The interview transcribed and translated here was conducted online in late 2020, following conversations over the previous months. The interviewees, X, Z and W, belong to a collective based in the outskirts of Wuhan. They produced a series of illustrated stories about their experiences called Wuhan Diaries (武汉日记), which were published separately in various media outlets, including the March 2020 edition of the Black Book Assembly newsletter. Their collective project involves a space for musicians to practice and perform, lodging for travellers, and “a copyshop and risograph printing studio convenient for the neighbourhood but also for the sharing of knowledge, movement and DIY culture as a means to initiate and explore the possibilities of new alliances.” All three participants are in their thirties and have been living in Wuhan for at least ten years, on and off. X is originally from Wuhan, where she currently works as a freelance writer and translator while learning to farm and make clothes, also earning a small income from the printshop (along with Z). Z and W both moved from their homes in Guangxi to attend school in Wuhan before deciding to stay, with Z moving away for a few years before returning in 2018. Z works as a freelance illustrator while W works as a day laborer in the construction and renovation industries.
C: The first question is about the period immediately before the lockdown in December and January. Were you both in Wuhan at that time?
C: How did you first hear about the outbreak, and what did you think was going to happen?
Z: In late December I saw people reposting information about the outbreak, and then in the next few days you started to see state refutations claiming the rumors were false (辟谣). It must have been early January when I saw a post from a friend whose family lives in Shuiguohu, the compound for the Hubei Provincial Government, they’re civil servants. He posted photos of people in HAZMAT suits spraying disinfectant at the Huanan Seafood Market, along with a note clearing up rumors.
Then on January 12th and 14th I received messages from our friends E in Hong Kong and XC in Japan, saying that they had heard about this virus in Wuhan so we should be careful. They had read about it in the news. Even though we were the ones in Wuhan, we weren’t as clear about what was happening here as they were.
Then on the 19th our friend TC came from Shanghai to visit, and that was the first time we really became aware of the danger, because he was taking all these precautions like wearing facemasks.
C: How is it that people in Shanghai knew more about it than you in Wuhan?
X: I think because the media in Shanghai was paying more attention to it there [whereas here the media wasn’t allowed to report on it]. He was actually just passing through on his way back to Hunan and was trying to decide whether it was worth the risk. He spoke of Wuhan as if it were a war zone, whereas most people here didn’t take it seriously.
C: It’s surprising that there can be such a disconnect of information between these two cities in this era of social media. Even with state censorship, can’t you access the same information here as you could in Shanghai?
X: I think there were stricter controls on social media in Wuhan at the time because of the “Two Sessions” [meetings of the metropolitan and provincial governments from January 6th to 17th, in preparation for which the authorities censored reports on the outbreak and silenced whistleblowers like Li Wenliang]. Also I heard that someone had taken a sample of COVID-19 to a lab in Shanghai, so there was more media attention there in particular.
Z: In addition, I think a lot of people in Wuhan had the attitude that maybe there was some truth in the rumors, but the government would take care of things and we didn’t need to worry too much about trying to figure out exactly what the truth was.
C: So, when your friend came to visit from Shanghai, that was when you started to take those rumors seriously?
X: Yes. I remember we took the bus together and that was the first time we put on facemasks. That night I went online and ordered a bunch of masks—good thing too, because a few days later they would be sold out! Because I think it was just the next day, on January 20th, when Zhong Nanshan announced on CCTV that COVID-19 could be transmitted from human to human. So then everyone started snatching up all the PPE they could find, and soon it was impossible to get masks in Wuhan.
Z: I remember after that announcement the three of us debated its significance, about how serious the outbreak would be.
C: What was your thinking at that time?
X: I was already thinking it was going to be serious, because on the 19th we noticed lots of other people suddenly starting to wear facemasks, maybe one third of the people on the bus. This was even before the CCTV announcement, but some people had access to information. For example, my extended family has a [WeChat] group, and some of my cousins have kids, so they’re especially concerned about public health. All the way back on December 30th, my cousin had sent a screenshot of the post by Dr. Li Wenliang saying that cases of SARS had been discovered in Wuhan. That was when we had first heard of it.
X: After Li’s post another doctor, Liu Wen, responded that at Wuhan’s Number Two Hospital a case of contagious pneumonia had been linked to a type of coronavirus, that it was basically confirmed to be SARS, so he recommended medical staff to be careful.
C: Between December 30th and January 20th, were there no official statements from state authorities about this?
Z: I remember that a few days before January 20th there was a refutation (辟谣) circulating, saying that although there was a virus it wasn’t SARS, that you couldn’t catch it from humans, and that those earlier messages were just rumors.
C: In the two days between the January 20th announcement about human-to-human transmission and the total lockdown of Wuhan on the 23rd, did the authorities recommend any protective measures, like telling people to stay home or wear masks?
X: As far as I know, the only announcements in those days were about the number of new cases being confirmed. I don’t think any protective measures were announced before the lockdown.
C: How did you find out the city was being locked down, and what did the popular sentiment seem to be at the time?
Z: We found out [a day before the lockdown was announced] on the morning of the 22nd when TC went back to Hunan. He had originally planned to take the train but then got worried that would be too dangerous, so he found someone to ride with in a car. But as soon as they tried to get on the highway they discovered that many of the on-ramps were already being closed.
X: Also, in my family’s [WeChat] group people posted messages about this, and about traffic jams as people started frantically rushing to escape the city.
C: Why were people trying to escape? Was information about the impending lockdown leaked from the government?
