For an idea of what’s happened in Shanghai during COVID, have a look at these pictures https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/LERIZQgIL_H8Uw4PlBVTfA (sorry that they’re sideways; head rotation required for viewing) . They’re mostly self-explanatory. There are some pictures of workers who couldn’t get home, and who had to live in tents or in makeshift shelter; many of the quarantine halls where people who had tested positive had to stay until they were cleared; some of the construction of partitions and other neighbourhood modifications. It’s been serious.
In years past, when the plane approached the gate at Pudong Airport in Shanghai, flight attendants had to tell overly eager passengers to sit back down, to not retrieve their luggage, to wait for the announcement. The announcement this time said that the Chinese health authorities had specified that de-boarding would take place by rows, and that no one was to move until their row numbers had been called. People kept quiet and still, and exited quietly and by the rules. It was pretty eery, and we hadn’t yet left the plane. We were met at the top of the ramp by the first of many Persons in White, 大白 or Big White—a full body white plastic suit, sealed at the seams, with wrap around tape where the suits met the plastic gloves and plastic-covered shoes—there are many of them in that photo collection linked above. This first one wanted to check that our phones showed the QR code linking to the Health Declaration Certificate we had downloaded and filled out before boarding in San Francisco. Through the spacious but spartan hall that had once led to the immigration control station, the QR codes were checked again. The way into the immigration control hall was blocked off by a temporary wall, and we were directed down a smaller flight of stairs into a series of temporarily constructed passageways that led out of and back into the building several times. This part of the airport had been reconfigured by a circuitous assemblage of passageways and platforms, exiting and entering at odd points, something like a high school auditorium repurposed as a haunted house or holiday maze. We had an infrared temperature check, and at the next stage were directed by persons in white to the testing stations, booths where another person in white, after warning that this would be uncomfortable, scanned our QR codes and did a thorough nasal swab. The passageway took us back into the immigration hall where passports would be checked, after first passing through another temperature check, where we were directed to look into the ceiling camera for a photograph. The line to the immigration control counter was short. I was worried to see that a foreigner ahead of me had been asked for his invitation letter; I didn’t know if I could find mine. In the end the customs officer was warmer and kinder than any immigration officer I’d ever encountered, taking great pains to calm me down. All went smoothly, and she didn’t ask for my invitation letter.
The huge baggage claim hall was nearly empty. Near and far were persons in white with disinfectant canisters on their backs, spraying into the air as they passed through. I got my bags out of baggage claim and was directed down what had once been the passage that took arrived passengers to the buses, subway, parking, and the Maglev train, now repurposed as the hall of quarantine embarkation stations—one for each of the city’s sixteen districts. Our health declaration forms had listed which districts we were going to, and we reported accordingly to our district’s station, where the QR code was scanned again and we were told to wait for the next bus. Mine, to Putuo, where I’d made a hotel reservation, was in 90 minutes. It had taken about three hours to reach the embarkation station, and I settled in. A few people were walking from station to station, trying to game the system in some way—Could one choose one’s quarantine hotel? Was there a way to switch districts? No, and no. There was a sign at the Xuhui district embarkation point saying that only residents of Xuhui could quarantine there. I’d almost booked a hotel in Xuhui—it was the district I knew best. Another complication avoided. The stations were staffed by police or civil servants from the districts. Some stations were kind of homey. People had hung up the white plastic suits of transferred colleagues, which all of the co-workers had signed. Some had decorations, like the red paper-cut designs for the Fengxian station, which also had a hand-written “Welcome Home” sign. Mine had a basket of rolls, wrapped in plastic, for people who were hungry. The guy in white at my station was very friendly too, and when people came over for bread from other stations he was happy to let them have some. At 8:30 PM, the three of us waiting for the Putuo transport were motioned to follow a few persons in white, and we were led through another recently constructed passageway to a curb in a 50-yard long section of the parking structure that had been sealed off by temporary walls, with swinging doors at each end. The doors at one end opened, a bus pulled up, and the three of us, sitting behind the translucent plastic shielded section where the driver sat, were on our way. On the ride into the city—we went under the Huangpu River via the Xiangyin Rd. Tunnel and took the Middle Ring Road past Wujiachang—everything looked as it always had.
