Photo Essay: The Unblocking of a Community

In tandem with nationwide anti-lockdown protests touched off by a deadly fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, residents in some large housing complexes in Beijing and other cities have organized successfully to put an end to their neighborhood lockdowns. They have prevailed by employing a variety of methods: peaceful demonstrations, legal arguments, negotiations with police and community officials, collective flouting of COVID restrictions, and the dismantling of locks, checkpoints, testing kiosks, sheet-metal fences, and other barriers.

Caijing Eleven, a general finance column founded by eleven journalists from Caijing magazine, even published a detailed primer titled, “How to Use Legal Weapons to Put an End to Illegal Lockdowns.” The primer reminds readers that only county- or higher-level-governments have the right to institute lockdowns, and therefore local closures ordered by neighborhood or village committees are illegal. The primer advises residents that they can and should ask for proof of a written order from a higher-level authority authorizing the lockdown. Residents can also complain about lockdowns or excessive pandemic-prevention measures by calling the police (110), the government service hotline (12345), or contacting government bureaus in charge of public health, transportation, disease prevention, or fire prevention. 

The photo essay below, translated by CDT editors, documents two days during which residents of a housing complex in Changping, a sprawling district in north and northwest Beijing, fought to end the lockdown of their community. It provides some insights into the ways that residents are banding together to resist what they consider to be draconian lockdowns. Still uncensored, the piece was originally posted to the WeChat account 香蕉你个芭乐 (“Xiangjiao ni ge bale,” a comedic swear-word that translates roughly as “Banana Your Guava“).

The housing complex notified us that because some people in one of the buildings had tested positive for COVID-19, the entire complex would have to be sealed off.

At first, the whole building was surrounded by sheet-metal fencing. Even the emergency fire exit was blocked off.

A sheet-metal fence, gray side facing inward, blocks a pedestrian path composed of large flat stones. A length of red and white caution tape has been draped over the path, and over the bushes on either side.

In an act of God, the heavy winds—unable to stand the unsightly fence—peeled apart the blue sheet-metal.

Missing panels create a large gap in a blue sheet-metal fence.

Then at last, some brave individuals stood up, and were joined by a steady stream of people from other buildings.

A crowd of residents assemble at the entrance to the housing complex, whose fences are topped with barbed wire.

One guy even brought a digital camera and a ladder. I’d be curious to know how his photos turned out.

A man in a white face-mask and gray overcoat stands above the sea of people (presumably he is standing on a ladder) and takes photos of the crowd with a large and expensive-looking digital camera.

It was a cold day, so everyone huddled together for warmth. Luckily, the sun was out.

Standing amidst a crowd of masked people in heavy coats and jackets, a man and a woman hug.

Conversing with a police officer.

A crowd of residents surround a male police officer, who appears to be conversing with them. Everyone is wearing heavy coats and surgical face masks, or N95 masks.

People started shouting “Lift the lockdown!” Residents of the adjacent housing complex soon joined in, shouting slogans and cheering us on.

A crowd of residents stand near the gate and shout slogans. A few raise their fists into the air.

Many people raised their “weapons” [i.e. their cell phones] to record the speeches being made.

Two young people, seen from behind, are recording the events on their cell phones.

Some people even came down in their pajamas.

A woman in white-and-yellow fuzzy “onesie” pajamas embraces a man in a puffy black jacket.

This older “auntie,” wearing a red face mask, joined in as well.

A middle-aged woman with gray curly hair, wearing a long white down jacket and a red face mask, stands on top of a chunk of concrete and looks at her cell phone.

Pandemic-prevention volunteers watched from a distance.

Three volunteers, wearing white face masks and blue surgical gowns, stand toward the back and observe. Two have their hands in their pockets.

I like these little kids playing with a rabbit on the sidelines. So cute.

A little girl in a white face-mask and puffy pink jacket hugs a white bunny to her chest. A little boy in a mask and black-and-yellow jacket reaches out, as if trying to grab the bunny.

I wonder what the rabbit thinks about our fight?

Close-up of the white rabbit, with pink ears and black fur around its eyes, snuggling into the girl’s jacket.

Here’s another cute kid, playing with an airplane-shaped toy gun.

A woman holds a little boy in her arms. The boy is dressed in a blue-and-white Doraemon jacket, and holds a red-and-blue plastic gun shaped like an airplane. 

