Shanghai Lockdown: A conversation with young leftists from China

Three young leftists from China (A, B, and C) visited Malaysia in February 2023 and met up with some comrades from the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM). This is an excerpt from the conversation during the visit, on the part related to COVID-19 lockdown and protests in Shanghai last year.


P: comrades in the PSM

A, B & C: comrades from China


P: Can you talk about the overall prevention and control of COVID-19 pandemic in China?

A: The pandemic was a political turning point. China has proved her institutional strength in the prevention and control of the pandemic, that is, the strength in controlling the spread of the pandemic and the state’s willingness to spend a lot of money to do this. This was rare, or even unique, in the world at that time.

Before the Omicron variant, the epidemic control was relatively good because the transmission speed was not as fast. At that time, China had a very strong control measure — high-handed control — cutting off every arriving flight to China. If there were any, passengers would have to go through a long quarantine period of more than two weeks. This meant that the number of imported cases would be reduced. Even if the virus was imported, it would be discovered in an isolated zone. Of course, this would have had a great impact on our economy, but it effectively prevented the spread of the virus at that stage.

However, things changed after the Omicron variant because the transmission speed of the virus was very fast. In addition to the hardship faced by local economies, there was hope that the isolation time for foreign visitors would be shortened. I remembered that a two-week quarantine period was not enough to prevent the spread of infections. There were many turning points in between, and there were many nodes, which I won’t go into details about. Of course, the most important turning point was the Shanghai lockdown in March 2022!

B: That was a very crucial time.

A: Yes, it is. At that time, Shanghai was the model for accurate countermeasures — they are mutually exclusive of comprehensive epidemic control. For every new case of Covid, public authorities will thoroughly investigate everyone involved and conduct screening tests on them. Although the volume of the screening tests was huge, at that time, it was still possible to screen all the people within a day to determine dangerous and safe zones. So, it created the myth of “accurate countermeasures”. For example, the smallest high-risk zone in the country only amounts to the size of a  75-sq ft milk tea shop; those who have been there will be classified as high-risk individuals. Shanghai’s highly efficient administration can limit a quarantine area to the size of a milk tea shop. 

It became a controversial issue at that time because Shanghai was the only region with accurate countermeasures in place, while in other areas, provincial and prefectural governments were struggling to implement comprehensive epidemic control measures and people were struggling to survive. If Shanghai’s Covid cases spread to neighboring provinces, especially poor ones like Anhui, the situation could spiral out of control — it might seem like Shanghai was “dumping poison” on them! According to other provinces, if Shanghai cannot fully control the situation, then they should not implement these measures. This created a paradox of policies! During that period, people were actually very nervous because the epidemic control situation correlates to the performance of government officials. If there are any mistakes, the government officials involved would be fired.

Later on, the myth of accurate countermeasures was shattered. At that time, some Hong Kong tourists were quarantined in a relatively old hotel after they entered Shanghai. The air passages in the hotel were interconnected, causing the virus to spread, but it was not detected during the quarantine period. People were released from quarantine, despite being Covid carriers, and the virus spread rapidly afterwards. As there were too many people moving around, it was too late to conduct virus screening on everyone, causing a massive outbreak in Shanghai. It was quite scary at that time: other places only had only a few cases, while Shanghai had over a thousand cases a day.

Even when Shanghai only had a few hundred cases daily, it was rumoured that Shanghai was going to be locked down, but the government quickly intervened and dispelled those rumours. If forwarded rumours reached a certain number of viewers, the person forwarding them would be subject to an administrative penalty; serious offenders would be jailed instantly.

However, just over a week after that, Shanghai went into lockdown. But the government did not explicitly declare a “lockdown”; they just labelled it “partial silence”. In the beginning, Pudong (the east area of the Huangpu River that flows through Shanghai) was supposed to be under lockdown for three days. After that, Puxi (the west area of Huangpu River) would be under lockdown for the next three days. Everyone thought it would only last for three days, and they were not prepared at all. On the third day, people started to realise that something was wrong because there was no sign of lifting the lockdown when Puxi was about to enter the lockdown. We were in Puxi, and everyone was buying stuff. We knew that the situation was not good and that the lockdown would be there to stay.