In the hotel lobby, all door handles and fixtures were covered in plastic. The normal accoutrements of a hotel lobby—wall hangings, furniture, flowers, table and chairs—had been cleared out long ago, except for a large banner on one wall about winning the war on the virus. A person in white with a disinfectant backpack canister came and sprayed our luggage. At registration, our QR codes were scanned and we were given a sheet with more QR codes for us to scan, installing WeChat apps on our phones with more forms to fill out, plus a few sheets of instructions. We were accompanied to our rooms by persons in white. Outside each door—the handles and key swipe were covered in plastic– was a blue plastic stool. I thought it was where the person administering our morning tests would sit, but it turned out to be where meals would be left. As the rules explained, if we left the room, or opened the doors for reasons other than retrieving meals, leaving out bags of garbage, or letting in the person in white who came to administer our PCR tests every morning, the quarantine period could be lengthened, and we would be subject to “punishment by police” on release. I was required to take my temperature daily at 9AM and 4PM with a mercury thermometer provided by the hotel and report the results on a document accessed with a QR code.
The room was spacious and well-furnished. The weather was perfect. I was on the eleventh floor of a south-facing room. Changfeng Park was nearby, and through its trees I could see a small patch of the Suzhou Creek, on whose banks some friends and I have had a walking project for a few years, aiming to walk the length of the river (about 150 miles) without straying more than 15 feet from its banks. Below my window was a community of early 1980s housing—the typical six stories, with dormered roofs and small recessed balconies, plus a group of two or three-story buildings that were once factories, made of that rough and friable 1970s concrete, now stained with years of rain flow. Beyond them were high-rise office and residential buildings more typical of this century, including one apartment building that is a copy of, or the source for, a building I once lived in in another district (building designs are re-used sometimes). The lightshows that Shanghai likes to project on their more luxurious office building walls appeared on a few of the newer ones.
Shanghai is a city of songbirds, and when I woke at 6 after my first night in quarantine they were all I heard, gradually replaced by the more typical city sounds—distant traffic, jack and other hammers, the pulling apart of metal, and the scraping of shovels on asphalt. By noon, and after a lot of time on the phone, I’d solved two of my anxiety-producing problems: getting my Chinese phone reactivated, and getting my “Health QR Code” app installed on it; this is something everyone is required to have and to show on demand. The Health QR Code can be green, yellow, or red. Green means free passage; yellow means go test at once; red means quarantine. Having your code turn red causes considerable dread. In my quarantine, though, it was always green.
Some Shanghai friends were incredulous that I’d come to this. A few of them texted me news of what had happened two days earlier at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. Some students in a few of the dorms had been identified as 密接“close contacts” or 次密接“secondary contacts” (these are two items from the new COVID lexicon, which I’ve been busy learning) , so a couple of thousand students had to suit up in plastic and get bussed to buildings (not hotels like mine) throughout the city and beyond that had been repurposed as quarantine centers. During my quarantine, and since, there have been scattered lockdowns throughout the city—not of whole districts this time, but rather of whole apartment buildings. Most schools are closed again, and university students and faculty members can’t leave their campuses if they are in residence. This was said to be due to a confluence of a slight uptick in case numbers, numbers so low that they wouldn’t be noticed in a smallish American town, as well as the Party Congress. A friend texted that it felt like big changes were in the air. What kind of changes, I asked? Maybe nothing will change, she answered, and that would be big too.
A few days into the quarantine I re-read Tony Hoagland’s poem “Crazy Motherfucker Weather”. From the middle of it:
Am I entering the season of tantrums and denunciations?
My crazy motherfucker weather?
Will I be yelling at strangers on the plane,
begging the radio for mercy,
hammering the video rental machine
to get my money back?
