From Shijiazhuang to Hong Kong, Residents Under Lockdown Decry Inequalities

In China’s northern provinces, health authorities are contending with the most severe domestic spread of coronavirus since the initial outbreak more than one year ago. To the south, Hong Kong has been struggling to contain a weeks-long wave of double-digit cases, and has introduced “ambush style” localized lockdown measures for the first time. As Wuhan marks the one year anniversary of its bruising city-wide lockdown, measures used to control the outbreak there have formed the playbook for how the rest of the country handles new ones. But the Chinese government has worked hard to censor and minimize stories about negative effects of its most draconian measures, and one year on, familiar accounts of confusion, discrimination, and mental hardship continue to emerge.

Cities across Hebei, Heilongjiang, and Jilin have imposed lockdown measures on their residents. In Tonghua, Jilin province, a plea for help from residents running out of food prompted a rare public debate online about the country’s lockdown measures. Sixth Tone’s Du Xinyu and Chen Qi’an reported that city authorities issued a public apology after a Weibo hashtag about residents’ struggles to find enough to eat generated over 300 million views:

“Dongchang District (where the city of Tonghua is located) has been severely hit with supply shortages. Residents there can’t go out at all, and their front doors are taped (so authorities can tell if anyone is violating the stay-at-home order),” Chen said. “Many of us Tonghua locals were posting on Weibo, trying to make our situation become a trending topic to get the public’s attention.”

[…] Starting this week, Tonghua residents will be supplied with half-price “vegetable packages” to sustain them for five days, local authorities said in an official announcement. Over 7,000 cadres and volunteers will be assembled to distribute the foodstuffs to residents, and citywide nucleic acid testing will begin Monday.

However, not everyone in Dongchang District — which local authorities designated a “high-risk” area last week — has seen these vows bear fruit. A Dongchang local surnamed Chen, who is not related to Chen Shutong, told Sixth Tone that while the vegetable packages were being delivered as promised to large residential complexes, some smaller communities, including the one where his family lives, are still waiting. [Source]

In Hong Kong, authorities issued an abrupt weekend lockdown order for one of the city’s poorest districts, where many residents live in tiny subdivided apartments, provoking confusion about how residents would obtain food and prevent community spread in their own living spaces. Authorities emphasized the lockdown should not be named as such, while Chief Executive Carrie Lam referred to the measures an “ambush style operation” on Tuesday, and said more would be conducted in the future. The New York Times’ Vivian Wang and Tiffany May reported on the lockdown measures, which highlighted the extreme economic inequality in the city:

Officials suggested that the dilapidated living conditions of many residents in Jordan had fueled the virus’s spread. A densely packed neighborhood known for a lively night market, aging high-rise apartments and plentiful eateries, Jordan is home to some of the city’s highest concentrations of tenements, the subdivided flats that are created when apartments are parceled out into two or more smaller ones.

More than 200,000 of the city’s poorest residents live in such units, where the average living space per person is 48 square feet — less than one-third the size of a New York City parking space. Some spaces are so tiny and restrictive that they are called cages or coffins.

The same conditions that may have led to the outbreak also made the lockdown particularly painful for many residents, who worried about missing even a day of work or feared being trapped in poorly ventilated hotbeds of transmission. Officials admitted that they did not know exactly how many people lived in the subdivided apartments, complicating efforts to test everyone. Discrimination against low-income South Asian residents, many of whom are concentrated in the area, also caused problems. [Source]

In Hebei and Hong Kong, citizens have challenged decisions about which populations are ordered into lockdown. In Hong Kong, where the most recent wave of cases was initiated by wealthy residents flouting community gathering restrictions, critics have questioned why authorities only imposed a lockdown in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The number of cases detected within the lockdown zone accounted for just a fraction of the total number of new infections over the weekend. A second “ambush” on Tuesday night that led to the overnight lockdown of a block of buildings netted just one positive test result.

For South Asian Hong Kong residents, many of whose homes are concentrated in the weekend lockdown area, the measures are likely to worsen already pervasive discrimination. In recent weeks, government health officials and local media have been singling out ethnic minorities for failing to observe social distancing rules. The city’s anti-discrimination watchdog spoke out against customers requesting in food delivery apps that their orders not be delivered by South Asian drivers during the pandemic, but found the behavior was legal, and refused to take action. For The Diplomat, Jessie Lau wrote about how systemic racism in Hong Kong has been exacerbated by the pandemic:

In Hong Kong, dark-skinned ethnic minorities have a long history of being framed as scapegoats for the city’s social problems. During last year’s anti-government protests, minorities were tokenized as symbols of diversity that set the city apart from those in mainland China – but also demonized as criminals after rumors circulated regarding ethnic minorities being hired to attack pro-democracy protesters.