Anyway, it was a huge bankruptcy of trust. People were arrested for allegedly spreading rumours, but then the government did exactly what was rumoured. They didn’t even implement the initial lockdown plan. In the end, it was a neverending extension of lockdown. The final solution they came to is to continue extending it for weeks after weeks, and then simply stop talking about how long it will be.

B: It never ends.

C: Until I (the government) make the decision to open up.

A: And so, we were under lockdown for almost three months. Residents in compound areas fare better, where you can still go for a walk downstairs; but for those living in apartments, the conditions were unsatisfactory, as public spaces are only limited to staircases and elevator entrances. The worst moment was when they stopped operating the elevator and you had to take the stairs. During those three months, the people of Shanghai have had a lot of pent up grievances and anger. Terrible things happened too — which you may have seen on the internet — people registering shell companies to buy and sell living essentials to make quick profits. Later on, we could only trade through underground black markets to buy food. We were completely entering the barter system.

P: Is this (barter system) being initiated by the community itself?

A: This is created by the community itself. You came to the realisation that items that are easily bought anywhere, like Coke, beer, cigarettes, coffee, and travel passes, are the top exchanged items.

P: Exchange with whom?

C: Anyone in the community who you can get in touch with. For example, you can just go down your apartment block, put up a bottle of Coke, and someone will exchange it with you. 

A: Yes. It is a contactless exchange. You can also inform a group chat that you have something to exchange, then you put it on the ground floor.

P: People would rather have coke than rice?

B: We have enough basic necessities. But consumer goods like cigarettes, Coke and alcoholic drinks are very scarce.

C: Let us talk about the problems that labourers encountered during this period!

A: The Shanghai government distributes essential items for every household based on the ownership of the housing property, which means if you have the right to rent or sell a house, you will receive essentials that are sufficient for your household. But they didn’t take into account situations where 20 labourers are cramped in a single house, and a set of essentials is not sufficient.

The barter system I mentioned took place later. During the first few weeks, there was no underground black market yet because you were unable to purchase goods. All commercial activities came to a halt with no supplies being transported in. The initial stage was tough. Due to predatory rent-seeking behaviour, a house may be occupied by over 20 people, with everyone having nothing to eat. Nothing. Just like the community at our apartment, the homeowner committee would coordinate and try to collect food surplus from households to be donated — we operate like a resident mutual aid network. In the absence of a government’s macro-management, it eventually evolved into a mutual aid effort among ordinary residents. The government no longer has enough capacity to care for our basic needs.

P: When the government loses its capacity to coordinate and residents turn to mutual aid to get their essentials, does the relationship between residents become better?

A: Yes, it is more obvious in Shanghai, where there were a lot of mutual aid efforts. I myself have volunteered in the subdistrict of my own community, and I was responsible for distributing goods. I realised that the community’s relationship had improved, and young people were willing to do a lot for the elderly. I was helping the elderly people on my floor to get food and other necessities they needed, including some done through barter. Some elderly people may not need money, and they even want to give me money. But such a situation is only limited to areas with relatively better material conditions. If everyone has no money, no material goods, and no stockpile, the situation would be worse.

P: Is it possible to develop into another kind of mutual aid economy in the future?

A: A: It is true that people were getting close to each other during that time, but to say it developed into a kind of autonomous model … let me think! Hmm, there may be an example: there is a community that established an autonomous consortium, which consolidated spending to purchase supplies. The goods were placed on the ground floor, where people could take as much as they needed. Nobody took more than what they wanted, because you don’t need to eat that much or stockpile. This is a better example.

Transitioning into an autonomous situation is difficult. Let’s take my current situation as an example: we are considered immigrants (people who migrated from other provinces to Shanghai), we do not belong here, we have neither the rights nor the appeal to form an organisation. If you want to, you have to help people resolve their problems — just like how you (PSM) help workers resolve work or social issues through legal aid and more.

The problem is that we are just immigrants with no social resources. But if we think like this, the people who can ultimately benefit and gain authority in this market economy system, are those who have money, kindness, and free time. They have money and power to get supplies and the time to help you. They are kind enough to help you, but these people ultimately gain power, not the working class.