Knowing it a sin to waste
even a smidgen of this life
under the blue authentic glory of the sky;
wondering whether a third choice exists
between resignation and
going around the bend—
I downloaded an “Official Account” on WeChat called 上海本地宝 （Shanghai Local）, a kind of information hub that gives daily updates on quarantine conditions. For most of my quarantine, I read the Local and other WeChat posts, and heard a lot from friends.
A friend passed this on (I’ve translated it). It was a screenshot of a text message. The text message would have been removed from the server soon after posting; that’s why she didn’t forward the message itself directly. Many people read this kind of news this way. Another friend here has long been in the habit of staying up late at night, downloading posts during the few hours before they’re removed by the authorities.
We’re residents of Lane 635 Fahuazhen Rd. When the official municipal COVID policy updates were released, our community* was nowhere on the list. But at around 4PM on October 6, the persons in white came to our doors and told us (orally) that our community’s aerosol levels (nb: by which it has been determined that the virus could be transmitted) were too high, and that we were ordered to report to the Ruitai Hotel on 555 Shuicheng Rd. for quarantine. Two days after we got to the hotel our Health QR Codes all turned red. The problem is that none of us was even a “secondary contact”. What standards did they use?
There were no documents, there were no phone messages with epidemiological findings regarding close contact or secondary contact status (nb: see above for these terms; one is commonly notified by phone of a status change of this kind). This whole evacuation program is a problem. There were no records or documents confirming the aerosol level either.
There’s more to this story. Between October 6 and October 14, some residents of the community didn’t heed the evacuation orders and had stayed at home. The residential committee kept on distributing supplies to them as usual (nb: these would have been delivery items ordered by the residents). Then we got a call, telling us that our quarantine would be extended to October 17th. Lots of excuses and buck-passing, but we weren’t allowed to go home. And of course this was delivered orally; there were no documents or official accounts explaining the extended quarantine. If you come from abroad you quarantine for seven days in a hotel and three days at home. This continual escalation that we’re facing, with no documentary or official justification, makes getting home more and more grueling.
It turned out that a good friend of mine had been one of the holdouts. After I got out she played a recording of her doorstep conversation with the policeman who was trying to persuade her to go the quarantine hotel. He was patient and earnest, and spent a lot longer with her than any US policeman would have. Another friend told me that in recent months, after the citywide lockdown, police were a lot more sympathetic, after having had to enforce a lockdown that many had thought was excessive. I asked my friend the reason for her lockdown. She said that rumors said that a New Zealander who had just come out of his ten days of quarantine had tested positive. I said that given what you had to go through before entering the country and after arriving, I didn’t see how that was possible. Later, I thought that perhaps, like Financial Times reporter Thomas Hale, he went to the wrong bar on getting out and ended up in a long stay in a portacabin (his record of his time is worth reading: https://www.ft.com/content/77622627-9433-445a-a763-a547b77b58ed; paywall). She laughed. She’s always thought of me as a naïve and romantic leftist who didn’t understand the lengths to which the party state could go.
Here’s an excerpt from the Shanghai Local:
Latest News of the Epidemic in Shanghai (Updated Daily)
Summary: The Shanghai Municipal Health Condition Reports: On October 14 (midnight to midnight) there were 4 confirmed new local cases and 38 confirmed asymptomatic local cases. 20 areas were classified as Mid-Level Risk. Details follow:
Case 1. Resident of Qingpu district. Had returned to Shanghai from outside the city. The routine PCR test revealed abnormalities. After re-testing by the municipal and district Epidemic Control stations, results proved to be positive. References to the subject’s medical history, bedside diagnoses, further lab testing, and imaging tests confirmed the positive diagnosis (information released October 14).
Case 2 and Case 3 are residents of Minhang District. Case 4 is a resident of Songjiang District. All of them were close contacts of infected persons who had returned to Shanghai, as previously reported by the municipal authorities. Tests administered during their quarantine period revealed abnormalities, and further testing at the Epidemic Control station proved positive. References to the subjects’ medical histories, bedside diagnoses, further lab testing, and imaging tests confirmed the positive diagnoses.
