Deng Xiaoping, the great reformer of the modern Chinese state, once said the building of socialism with Chinese characteristics depended on “engineers of the soul” — ideological workers who provide spiritual nourishment to their comrades. More recently, President Xi Jinping referred to teachers, artists, and writers as “engineers of the soul” who should actively “mold” the deepest sensibilities of the people. What both Deng and Xi aspired to cultivate was a revolution at the level of a person: an inner yearning that is in line with the Communist Party’s interests.
But the souls of the Chinese have resisted such efforts in Shanghai, which has been under a draconian lockdown since late March. This wasn’t supposed to happen here in China’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, with some 26 million people. Shanghai had been, after all, the best-managed city in China throughout the two years of the pandemic, a model where local authorities imposed minimal restrictions while making sure outbreaks stayed controlled. But as cases rose through March, residents and officials grew anxious. An official who heads Shanghai’s mental-health department went on television to tell residents they must “repress the soul’s yearning for freedom,” prompting amused citizens to create memes that satirized a spiritual turn in party-state officialese.
Ten days later, Shanghai declared a temporary, staggered lockdown that swiftly became indefinite and all-encompassing. Our shutdown rivaled two of the country’s toughest: Wuhan at the beginning of 2020 and Xi’an at the end of 2021.
Residents were allowed out of their apartments only to take PCR tests. Few businesses could operate. People struggled to obtain basic necessities like medical supplies, elderly support, and food. Most restaurants and supermarkets were no longer able to make deliveries. Local authorities then took charge of food distribution, making residents dependent on government-organized food packages. People quickly chafed. When they started to sing and chant on their balconies, the government sent up a drone with a megaphone that repeated, “Please repress the soul’s yearning for freedom.” It wasn’t as funny the second time around.
The immediate impact of the lockdown has been a social flattening of the city. Some households were able to stock up on food better than others, but most of the city — rich and poor, young and old, local and foreign — is in the same boat: stuck at home with minimal access to Shanghai’s bounty. Kathy Xu, one of the country’s top venture capitalists, appealed for bread and milk on social media. Jokes abounded that China had achieved “common prosperity,” the signature initiative unveiled by Xi in 2021 to tackle inequality, a decade ahead of schedule.
But humor has been in short supply in recent days as people’s lives have shrunk to the size of their smartphone screens. Feiyun, a professor at East China Normal University who volunteered to help 1,200 locked-down students administer COVID tests and secure essentials, told us, “I live in WeChat now,” referring to the ubiquitous messaging and payment platform. She is part of ten WeChat groups that connect faculty and other frontline workers with students. The number of messages she needs to look through reaches into the thousands per day. (Feiyun, like other people interviewed for this article, asked that we not use their real name.)
WeChat has also been instrumental in organizing Shanghai’s sprawling apartment complexes. Everyone has gotten to know their neighbors. People were thrust into WeChat groups with others on their floor, in their building, or sometimes across their whole compound (which can consist of hundreds of households). People who had once been strangers helped with medical emergencies or sheltering one another’s pets.
Popular food-delivery platforms were shut down owing to logistical problems or were overwhelmed by orders. People had to be up as early as 5:30 a.m. to buy food before the apps suspended delivery for the day. One man ran out of food for his family and asked the police to pick them up so they could eat in jail; the police responded that they don’t have extra food and would only deliver him back to his residence.
A previously little-used means to buy food became a lifeline: the group order placed directly to a distributor like a grocery store or wholesaler. People bought thousands of dollars worth of meat, bread, eggs, and vegetables for their compounds, organizing the parcels by household via spreadsheet. Initially, this form of group buying was prone to scams, and it privileged the larger compounds — those with thousands of households, rather than dozens — which had the purchasing power to make sure their orders went through. But group buying also became a way to support those who were unable to access food otherwise.
Trapped in their homes, people struggled to think. When they weren’t trying to buy food or making sure they weren’t missing out on group orders, they were crawling through social media trying to sort rumors from facts. Is there an imminent reopening in the Huangpu district? Has the army been put in charge of food management? Isn’t that particular group buy a scam? A TikTok video circulated with instructions on how to grow produce on one’s balcony (seven days to make a whole carrot from only a top, a bit over a week for lettuce). Whether it was meant to be educational or satirical wasn’t clear.
Despite the extraordinary camaraderie people have shown in the face of the government’s shifting policies and clumsy coordination efforts, tensions have been high. No one was sure how infections continued to spread given the tight lockdown; the leading theories are through frequent mass-testing events or food deliveries. As a result, some people wanted to reduce the number of group orders because they were thought to be a transmission vector. Rising caseloads prompted clashes between neighbors who snitched on the noncompliant, like those who walked their dogs at night. Charlie, a tech entrepreneur who coordinated the delivery of packages, organized PCR tests, and provided medical assistance in his building, said Chinese residents, who outnumbered foreigners, rejected the idea that dairy products like milk and butter should be essential and thus eligible for delivery to the compound.
The worst thing for a compound would be the discovery of a positive COVID case, since it would force the entire community into quarantine for two weeks. A person who tests positive is meant to be picked up by health workers to be sent to a hospital or a temporary quarantine facility. Shanghainese have documented bus rides that last over 16 hours, with no water or bathroom breaks, to arrive at facilities where there is a single toilet for hundreds of people.