The most important weapon in this fight is the bullhorn.

People crowd around to listen to a resident, clad in a red coat and hat, speaking through a small bullhorn.

Having won a temporary victory, everyone left the housing complex to go to the fruit and vegetable market.

Several shoppers inspect the produce (apples, tangerines, and tomatoes) on display at a large fresh fruit-and-vegetable market.

Walking along the street, feeling like we’ve been released from prison, it appears that the world has not stopped in our absence.

A shadow of two people, one holding a shopping bag, falls on a sidewalk. Two other people walking a small dog approach from the opposite direction.

After eating lunch, people emerged again in the afternoon to offer their support to the residents of the housing complex across the street.

 Seen from behind, a crowd of people gather at the gate of another housing complex. 

Billboard reads: “Striving to create a “National Civilized City.” Building a harmonious and beautiful Changping.”

I liked these relaxed moments in the midst of the proceedings. They made it seem as if people had simply come out to do some window-shopping.

Along a row of first-floor shops, residents stand around in groups of two or three or four. A young couple in the foreground lean close to each other as the man helps the woman adjust her face mask.

A young guy on his way back from buying vegetables joined us.

A young man, holding a plastic bag of vegetables and wearing slippers and a pink face mask, joins the crowd.

Everyone gathered outside the neighborhood committee office, awaiting a written document acknowledging that the lockdown had been lifted. 

A group of residents dressed in warm coats and boots wait outside a fence. One woman is wearing pajama pants, slippers, and a fuzzy purple-and-white robe with a rabbit hood.

A passing dog wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

A white fluffy dog on a pink leash stands along the street.

They told the deliveryman that people were free to come and go from the complex, but he was still afraid to enter.

Two men talk to a deliveryman outside a metal fence.

People in the community started going outside to walk their dogs.

A man in tennis shoes and a green sweatshirt emerges from the metal gate with his reluctant-looking Golden Retriever.

Local officials distributed the remaining emergency food care packages. Note that they only got around to delivering them after we fought back.

A man with dyed blonde hair and a green padded military overcoat with a brown fur collar looks down at a wheeled handcart piled with vegetables wrapped in see-through plastic garbage bags.

The director of the sub-district office went back on his word: he showed up with a PPE-clad security team and started making preparations to lock us down again. Everyone said they were like barbarians at the gate.

Outside the gate of the housing complex, a man in a black coat and a uniformed policeman stand with about a dozen people wearing white face masks, plastic face shields, and head-to-toe white protective suits. A number of orange and gray residential high-rises are visible behind them.

I thought this guy looked very silly in his PPE, so I struck up a conversation with him and asked him why he was here. He said he worked for a security company, and had come here naively assuming that he’d be doing something altruistic. The young man next to him told me that his neighborhood had also just been locked down, and now he wasn’t sure where he was going to sleep that night. They all promised that they wouldn’t raise a finger against us. Two young women started talking to them, showed them that “weakness” video, and told them that they shouldn’t do the bidding of people like that. [This refers to a now-censored viral video from Nov. 20, in which sub-district neighborhood committee members from Tiantongyuan, a vast suburb near this one, are heard talking about how to intimidate local residents during lockdown—one says of a certain local man, “His weakness is his son.”] 

One member of the hired security force is a heavyset middle-aged man whose protective white suit doesn’t quite fit him. To his left is another, much younger man, also dressed in full PPE.

After I’d taken too many photos, the guy said, “Don’t shoot me. Shoot him.” (Referring to the director of the sub-district office.)

Blurred image of the heavyset security man raising his hand to the camera, obscuring his face.

A young woman totes a realistic-looking toy rifle.

A young woman in a white jacket and blue surgical mask has a very realistic-looking toy rifle resting against her shoulder.

A mother has come downstairs with her two children.

A woman in a puffy white coat stands among the crowd with her two children: a teenage boy in a fuzzy animal robe, and a younger girl wearing a navy blue, sailor-style school uniform.

Glancing behind me, away from the crowd, everything looked so lovely and innocent. Our cold northern weather isn’t very conducive to this sort of protest. Seeing that the situation was at a standstill, I decided to go home for some dinner.

The high-rise apartment buildings, metal fences, and bare-branched trees appear as dark silhouettes against the sunset-tinged sky.