Various anti-refugee campaigns – such as those in 2016 – have unfairly painted dark-skinned asylum seekers as criminals and illegal migrants taking advantage of local resources. Foreign domestic workers have also been accused of practicing “poor hygiene” and disrupting public order by politicians and members of the public for simply utilizing public spaces on their days off.

“For too long, we have just been easy targets. It’s exhausting and traumatic to keep having to defend ourselves, justify each time there is an isolated incident involving an ethnic minority,” said Jeffrey Andrews, a prominent social worker of Indian descent, in a Facebook post condemning the recent racist incidents and calling for more unity amongst minority communities. [Source]

In Hebei, where 11 million people are in lockdown, abrupt announcements also left residents unprepared and facing basic survival challenges such as finding enough food. Hebei residents fear having to contend with suspicion and discrimination, which some compared to the ill treatment received by Hubei residents travelling to neighboring provinces last year after the completion of their two month lockdown.

CDT translated an account by one resident, who expressed her frustration with discrimination against Hebei residents and the harsh burden placed on them in the name of “protecting the capital”:

There’s also another reason for the soaring anxiety in the region: the principle of “protecting the capital.” Because Beijing is essentially surrounded on all sides by Hebei, [the town of] Langfang, near the border of Beijing, was placed under complete administrative lockdown on January 12, even though there was only one mid-level risk area in the city (a neighborhood in Gu’an County). The goal was clear: to create a firewall around Beijing, ensuring the capital was insulated from the pandemic.

[…] Under the surface of this pandemic is the fear of “contamination.” Once “Hebei’ers” were determined to be a source of contamination, they all became suspect. Many would argue this is necessary to stop the spread of the virus, and there’s always going to be some people who need to make sacrifices. Drastic times require these kinds of drastic, one-size-fits-all measures to keep things from getting even worse.

But there’s an unavoidable problem with this: namely, the way these groups are defined is mostly arbitrary. If you do take such drastic measures, why is it that “Heibei’ers” are the problem? The infections were in Shijiazhuang, so why aren’t “Shijiazhuang residents” the scapegoat, or else the residents of those villages? And aren’t all of these people Chinese? So, shouldn’t we be suspicious of all Chinese people? Let’s take it to the extreme—aren’t all of these cases occurring among Earthlings? [CDT Translation]

The problems reported by residents subject to the latest lockdowns aren’t new. Familiar grievances can be read in Fang Fang’s diary from Wuhan last year, where she wrote about desperate low-income residents sorting through trash for discarded food, and widespread discrimination within China towards Wuhan residents. But as China marks one year since the Wuhan lockdown, fêting the heroism of its residents and the bravery of frontline medical workers, nary a word can be found about the negative side effects of that experience. Residents who speak about their grievances from that period continue to be censored–this month, a WeChat group of close to 100 relatives of coronavirus victims was shut down without explanation. Citizen journalists like Zhang Zhan, who candidly documented life inside the lockdown zone, have been jailed.

That hardly any space has been left open to discuss the negative effects of China’s lockdown measures suggests that, at least publicly, little has been learned about how to avoid repeating those outcomes. In the absence of those lessons, the lockdown harms seem destined to repeat themselves in the regions where new lockdown orders are imposed. As Human Rights Watch’s Yaqiu Wang wrote in an opinion piece for NBC News, this recurring outcome is less an exception born from the coronavirus, but the inevitable outcome of decades of “continuous suppression of liberal ideas and activism”:

Beijing’s purported “victory” in containing the virus compared to the U.S. has prompted some ruling elites and ordinary people in China to express support for public order and security over individual freedoms. “Only by safeguarding public interest can individual rights be protected,” wrote a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government research center. “The individual should give way to the collective. This is what harmony is about,” said a Weibo post calling for Wuhan people not to leave the city.

Such views aren’t the result of the pandemic and the short period of heightened censorship and propaganda. They’re the result of decades of continuous suppression of liberal ideas and activism, which has increased since Xi ascended to power in late 2012.

[…] Despite the hypervigilance — and perhaps giving credence to those who question its Covid-19 track record — Beijing still struggles to keep the country virus-free. This month, new, small outbreaks in Hebei and Jilin provinces again prompted authorities to put tens of million people under strict lockdown.

But whether the virus has been contained — and whether people will continue to cheer an approach based on repression — may mean a future less rosy for Xi than he’d be willing to admit. [Source]


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