C: Actually, the most serious problem is that they (migrant workers who live in a single housing unit) were seen as the spreaders of the virus and were then evicted.

A: Yes! This happened. Our community debated this, but luckily they are relatively moderate, so we did not evict anyone. Yet, some complained in group chats about how workers living in a dense area are more likely to carry viruses, and they should leave.

P: Where can they go?

B: These people are Shanghai’s petty bourgeois (meaning the urban middle class); this attitude of only looking after myself, minding my own business — where you end up is not my problem, because you should not affect my life and health by staying here.

C: Their labour is invisible. Shanghai is promoted as an excellent, developed, outstanding city — but they forgot the migrant labourers who built it! People view relatively less developed regions like Dongbei (Northeast), Henan, and Shandong as ignorant and backward places. They hold discriminatory views towards migrant workers (uneducated migrant labourers from economically-backward provinces), yet are dependent on these labourers to develop the city. At the same time, they don’t want these workers to stay for long, telling them to go back to their rundown city to raise their kids and send them here as labourers.

A: For example, during the lockdown, Shanghai’s supply of goods was mainly reliant on couriers or delivery workers. These workers are at risk of getting Covid as they will come into contact with a lot of people when they deliver. They were likely to be infected or were forced to quarantine after contracting Covid — they also had to pay for expensive hotel accommodations. They have to spend a lot! But homeowners thought of them as virus carriers, and asked them to do antigen tests repeatedly. Although it was not a big deal to do the test, the delivery workers were often subjected to insults and told to stay away. Yet, in fact, they were the ones who were responsible for the supply of goods. That was a very important task. Without them, the government could not afford it at all. The government could not coordinate a lot of things, like supplies for first aid emergencies. For example, there were some mutual aids for depression medicines in Shanghai at that time, which were often delivered by these workers.

Delivery workers contributed a lot, but the “civilised people” of Shanghai looked down on them.

P: Are these delivery workers the employees of private enterprises?

A: This is a complex question. Delivery workers in China are broadly divided into two categories. One belongs to oligopolistic companies, which are part of the platform economy. As employees of the platform, they have relatively better conditions, including basic wages and some benefits. The second category belongs to small private outsourcing companies, which we called “crowdsourcing.” They are supplementary workers that deal with difficult orders or when there are too many orders. Crowdsourcing prevents workers from going on strike because when they do, they can be replaced by crowdsourced workers — but they have even less job security. They will be sent to deal with difficult, faraway orders that no one wants to take. But their hard work is precisely why delivery workers from oligopolistic platform companies cannot demand more rights. When you demand for rights, other people will take over; crowdsourcing is like a reserve army for the industry.   

B: This is a classic method of pitching the proletariat against each other.

A: There were many delivery workers at that time. To some extent, crowdsourced workers are not subjected to legal restrictions, which means I am not a company’s employee, I do not need to have a fixed residence, and I can avoid being monitored. During that period, if you want to stay in a fixed residence, you must provide proof of your antigen test and aren’t allowed to go out. 

These delivery workers are mostly migrant workers because they want to earn extra income. They heard about Shanghai’s lockdown and how the city requires workers, so they came here to make money. When they arrived, they realized there was nothing here. There were opportunities to earn money, but there was no material support or basic protection. For example, they were not provided with sleeping bags, and are constantly being chased away by security guards.

It was quite ridiculous, actually. The city was already under lockdown, you don’t even need security personnel to guard a bank or chase away crowdsourcing workers who sleep in front of the bank. This is ridiculous. No one would come to the bank yet they chased people away.

We violated the regulations and sneaked out of our apartment by “bribing” the security guard with cigarettes. It was deserted out there. But there were many delivery workers by the roadside. They could only sleep there, maybe for nearly two months. Later, we helped them get some basic supplies: I donated two beds and some rain gear because it was raining frequently. I also helped them contact some emergency shelters.

There was another issue: they couldn’t change the batteries of their electric motorcycles, and they needed help contacting the repair shops. The government neglected these minor issues. Just think about this, delivery workers are unable to change their batteries when shops are closed during the lockdown, but your plan did not consider this at all.

P: What is changing batteries? Is it charging the electrical vehicles?

A: No, it is not. The workers have to replace the entire battery at a battery station. When simple solutions are turned into complex matters, it meant that the government was not prepared to lock the city down.


P: Can you talk about the incident in Ürümqi[1]?

A: OK. I will start from the lockdown of major large cities in China. After Shanghai and Dongguan[2], there were Chengdu[3], Zhengzhou [4]and so on. Various cities started to lock down. During the peak, we joked that the number of cities under lockdown definitely exceeded those not under lockdown.

B: Then the small cities also started to lock down.

A: Right. Things went by very quickly here. Shanghai has already lifted the lockdown, then Chengdu. Essentially, various cities were locked down and then the lockdown was lifted; after the lockdown was lifted, the cities were locked down again, and so on for a few rounds. In short, major cities have been under lockdown once or even twice.

Xinjiang has the strictest lockdown. The epidemic outbreak there was due to imported cases from the border. Many tourists were stranded in Xinjiang. What was particularly funny was that the Xinjiang government just said that they could do some grape and cotton-picking work here in return for food and accommodation!

Ürümqi was actually under lockdown for quite a long time. The “White Paper protests” took place after the fire in Urumqi, where several people burned to death because they were locked in their home. The government dismissed the rumours that the door was locked. I believe this, because if the door was really locked, more people would burn to death. There are two possibilities: one is that they did not have time to escape; another is that they did not realize that the door was open. These possibilities exist, but they are internal factors. The external factor is that the government’s fire engine could not come in, because the cars parked outside were not able to start because they had been idle for too long.

P: Was it because the fire engines were not able to start?

B: No. The cars parked outside the fire scene could not start, and they blocked the road, so the fire engines were not able to go in.

A: Yes, the fire engines could not go in. This is the external factor that caused the fire to burn for a long time, and then the people inside could not escape. At that time, public opinion might have skewed towards describing the incident in a horrific manner. I sympathize with the government, but at the same time I do not, because the government has mismanaged this situation. During the Shanghai lockdown, I experienced how the elevator was deliberately stopped and the staircase was locked. If there was a fire, I would not be able to escape, because my windows were enclosed with iron bars. We live on the top floors, so I would be dead if I jumped out of the window! I think it is not far-fetched to encounter such a situation (dying in a fire).

P: How many people died?

A: I cannot remember the exact number; maybe a dozen of them.

C: Because this is related to the lockdown and epidemic control measures nationwide, it has touched the nerves of many people.

A: This is a significant phenomenon of the epidemic control process. Plus, it happened in Xinjiang, an area with ethnic conflicts. At the same time, another incident happened: a gas leak in the house of a family in Lanzhou [5]. The mother died, the child could be rescued, but the ambulance was late as they could not obtain a pass. The actual reason for the delay is still unclear. No one knows the actual reason why the ambulance arrived late; the child waited an hour for the ambulance and passed away. The child was a Muslim; this then sparked riots in the community. I have a friend who resides there. He said that there were probably two to three major demonstrations after the incident, where people rushed out in anger, smashed things, and confronted the police. The demonstration was quite festive, like a New Year’s celebration where people even sold kebabs and barbecues, despite it being a serious matter. In the end, the government and the victims’ family came to an agreement: the latter declared publicly that the child was already dead even before the ambulance arrived. Of course, the reason behind the agreement may have been a trade-off! Anyway, that was how things are; these two places are closely intertwined with ethnic issues.

Later, it sparked the incident on Shanghai’s Wulumuqi Road [6].  It happened after the Ürümqi fire. There were some Muslims and people from Ürümqi went to that road to light candles or lay flowers to commemorate the deaths. There were also some religious rituals. At the beginning, it was a quiet and somber event; after that, more and more people showed up. Of course, there might be some external forces and liberals who tried to lead the way, but when more and more people showed up, it certainly was not to the credit of the liberals. It showed that many other people also cared.