After dinner, I came back down again. At one of the gates where there wasn’t much of a crowd gathered, it was no longer possible to enter or exit freely.

Four PPE-clad sentries stand guard at the gate, while a resident films something with her cell phone camera.

At this gate, guards had begun stopping people from going through, but at another gate where there was a bigger crowd, you could still pass through freely.

Entrance to this gate is impeded by low metal fences, six people clad in PPE, and two uniformed guards in a plexiglass booth.

I had a long debate with this guy from the subdistrict office. As a former military man, he didn’t take well to being interrupted when he was trying to talk. I spoke to him about the 20 new government guidelines [for easing COVID controls], the nine prohibitions [on excessive COVID measures], and the importance of written lockdown orders [without which local officials are technically not allowed to impose a community lockdown]. He told me that he knew, and that he understood, but that it wasn’t within his power to lift our lockdown: he was just carrying out the orders of his bosses at the subdistrict office.

The subdistrict employee is a man dressed in black and wearing a white face mask. It is dark, but most of the windows in the high-rise apartment building behind him are lit up.

I was never going to break our deadlock, and it was way too cold, so I decided to go home. Along the way, I was pleasantly distracted by some neighbors out walking their cat.

Illuminated by a light from above, a gray cat wearing a pale blue harness sits on the gray-brick-paved ground. There are two people with the cat, but only their legs are visible.

At the other entrance, residents carried on the fight and emerged victorious, managing to drive away all of the security personnel. The next day, we were able to freely come and go through both gates.

Viewed from above, a gated entrance and checkpoint tent are mostly deserted, with just a few white-suited stragglers.

Having achieved our first goal, everyone decided to pitch in and tear down the metal fencing that had been blocking our buildings.

Seen from above, five men peel back a section of sheet-metal fencing, as a few other residents watch and take photos.

With the policeman’s tacit acquiescence, everyone started dismantling the fencing in earnest. By the time I showed up, they had torn down most of it.

About a dozen residents help to hoist a large section of blue sheet-metal fencing into the air.

Just like tearing down a wall.

Another view of the dozen or so residents lifting and tipping a huge section of fencing.

Fearing that passers-by might be injured by the metal spikes that had anchored the fencing to the ground, someone carefully flattened them.​

A gloved hand grips a hammer above a large metal spike that has been flattened so that it doesn’t stick out too much from the pavement.

Who’d have expected that this pair of pliers—bought back in April, in response to the cries heard during that lockdown—would come in so handy today?

A person in a navy, fur-trimmed coat and orange hat kneels on top of a section of fencing that has been placed flat on the ground, and uses a pair of red pliers to dismantle the fencing.

“Securing the scene” by tying together two broken ends of yellow and white caution tape.

A man wearing white gloves, a navy fleece jacket, and a navy overcoat ties together two broken ends of yellow and white caution tape. His face is not visible.

We all helped move the dismantled fencing to one side so that kids and older folks wouldn’t get hurt on it. When we were done, one guy joked that we could have used some hammers and axes.

A few residents stand around a thigh-high pile of panels, remnants of the dismantled sheet-metal fence, that have pushed to the side of the pavement near several benches.

We even blocked it off with caution tape, to remind everyone to be careful.

The same pile of dismantled fencing has now been blocked off with yellow and white caution tape and a repurposed blue sign.

Blue sign: “This area is temporarily blocked off. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Except for this building, which is still locked down, all of the other buildings have been unblocked.

A man wearing a green padded military overcoat with a brown fur collar over his white PPE secures a line of tape in front of the entrance to a red brick building labeled “B.” Yellow leaves litter the pavement in front of him.

The blue fencing was removed that afternoon. Everyone could come and go freely, and the neighborhood committee issued a notice announcing that the lockdown of our community had been lifted.

Viewed from above, a person walks past some dismantled sections of blue fencing that have been propped up against a wall. Nearby, next to a line of parked cars, two men are removing their white PPE suits, under which they wear normal pants and blue shirts.

And that was how our two-day-long fight concluded.

A blue plastic toy airplane lays on the pavement, looking rather the worse for wear. At the top left hand corner of the photo, just barely visible, a hand holds the blue plastic toy gun that the little airplane was launched from.

[Chinese]

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