The next two sections (untranslated here) gave similar details about the asymptomatic cases. That’s followed by a section detailing (community by community) the newly designated Medium Risk Zones. Then this:
Shanghai Community Policy: “Two Tests a Week” and “Three Tests for Three Days” for those coming to or returning to Shanghai
At the present, when epidemic related threats of all kinds remain present, in order to consolidate our successes in epidemic control and in order to identify and control outbreaks as early as possible, each community is requested to conscientiously organize routine measures for testing, to follow the directive of “two tests a week”, and to ensure that services are not interrupted.
All residents should follow district and community arrangements for orderly testing and examinations. When specimens are collected, please take self-protective measures, maintain appropriate distance, and wear a mask.
In addition, all of those coming to or returning to Shanghai must follow the “three days three tests regime”. A PCR test must be taken every 24 hours, or the Health Code will turn yellow. All of those coming to or returning to Shanghai from high risk areas must take tests and examination according to regulations.
This section was followed by a bar with advertisements: “Are Dental Implants Good or Not?”; What Are the Best Strategies for Renovating an Older Home”, “Converted Shipping Containers for Sale”, “Yoga Classes”, “How to Tell if Your Child Has a Low IQ”, and others. The company behind the Shanghai Local is contracted by municipal governments, and is allowed to post ads. Below the ads are summaries of earlier days’ reports. If you were wondering, when reading that first-person account of the evacuation of Lane 635, why the writer focused so much on the lack or written documentation, consider that there’s often a LOT of documentation available, so its absence is salient.
Forwarded WeChat or Weibo posts, long texts from local friends, there was a lot of mediated communication about what was going on. My unmediated experience of quarantine was, as you might expect, limited to the four walls of my hotel room, and when I heard something outside in the hall I’d look through the fisheye lens in the door to see. A few times a day a person in blue walked the hall spraying disinfectant. Meals came three times a day, delivered by a person in blue pushing a cart. There were deliveries of special order items every day at around four. From the front desk, I’d ordered more bottled water and a refill of my medical waste disposal bags that we had to use for all of our garbage (I didn’t eat much of the plentiful food they sent so I generated a lot of waste). You could get outside deliveries too, as long as the value was under 300RMB and contents passed inspection, though I never did. When I opened my door to get meals or deposit garbage, I saw piles of delivery boxes in front of other doors.
Not being able to go outside, walk around, and take bike rides or night walks made jet lag last much longer than usual. I’d go to bed by 8:30 or 9:00 and wake up at 4:30 or 5:00. One night I was awakened at 11:30 by noise next door, and on reaching consciousness realized it was a couple having a fight (married couples are allowed to quarantine in the same room). Soon after it seemed to get violent, with thrown objects, screaming, maybe blows. I called the front desk and said that there was loud violence in the room next door. She said they’d send someone up. Then I heard the woman screaming “救命！救命！（Save my life!）. I called again and said that the woman was screaming “Save my life!”. The staff person seemed to register how serious it was, and told me that someone would be up in five minutes. “Five minutes! This is a dangerous situation. Somebody needs to come right away.” “They have to put on their quarantine suit”, she told me. Then the phone in the room next door rang. It rang for a long time and I couldn’t hear if it was finally answered or not. Shortly after that I got a call from the front desk. “Are they still fighting”? “I haven’t heard anything since you called them, but I still think someone should come up.” “OK”. I didn’t hear evidence of anyone coming up. The room was quiet the next day.
I texted a few local friends about this. They hadn’t known that couples could quarantine together. They also said that domestic violence had exploded since the whole-city lockdown last spring, as it did in the US and many other places during COVID lockdowns, and that it was almost never prosecuted. I also shared “Crazy Motherfucker Weather” with some local friends. They liked that term; they thought it fit.
