As much of the world lifted pandemic restrictions this spring, China did the opposite. Its “zero Covid” approach tries to eliminate the virus using extreme constraints. Officials began to lock down Shanghai, China’s largest city, in March after detecting cases of the Omicron variant; the authorities announced only this week that they hoped to fully lift restrictions next month. I called my colleague Vivian Wang, who covers China, to find out how Shanghai residents are coping.
What does a lockdown look like two-plus years into the pandemic?
Shanghai went into a citywide lockdown without officials saying so. They announced that they were going to lock down half of the city for just a few days, and then the other half for a few days after that. But after they locked down the first half, they didn’t let it reopen.
In the strictest areas, you couldn’t leave your apartment. You actually saw officials installing bars or gates around entrances to apartment buildings. Residents were caged in.
Because of the suddenness, people weren’t prepared. There were many reports of people having trouble getting food, medicine and other supplies.
Even now, when people in lower-risk areas are allowed to move more freely, many of them need an official pass to go to work or go outside.
So officials keep a close eye on everyone.
Yes. Chinese cities have neighborhood committees — local officials in charge of mundane tasks like sanitation. During lockdown, they became residents’ primary link to the outside world. They are in charge of facilitating deliveries of food and medicine and enforcing testing and stay-at-home requirements. Some residents who had trouble getting essentials blamed them for being incompetent, lazy or corrupt.
We saw residents protesting. Was the anger in Shanghai more intense than in other parts of China?
People were much more vocal about how the lockdown was hurting them.
Residents banged pots and pans, or sometimes they came out onto the street to confront local officials. People angrily called local officials, recorded those conversations and shared them online. There was a spreadsheet that circulated, a sort of blacklist saying, “These are the competent neighborhood committees; these are the incompetent ones.”
It sounds like residents were banding together to get by.
There have been remarkable examples of community solidarity. When Shanghai first went into lockdown, the only way you could order groceries was if you organized a group buy with your neighbors; a lot of delivery drivers were quarantined and suppliers didn’t have time for smaller orders. You heard people — often women and mothers — talking about getting up at 5 or 6 a.m. to get in a big order because otherwise things would sell out. You saw some residents saying, “Thank goodness we have this volunteer network, because our local officials are failing us.”
How did officials respond?
The government has acknowledged that Shanghai was not handled well at the start. Several weeks into the lockdown, officials introduced a system that allowed some movement. It was a response to cases dropping. But it was also a response to the anger, and the growing understanding that officials couldn’t keep 26 million people locked down indefinitely.
What about economic costs? I saw that zero cars were sold in Shanghai last month because dealers were closed.
Factories have been closed. Businesses have been closed. China is still a manufacturing- and construction-dependent economy, so those workers can’t work from home. They’re low-paid at the best of times, and now they’re going without pay.
Has anything changed since the announcement that officials contained the outbreak?
There are still plenty of areas under tight restrictions. Many people still can’t leave their apartment complexes or receive deliveries.
China expelled several U.S. journalists in 2020, including our colleagues, and has been slow to issue visas since. You’ve been in Hong Kong and will head to Beijing soon — how do you report on Shanghai from afar?
There is skepticism of Western journalists. I send a lot of messages that don’t get returned. I talk to people who won’t agree to let me use their names, or who will agree at first but then say they don’t want to after talking with their employer. So we do our best to be transparent about what we can and can’t say about what is going on inside China.
More about Vivian Wang: She grew up outside of Chicago and got her start reporting by writing a family newsletter that she distributed at Thanksgiving dinner as a girl. She joined The Times in 2017 on the Metro desk and began reporting on China in 2020, and speaks Mandarin and Spanish.
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In 2017, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus ended its 146-year run. The nostalgic circus faced sagging sales and a growing public distaste for the exotic animal acts — lions, tigers and elephants — once synonymous with its show. The company announced yesterday that it would return in 2023, without animals, Sarah Maslin Nir reports.
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