Videos began to circulate on Weibo of people expressing anger or small acts of resistance. One man screamed denunciations of the ruling Communist Party for his entire compound to hear: “I have no more money … What am I to do? I don’t care anymore. Just let the Communist Party take me.” A woman wandered stark naked in her compound. An older man said the government has created an atmosphere of terror akin to that of the Cultural Revolution. Viral videos showed police officers beating or arresting the noncompliant, and health-care workers beating to death dogs that had been left behind by people in quarantine. A middle-aged man walked the streets without a mask, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, refusing to submit even after a half-dozen police officers in hazmat suits held him down.
After declaring that lockdowns would end on April 4, the authorities have extended restrictions indefinitely. Now no one takes the government at its word. Even the number of cases has been in doubt. One call that went viral involved the leaked recording of a Shanghai CDC official who acknowledged that not all positive cases have been faithfully reported; in some cases, the city gives a patient an “abnormal” test result while telling them by phone that they’re positive. To seize back the narrative, propaganda workers have been out in force. An open letter published to Shanghai’s Communist Party members urged them to “make positive noises and spread positive energy.”
China is the last major country to pursue a policy of zero COVID — in other words, no tolerance for transmission. Why? In the Chinese leadership’s view, zero COVID will cause fewer problems than letting the virus rip. It would, first of all, prevent a large number of deaths. Around a million people have died in the U.S., and that figure may be an order of magnitude larger in China, which has four times the population, only a fraction of which are protected by the most effective mRNA vaccines available in the west.
Beijing is also risk averse and unwilling to let a large part of the population suffer from long-COVID symptoms or find itself unable to shut down once more in the face of a potentially more virulent variant. This is an especially important year for Xi, who is very likely to obtain a third term to rule as China’s top leader in the 20th Party Congress, set to be held in the fall. Avoiding death and health-related panic has become essential to the Communist Party’s legitimacy.
China’s bet had been that its suite of programs would be sufficient to stave off a big outbreak. China has not produced or imported the more efficacious mRNA vaccines, probably because it has judged that vaccines are not the answer for a zero-COVID strategy given that the vaccinated can still shed the virus. Beijing would like to prevent all cases, not just the severe ones. Instead, its program has relied on intensive controls that go beyond city-level lockdowns. Anyone who is able to enter China (the country is issuing few visas) must quarantine in a hotel room for up to three weeks. When the two of us traveled to a remote Chinese town on the border with Myanmar, through which the Mekong River flows, local officials demanded we quarantine in a hotel given our interprovincial travel history.
Over the past two years, Shanghai’s success in managing the pandemic was made possible by a resource-intensive hybrid approach: data-driven contact tracing combined with a human infrastructure of coordination work. Local neighborhood committees staffed with volunteer workers took care of people in their communities, especially the elderly. These mostly female workers feed, maintain, and analyze data in the back end of the health apps. It is this particular human-machine configuration that has enabled the Chinese to lead largely COVID-free lives.
Shanghai expected this system to work again, even against Omicron. Soon after it detected its first case of the variant on March 1, the city government deployed partial lockdowns, relying on contact-tracing apps to identify cases along “a grid” (from city, to district, to neighborhood, to street, to compound, to building). Health authorities locked down particular buildings, compounds, or streets for short periods of time upon finding a positive case. They moved the positive cases into hospitals or temporary quarantine facilities for treatment, tested neighbors and close contacts, and were able to reopen an area usually within two days.
During this initial phase of the city’s partial lockdown, crowds of frontline workers — known colloquially as “big whites” for their hazmat suits — kept the various COVID-related apps afloat. They manually collected and updated data, taking special care to support the elderly as well as foreigners through testing-registration apps. For a few weeks this year, many of us felt Shanghai’s system would work once more; though cases crept up, the rate of increase wasn’t high, while city life mostly went on as before.
That all changed in March. Shanghai’s hybrid approach of pairing data-driven tracking with bottom-up human care work was replaced with the sort of brute force that had been deployed in smaller cities. At this moment, Shanghai remains broadly locked down, though it has improved its ability to deliver food and essential goods to residents.
There is now a longer-term question about the fate of Shanghai, one of China’s most economically dynamic and culturally open cities. Shanghai has represented a different model of governance from the more state-dominated Beijing. There are firm controls on political expression, but the broadly technocratic government operates with a relatively light touch and people enjoy substantial economic autonomy. Following the lockdown, the city risks losing its special status, either because it has alienated many of its residents or because the central leadership can tolerate less autonomy.
But Beijing can’t win this battle entirely either. Shanghai’s lockdown was made bearable only by a rich social fabric of mutual care and self-organized governance. Individual citizens challenged the idea that there can be full-on control of a city as expansive as Shanghai or that the attempt to impose it can be free of resistance. That makes Xi’s call for “engineers of the soul” a double-edged sword. The state’s directives needed active participation from the people, who proved adept at creating an alternative world the party could not have foreseen. Who knows what the souls of the Shanghainese may yearn for next?
Dan Wang is the technology analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics. Silvia Lindtner is an associate professor at the University of Michigan and a visiting scholar at NYU Shanghai.