I did visit the scene! When ordinary people went there, many of them did not have many political ideas or opinions, including some middle-aged people. They also did not know what their real demands were. They just said the lockdown was too long, their businesses were difficult to survive; their anger fueled them to join the rally, which seemed simple. Their actual protest might not be comparable to what you have here (probably referring to Malaysia’s BERSIH rallies) with tens of thousands of people in the streets. Ours were only small demonstrations, but there was violence there.

The demonstration on the first day started at 9 p.m. There were a lot of people at around 1 to 2 a.m., and they started to disperse at 4 or 5 a.m. During the demonstration, there were all kinds of art performances, such as poem recitals; my friend even went to throw joss paper money, and there were all sorts of slogans! At around 12 midnight, more agitated slogans appeared, like calling for “somebody” to step down, with some people responding. Later, everyone’s emotions became intense, and more responses followed. At around 4 or 5 a.m, most of the people had dispersed, leaving only the die-hard protesters. They were inside the police cordon when they were arrested, maybe around one or two hundred of them. They were brought to the police station and interrogated with regular questions. Because there were so many arrests, the police did not have enough manpower to question everyone. So from what I heard from those who were taken in, it did not seem as extreme or serious as some people may think, but there were some acts of violence, such as beating people. Anyway, overall, it was relatively peaceful.

P: How many people at most?

A: The second day was a nationwide protest, so there were many more people, perhaps more than ten thousand. On the second day, there was a response in Beijing, then Guangzhou.

B: Around 9 to 10 cities responded!

A: There were Chengdu, Chongqing [7]. A few lesser known cities also responded. In Wuhan, it was met with violence, where people dismantled surrounding barriers, like roadblocks that divided the roads and obstructed people from going out. The people in Wuhan were more courageous, they dismantled all the roadblocks, and had some conflicts with the police. There was also news about incidents of beatings in Sichuan.

In Shanghai, people started to gather at 2 p.m. Due to the blocking of Wulumuqi Road, the crowd was scattered around a few intersections nearby. Later, a lot of people were arrested. During the more serious moment, when the crowd moved forward, the police made arrests; when they moved forward again, the police made more arrests, and kept continuing like that. The authorities might have had an arrest list; once they charged forward, the crowd retreated. Those who were not able to retreat in time would be arrested. This process was going on for such a long time. About a few hundred people were arrested.

P: How long were they detained?

A: The detention time was not very long, around 48 hours. It is mainly because there were too many arrests, and the authorities could not handle them. In addition, it coincided with the period of the shift in epidemic control policy, where the state had no time to deal with them (those who got arrested), and then the state apparatus let them go at that time. Those who were arrested for a long time and treated harshly were those who connected with external forces, or at least were in communication with foreign media. I have a friend who was interviewed by foreign media, and then he connected with many media outlets or individuals who were anti-China on Twitter. His situation was more serious, he was detained for quite some time and only recently released.

P: Are those who participated in the demonstrations mainly young people?

A: There were more young people, but there were also middle-age and elderly people. Actually, those who were most affected by these situations were small business owners of shops and restaurants. Their lives were impacted largely, so resistance from these people was the most intense. It is because their losses were huge, some even went broke. Besides this, factory workers also protested. Those who engaged in foreign trade also suffered, and the tourism industry was not doing well too. Basically, they were not considered workers (as they were petty bourgeoisie), but the lives of workers are certainly also very difficult, because these people (petty bourgeoisie) already cannot make it, so there will be no room for workers to survive either. 

B: There were many people locked in the factories.

A: Yes. At that time, some left-wing friends put forward a slogan: workers’ lives matter. Around the time when the Wulumuqi Road incident happened, there was an incident of factory fire in Henan province. Workers were burned to death because they were locked inside. I forgot the actual number of the casualties.

C: The death toll in the factory fire is 38!

A: 38! Gosh!

We hope to put forward a leftist perspective on the matter of epidemic control. During that time, we helped spread this issue. There were many people burned to death in the factory, but the general public only paid attention to the Ürümqi incident, which caters to petty citizens in a broad sense, especially people who are concerned about ethnic issues.

It is just that you do not feel like you are going to be locked in a factory. As residents of the city, the petty citizens, you would feel like you could be locked in your home and burned to death. Both were that same person who burned to death, but you feel that the people in the factory have nothing to do with you.