I thought I’d wait until I’d walked enough, talked enough, and soaked up the scene enough before updating the quarantine diary with News from Outside, as several friends had requested. Three days after getting out, as my dinner guest had entered the third hour of her lockdown narrative (volunteering to give PCR tests in her community in March with nothing but the state’s word about how bad things were out there; growing realization that it was a total shitshow, alienation from former friends turned policy-boosters, checking neighbors to make sure that they all had enough food during the two-month shutdown, the planning and performance of her 35-minute dance based on the lockdown emotional rollercoaster), I understood that my field observations might have entered a new stage. None of it was uninteresting. But it would be a long haul… The day before I’d hosted a party at my favorite Shanghainese food restaurant (inside; still a weird experience given my California habits) with a group of old friends. The talk was mostly lockdown and post-lockdown, including a long-ish argument about how this period should be registered and recorded for posterity. One friend said that a simple compendium of everyone’s troubles would be meaningless; the important thing to get to arrive at a common understanding, without which it would just fade away into nothing. It would fade away, insisted others, everything fades away. No, these records are important; all of them. It was so hard to get a word in edgewise that soon enough it became a joke: “the host isn’t allowed to talk!” One friend—we’d talked before about how it was nearly the only topic of conversation—channeled his inner Garcin, from No Exit, opining every so often, “Oh well, let’s keep at it…” There’s a lot more to say about April and May.
The Rise of the Health Engineers
One thing that keeps the trauma in its active state, with no end in sight for the working through, is the routinization of dynamic zero, the sense that this might just go on for ever, the feeling that, especially after the 20th Party Congress, the leaders don’t even care that much about damage to the economy; plus the sense that the state is digging in for the long haul. I went out to Fuxing Island one afternoon to pick up some stuff I’d stored, and just outside the window workers were laying the foundation for a 3000-unit “portacabin” (方舱) complex。As my friends said, the foundations were very solid, meant to last a long time. I’ve been getting my PCR tests at a place around the corner where there are almost never lines; the whole thing takes under a minute, from scanning my health code to sample collecting. Every day I’d noticed nearby between fifty and a hundred people milling around focused on a some folded up sheets of paper they’d brought. I asked one guy if he was cramming for an exam. He answered yes, for a “Health Engineer Certificate”. This would allow him to become one of the Big Whites, those people in white plastic protective suits who collect and process samples, work the neighborhoods, etc., or to work in some other pandemic related capacity. If everyone that week passed the exam—probably a pretty high ratio since the cram sheets are lists of all possible questions and answers, easily found online—from what I’d seen the state had probably added a thousand or so to the Big Whites’ ranks in that week alone. Mastery of the new regime is encouraged. A friend sent me a screenshot of a page of her daughter’s homework. It was a picture of the healthcode that we all carry around on our phones, and the questions were designed to ascertain that the kid understood what everything on the screen meant. The last two questions asked for a narrative about what information the healthcode contained, and a list of places where one is required to show the healthcode.
Maybe the kids will be persuaded. Many grownups aren’t. I’ve heard surprising levels of anti-science. The vaccines don’t work; the vaccines have bad side effects (they don’t). I’ve heard the line “My doctor told me not to get vaccinated” from ten different people. The PCR tests are all for show; the statistics are just made up. “Chris believes in vaccinations, and he thinks that the epidemic is serious”, is a line I’ve been ridiculed with more than once; I can count on a laugh when I hold up the five fingers of my hand showing how many times I’ve been vaccinated.
The main thing, though, is the sense that one random occurrence—and the common perception now is that this will bring a severe or baseless overreaction on the part of the state—will cause major disruptions in daily life. One positive case in a housing community locks down the whole community for ten days, with daily PCR tests for everyone. A red or yellow healthcode appears on a school kid’s phone—“close contact” or “secondary close contact”– and the school gets shut down. A friend with a car notices a testing station with no line and pulls over for an overdue test, happy to have gamed the system. It turns out that everyone who had been in that area that day got a yellow code, meaning daily testing for the next three days. When samples are collected at the PCR stations, five or more swabs are collected in each test tube and they’re screened together. One positive means everyone turns red, and must report immediately for further testing. I wondered sometimes if people who saw me getting tested worried about having their swabs in the same tube as mine. People who travel further than a bike-ride’s distance from home (the bikes would be those public bikes you unlock with a phone app) usually carry a toothbrush, a change of underwear, and maybe a book, in case they have to stay in place for an extra day, or three, or seven.
