Hong Wei* returned to his hometown of Luoyang in Henan province for the Spring Festival in early February. It took a few days for the gateway of his residential compound to be cordoned off, signalling that only residents should enter. For Hong, this was just the first sign of the mass mobilisation of people that has characterised China’s remarkably successful response to the coronavirus pandemic. Hong’s uncle had already stocked up on all the ingredients to serve roast meat, braised fish and soup at his restaurant ready for what is usually his most lucrative period, but once state media began telling people to stay at home, he voluntarily closed his restaurant. He was far from alone in taking a financial hit – over 85 per cent of small businesses in China reported that they could only last three months without regular income. They turned to family and friends for loans.
China lost the first round against Covid-19 as officials dithered, allowing the virus to escape Wuhan and seed a global pandemic. But once it was clear that the country was facing a serious crisis, China’s vast bureaucracy pulled itself together and mobilised. The face of epidemic control for most people was not president Xi Jinping in Beijing. It was the lowest rung of the bureaucracy – the neighbourhood committee. They ensured public compliance in a national pandemic control effort that went right to the doorstep.
Committee members live within the residential compounds they manage. They kept track of those entering and exiting, enforced lockdown orders, recorded temperatures. If a case occurred, they locked the apartment block’s main door. They tracked down those who didn’t want to quarantine – in those situations a nosy neighbour was often more effective than any technological notification. They organised grocery deliveries so that people could stay at home. Some were better than others at this – when a senior Politburo member walked through a residential compound in Wuhan, she was heckled by people from their windows shouting, “fake, fake,” as the residential committee had organised grocery deliveries of vegetables and meat just in time for the official inspection. [Continue reading…]