B: There were too many deaths in the factory fire incident! (Sigh)

P: As far as the overall situation in China is concerned, are there any other people, especially progressive youth, who are concerned about the fate of the people at the bottom?

A: This is a rather complicated question. Firstly, it is hard to say whether the people who are concerned about labour rights can take the path of progressivism. They may be concerned, but they may not be awakened. There are many such people, especially among the youth. They may hold a strong moralist position, saying that we need justice; the working class deserves a better life. They will emphasize that the working class is worthy of our help, that they should enjoy more rights, and that the capitalists should be overthrown, but in fact they do not have the determination or capacity to do so.

Lack of determination means they are trapped in the system; they cannot break out of it to engage in any protest action. They may even be cowards. There are many such people, I am referring to those who express opinions and quarrel online, arguing about questions like “is socialism or capitalism better?”, or “is China socialist?”. Many people are cowardly, and they only try to create illusions, a fantasy of themselves as the messengers of justice, but in reality, they do not know how to do anything.

People like this probably make up the majority of those online. For me, probably most of the people whom we can influence are those who cannot do anything in reality. On the other hand, people who are willing to stand up and fight for something might not make the smartest choice too — this does not mean they are stupid, but because they lack experience to distinguish truth from falsehood or determine the right kind of strategy. They might blindly take actions, therefore we dare not ask them to do anything, because once they do things might get worse, so it is better for you to tell them not to act.

They might as well solve their own life problems first, that is, to not rely on their parents for financial support. You can do what you want when you are economically independent. I am not saying that it is wrong to use your parent’s money to help others with simple welfare, but this is not sustainable and has no long-term effect. 

We can also skip people who talk a lot. They may just like to chat with you and waste your time.

Then those who are willing to put in the work but are not smart enough or lack experience, they are likely to end up with very simple outcomes. They might have a sudden urge to progress forward but end up exposing everyone — and it’s game over. These are the worst scenarios.

It is very rare to find people who have more experience and are smart enough to make judgments based on the situation. These people were cultivated in student organisations. Even if they were originally trained students, not many people could achieve these results.  Moreover, now there is no such system of student organisations [8]. It is very difficult now. For me, this is a problem. If there is still a strategy for me, it is to spend time. That is, you have to constantly attract new people online, communicate with us first, and then, during the process of communication, you need to distinguish between these people and determine whether they are just looking for momentary pleasure or willing to do a lot of things sincerely. This can only be tested over time. There is no standard formula to determine whether this person is suitable or not. For example, you want to organise an activity, and it may take the person 40 minutes to get here. If the person is not even willing to travel 40 minutes, then we can determine that the person has no interest and cannot do much.

So, to some extent, 40 minutes is also a criterion to judge whether a person is willing to devote time and energy to our cause, let alone money! In fact, you will find there are very few people to do so in the end. These people are generally not workers, because workers have no advantage, they have no time, no money, and they also have no room to help others, even if they themselves can hardly survive.

B: Those petty bourgeoisie will not come either! They like to stay at home, so in the end no one comes! (Laugh)

A: In the end, those who are willing to do some work, are generally those who are ideologically firm, materially better off, and smart enough…

[1] Ürümqi is the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in the far northwest part of China, with a population of 4 million. The incident in Ürümqi refers to a fire which broke out in a residential high-rise apartment building in Uyghur-majority neighborhood in Ürümqi with 10 people killed according to official figures.

[2] Dongguan is an important industrial city in Guangdong province, with a population over 10 million, located in the Pearl River Delta in South China.

[3] Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province, in Southwest China, with a population over 20 million.

[4] Zhengzhou is the capital of Henan province, in the central part of China, with a population of 12.7 million.

[5] Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu province, located in Northwest China.

[6] Wulumuqi is Ürümqi in the Chinese Romanised form.

[7] Chongqing is one of the four direct-administered municipalities, located in Southwest China, with a population of 32 million.

[8] There were some student organisations in some of the universities in China with Marxist ideas and concerned about working class, but were severely cracked down on especially since 2018 after the Jasic incident where left-wing students expressed solidarity with workers who were fighting for better condition and unionization but ended up with clampdown of Marxist student organisations.

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