The End of Rhizomatic Shanghai
For almost all my time in Shanghai, I’ve lived in a 5 square mile area known as the “French Concession”. Most of the buildings are pre-war, and the streets are lined with thick and arching wutong trees (French plane trees) that form magical tunnels of green shade. I know this area like the back of my hand, and know especially well the small alleys that wind through the housing communities, bricolaged spaces where the inside outside distinctions are blurred, allowing a mole’s route through the neighborhoods. That rhizomatic counter-geography is no more. Alley wandering depends on open gates, and in dynamic zero (动态清零—the state’s name for its epidemic policy) all of a community’s gates but one are permanently locked. A few days after my release, I found that one of those alleys near my place—a pretty important psychogeographic route that allowed for a crucial passage between Yongjia Rd and Shaoxing Rd without a detour onto the busier streets—still allowed through passage. I take it more often than I need to.
The area gets its bourgeois or hipster reputation from the bars, restaurants, boutiques and cafes that were scattered through it, quite concentrated on certain streets. Most of the spots I used to frequent are gone. A lot of the places that remain are well-capitalized spots with multiple locations. And then there are the cafes There are more cafes than ever—tiny places with three or four tables opened up by kids of rich families; kids who can’t go abroad to study, from families with fewer opportunities for capital export. Probably a quarter or a third of former storefronts are closed. In the past they’d be replaced pretty quickly by something new, which might last six months or a few years. Now it’s not clear. People say that a lot of shops have closed because of ubiquitous home delivery. The bike lanes are full of the electric scooters of the delivery drivers from Meituan and Eleme, two of the main delivery services. They get around 8RMB per order, so need many orders a day in order for it to pay. You aim for at least 1100 orders a month, I’ve been told. You sleep in a small flat with five or six others for which you pay around 1000RMB per month, and food is another 1200 or so. In a good month you can send 7000 or 8000RMB home to the family. There’s a fair amount of downtime, though, waiting for the orders to be brought out, and they’re usually happy to talk—about the economics of delivery, where they sleep, where they’re from, how to get the most orders into a day…
Hallowe’en has become a big holiday for Generation Z, and this year the streets and bars around here were filled with twenty-somethings in costumes. There had been notices spread on social media that officials would not tolerate anyone dressed as a Big White. A few did anyway. One friend sent a picture of someone dressed with a Red Healthcode. There probably weren’t many students among the costumed hipsters, though; students living in university dorms haven’t been able to leave their campuses for weeks. Is the state worried about student protest? Hard to say. For a short time, a petition from a group of Tongji University students circulated on social media. One dormful of students had been told that due to a positive diagnosis in the neighboring dorm they would all be sent to portacabins. The petition protested the decision, adding that under no circumstances did they want to end up in portacabins. Getting into a campus poses its own challenges. For a meeting with faculty and grad students in Cultural Studies to discuss David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions of Capitalism, I had to start daily PCR testing three days out. The day before the meeting I had to upload to the university’s Visitor Application site the three days’ PCR test results, plus a picture of my “Travel Card”, which prior to this process I hadn’t known I had. It’s a record of my movements over the past seven days. A friend told me where to find it on the same app where my Healthcode is stored. I found it, and it showed a green circle with a green arrow in the middle. That meant I hadn’t been in any high or medium risk areas. Below that was the record of everywhere I’d been: Shanghai, it read. That’s right.
* A “community” is an official designation. Normally it is a group of apartment buildings surrounded by walls with several entrances from the outside that can be, and during quarantine often were, locked. Communities might have from 50 to 1000 or so people.
Christopher Connery is professor of literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz