Jeff Lau, an IT worker in his mid-30s, lives alone in a large housing complex on the outskirts of Shanghai. In late March, as the west side of the city prepared to go into a four-day lockdown in line with China’s zero-covid policy, he began stocking up on food. A dozen eggs, 36 packs of instant noodles and several bags of apples would be more than enough to get him through the isolation period, he reckoned. Then, suddenly, shop fronts were boarded up. The gates of residential communities were locked. Some were even welded shut. And they weren’t reopened after the announced period of quarantine had elapsed.
Like many of the city’s 25m inhabitants, Lau felt a deep sense of unease. Weeks earlier, the southern manufacturing hub of Shenzhen had been shut down for a week in an attempt to rid it of Omicron, a highly transmissible variant of covid-19. Before that, with little warning or preparation, a cordon sanitaire had been imposed on the entire city of Xi’an in the west of China, lasting for weeks. In Shanghai, health authorities were reporting thousands of cases each day, far more than in previous outbreaks. Locking down a city the size of Shanghai was unprecedented.
Hospitals routinely denied admission to anyone without a recent clear covid test. Some died outside emergency rooms
Within days it became clear that the local government didn’t know how to keep people fed. Lorries loaded with provisions were stuck in traffic jams at the city limits. Videos circulated online of rotting vegetables offered to residents by the government. Message boards on social media filled up with pleas for life-saving drugs. The rich and well-connected generally fared better, though not always. Even some financiers reported problems finding food.
The rules were severe. Most residents were not allowed to set foot outside their flats and the government gave no indication of when the measures might end. The shutdown of Shanghai would carry on by and large for the next two months.
Before the lockdown, Lau had noticed an elderly woman, who lived alone in a neighbouring building, scavenging for bottles in rubbish bins. He worried that she might starve. When he contacted the authorities responsible for his neighbourhood, he was told that there was little he could do unless he joined a state volunteer corps to help distribute food.
He signed up immediately and was given a number of book-keeping tasks. It was hard to see how this work would help those around him. He tried to reach the elderly woman at home to check up on her but a covid case meant that her building was cordoned off. Lau realised that if he was going to support people through the lockdown, he would have to do so outside the government bureaucracy.
One of Lau’s colleagues set up a simple website in a day and a half. Those in urgent need of supplies were able to post requests on the site. People in a position to help would contact the person directly. Helpers might find a box of vegetables or identify a delivery driver with a rare clearance pass that allowed them to be on the road. Volunteers helped ill people find doctors to treat them. The original team who founded the site acted as managers, checking every couple of hours to see that requests were being met.
Data about the users were kept to a minimum, in an effort to keep a low profile. Only basic contact information was available on the site. This was removed as soon as a problem had been addressed. Direct interaction between parties occurred offline. This protocol kept as much activity as possible out of view of the state.
The migrants had been abandoned on a building site and their employer stopped providing them with instant noodles
Lau requested that 1843 magazine use an English name instead of his given name to avoid retribution from officials. As he told his story he often paused mid-sentence to consider exactly how to describe the unfolding of the crisis without sounding pejorative. When pressed on details he sometimes noted that he could not say any more because it would “cross the line”. It has become increasingly risky in China for people to talk disparagingly about officials, especially when speaking with foreign media.
A small group of colleagues spread the word among friends. Lau contacted university students and members of a local hip-hop dance troupe. The response was enthusiastic. Within ten days of the start of the lockdown, the website was receiving hundreds of requests, mainly for food, and the number of people willing to help began to swell. Lau worked 12-hour days to stay on top of the influx.
One strength of the network, Lau believes, was the care people took when recruiting other volunteers. Lau knew the small group at the start. But it became standard practice not to reveal secondary contacts. As the chain of connections spread through Shanghai, volunteers maintained strict anonymity beyond their closest colleagues. They also kept online interactions to a minimum, allowing the network to maintain some security in one of the world’s most surveilled metropolises. This meant that people with influence – doctors, professors and mid-tier officials – were willing to sign up and help.
As the team searched in vain for staples such as cabbage and peanut oil, it became clear that the distribution of resources was severely unequal. Lau eventually identified a shop in his district that had access to more fresh vegetables and meat than others. “They had some kind of back-channel,” he says. This was a common phenomenon during the lockdown: many residential communities were bereft of food; others seemed to have it in abundance.
By mid-April, the crisis had intensified and the network was making life-or-death decisions. A group of 16 workers who lived in a single, small flat posted a request for food. (Such cramped living conditions are common in Shanghai for migrants or workers in the gig economy who can’t afford the high rents.) Many of them had gone hungry for days. Local authorities would typically provide a flat with a single parcel of food, roughly the size of a standard suitcase, regardless of how many people lived there. Lau’s network was able to get the workers more necessities.
A couple in their 80s were both suffering from cancer: one of them had four days’ supply left, the other six
The scarcity of medicine soon became even more pressing than that of food. Psychiatric drugs and those for cancer and other life-threatening diseases were in high demand. Shanghai has some of the best hospitals in China but in the worst days of the lockdown many of the chronically ill were not allowed to leave their compounds. Even when people managed to get out, hospitals routinely denied admission to anyone who didn’t have a recent clear covid test. Some died outside emergency rooms.
There were pleas for food and medical treatment across the city, both on Lau’s site and more widely on social media. One man in Shanghai’s Minhang district wrote on a public message board that his father, who was suffering from late-stage sinus cancer, had made an appointment at a clinic to receive specialised treatment. “He needs targeted therapy but the residential committee says there’s no way to work this out.” The old man was forbidden from leaving his compound because he couldn’t get his covid-test results in time. He begged for a solution. “The cancer is developing rapidly…Please help!!!”.
The prolonged closure of a city, with millions of people secluded in their homes, breaks the bonds of human connection. Experience is no longer collective. Only the authorities are in a position to formulate an overarching narrative. The one presented by China’s Communist Party describes competent officials, orderly services and the generosity of the state. Few outside the system have been able to see at first hand the turmoil that took place. As Lau and his team fielded pleas for help, they caught glimpses of failures that the government tried to keep hidden.
There were repeated instances of corporate callousness. At one point a request came in from a dozen construction workers, migrants who had been abandoned on a building site that was no more than an empty lot. Lockdown was imposed as they were erecting for themselves a small temporary shelter with a plastic roof. The group remained prisoners on the site, unable to leave even in search of food. Their employer stopped providing them with instant noodles but Lau’s couriers kept them going.
As the lockdown dragged on into May, videos of suicidal residents began to circulate on social media. A number of videos, shot on mobile phones, showed people clinging to their balconies, poised to jump, as they shouted unintelligibly to the uncaring world. Many of these scenes ended with a jump and an audible thud, followed by screams that echoed around the tower blocks.
A couple in their 80s, both suffering from cancer, posted a request on Lau’s network for palliative drugs. One of them had four days’ supply left, the other, six. Without the medicine they would suffer excruciating pain. They told Lau that they were prepared to climb to the rooftop and jump to their deaths if they couldn’t get the pills. With some trouble the network found doses for them. But when the time came for delivery, authorities told the volunteers to stop meddling. Whatever Lau knows of this couple’s fate, he is not willing to say.
As the lockdown dragged on, videos of suicidal residents began to circulate on social media
Lau himself attracted attention from those in power. He received phone calls from the police and other civic bodies, who told him that his website was illegal and asked him to shut it down. The website began receiving frequent distributed-denial-of-service attacks, in which hackers send torrents of internet traffic from many different sources to overwhelm the site. Lau won’t speculate who was behind the attacks. They weren’t particularly damaging, but Lau started to spend more on cybersecurity. He reckons that people with financial and political resources, hidden deep within the network, helped keep the site from being closed down by authorities. “They are there but you’ll never see their faces,” he says.
As the lockdown was eased in early June, traffic returned to Shanghai’s streets. Shops and restaurants cautiously reopened. Lau’s network, no longer needed, quickly disbanded. Digital records were deleted. The website now bears only a note thanking participants.
Lau is cheerful and energetic as he describes his work. The network grew to more than 1,000 volunteers and delivered more than 6,000 parcels during the 55 days it operated. It assisted more than 1,600 elderly and ill people. He has not seen the woman he originally set out to help, who was rooting through the bins, though he has heard that she survived the crisis.
But his attitude towards his city has changed. “We’ve been hurt so much here,” he says of Shanghai. “We don’t know what’s next.” He is planning his own escape from China. Xi Jinping, China’s president, has said that the Communist Party’s “dynamic zero-covid” policy will remain in effect until “final victory” is achieved. The next time Shanghai goes into lockdown, one of the city’s anonymous heroes may no longer be around to help. ■
Don Weinland is China business and finance editor at The Economist
ILLUSTRATIONS: KLAUS KREMMERZ