or sorry, dramatic adaptation of the book, Tokyo Vice written by Jake Adelstein who used to be a crime reporter for the Mainichi Shimbun. And he’s just an incredible inspiration. From my ties in Japan, I’ve just really admired his work and just really inspired by the fact that a non-fiction writer can potentially land a film or a drama or TV series. That’s really inspiring for me.

Kaiser: Yeah. Hey, so yeah. Jake is actually, he’s really cool. We’re friends on Facebook and I’ve known him for many years, just indirectly. I know he’s friends with Pete Hessler and a bunch of other people, but pretty amazing what he’s done. Really he’s been the best reporter on the yakuza. He’s just gotten really into it. He knows it just-

Chang: Because he goes where no Japanese wants to go.

Kaiser: Right, right, right. It’s pretty amazing. All right. Great recommendation, Tokyo Vice. My recommendation is for the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which is a kind of annex to the national air space museum. It’s in Chantilly, Virginia. It’s this enormous — I guess a former, well these two gigantic hangers. Last weekend, my best friend Drew and his son flew to D.C. from Madison. I drove up to D.C. with my boy, Johnny who’s 16, and we did this father-son museums thing from Thursday to Sunday. We went to Manassas and a bunch of the Smithsonian museums. But on Saturday, we spent the afternoon at the Air and Space museum, which is just amazing.

They actually have the space shuttle discovery there, there’s a Concord, there’s all sorts of space memorabilia. It’s astonishing. It’s just mind-blowing. You really have to see it to believe it. I’ve been of course to the National Air and Space Museum. I was disappointed that the one on the mall was closed. And this was a consolation prize we thought, but it was even better. It was just astonishing. There’s an IMAX theater there. You can see some really cool stuff, but check it out. It’s a little off the beaten path. It’s in Chantilly, Virginia. Anyway, Chang, thanks again, man. And sorry to keep you up so late.

Chang: Happy to do it.

Kaiser: Yeah. Well, we will talk to you again real soon, man.

Chang: Take care.

Kaiser: The Sinica podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at sinica@supchina.com or just give us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook @SupChinanews, and be sure to check out all the shows through the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week. Take care.


Follow our coverage of the Shanghai lockdown.