X: I think so, or from hospitals. […] Then finally at 2 AM it was finally announced what was happening: that Wuhan has being locked down and no one would be allowed to leave the city after 10 AM.
C: Did the government send out an announcement via SMS?
X: Not about the lockdown, just about the highway controls (高速管制). The lockdown was announced in the press that morning.
C: And then when people woke up to that news, they just had a couple hours to leave? That must have been crazy!
X: Yes! I know two people who were just visiting Wuhan for the Chinese New Year and had to rush to make it out that morning. The whole process was pretty chaotic.
C: What was the popular sentiment at the time?
X: In the days leading up to the lockdown, there was an atmosphere of growing worry about the virus itself, but on the 23rd that turned into surprise and nervousness about the lockdown. Because no one had expected that, it was announced so suddenly, and we had no idea what was going to happen. The thought never crossed my mind that we should try to escape, but there was a sense that we had been cast aside (抛弃).
Z: I was excited! I felt like, “Fuck, I can’t believe this is happening!”
X: Yeah, it felt like we had become caught up in a historical event (破天荒). Excitement combined with nervousness.
C: How was it historical?
X: For example the 23rd was the day before New Year’s Eve (除夕), and it quickly occurred to everyone that this would be the first time in our lives that family gatherings would be canceled and we’d have to stay at home by ourselves.
C: And you said it felt like you had been cast aside—do you mean by the government?
X: Yes, because they had just gone from [denying everything the doctors had been saying for weeks], to finally acknowledging that this might actually be something to worry about, to then suddenly closing down the city three days later. It really felt like a… disaster! [Laughs.]
C: Did you feel like the people of Wuhan were being sacrificed?
X: At the time we hadn’t started to use that word “sacrifice” yet, but there was a sense that someone had been ridiculously irresponsible. [They both laugh.] It was like, “Are you kidding me? How is this even possible?”
Z: I actually felt like we were watching a drama unfold. Luckily we had gone ahead and stocked up on groceries on the 22nd, so we weren’t too worried about running out of supplies any time soon. As long as we just stayed in the village [on the outskirts of Wuhan] we would be alright. I was actually looking forward to seeing what kind of mess the government had gotten itself into.
X: It felt like the government was revealing its true nature. Like this is how it had been all along, and now everyone could see it. It had created this mess and now the only help it could offer for ensuring people’s survival was to shut everything down, with no way for people to get anything they needed to live.
Z: It felt like we were just a piece on the national chessboard. All they cared about was preventing the virus from spreading outside of Wuhan, but not about how those of us stuck in Wuhan could survive.
C: This is what you and your friends were thinking, but how widespread do you think this kind of sentiment was? Did most people believe the government would take care of them and had their best interests at heart?
X: In those first days the main people I talked to were my relatives online, because of the New Year, and I got the sense that cousins of my generation did not have much faith in what the government had been doing—from its contradictory announcements to the lockdown of the city. Everybody felt like there was a huge lack of transparency, and we had no idea what might happen next. But at first people were just surprised, and everything seemed absurd. It wasn’t until later that people started to look back and appraise what had happened.
Z: In those first days of the lockdown, every morning I had to get up and walk the dog, and the village would be empty except for a few vehicles parked along the road. Of course, the dog would want to pee on the tires, but I was worried the cars might have brought the virus back from the city with them. This is just an example of the sort of hysterical feeling that pervaded the atmosphere at the time. […]
Another example is about our landlord. She’s a farmer, so she has one of those machines for spraying pesticide on the crops. In February, the village authorities distributed bleach powder (84漂白粉) to the villagers and told them to disinfect everything, so she put bleach in the pump and walked around spraying everything. Before long her skin started breaking out and turning red, and for the next few weeks she hid inside her house, afraid to come out. She was afraid to come into direct contact with other people, as well as dogs and cats. Also, she was angry at the village committee about the bleach […]
C: Did the village committee come up with this idea on their own, or was it an order from a higher level of government?
X: Our village belongs to QL shequ (“community”), the local branch of government for this area. That’s the entity that distributed the bleach and other supplies like facemasks and rubbing alcohol, along with directions about how to use them. But it didn’t do this until a few weeks after the lockdown had begun. During the first couple weeks the government didn’t take any concrete measures to help people. A couple days into the lockdown the [Wuhan Municipal] government set up something called the Novel Pneumonia Prevention and Control Center (武汉新型肺炎防控指挥部), which then released a series of ordinances (条例) […]. A month later, these ordinances finally provided some explanation about how things would operate during the lockdown, things like how people could get food if the markets were closed. Prior to that, the government had just ordered everything to be closed with no apparent concern for these problems. I remember the first ordinance was about transportation, simply saying that all mass transit had to close, and that private automobiles had some restrictions […]
C: When was that first ordinance released?
X: That one came out right away in the first couple days of the lockdown, like January 25th.
C: And you said earlier that in those first few days nothing else was officially required to close—neither businesses nor housing complexes, so people could move around freely, it’s just that the buses weren’t running. When were the markets forced to close?
X: Well first there was the Huanan Seafood Market. That was closed and disinfected back in late December or early January when Li Wenliang traced the virus there. Then right before the lockdown [on January 22nd] when we went to our local market, the vendors there said it would be closed the next day [the 23rd] to disinfect the place. Later we found out that this would happen throughout Wuhan. At the time it didn’t seem like a big deal, because New Year was coming up, so everyone was stocking up on food as usual, and most vendors wouldn’t show up to run their stalls anyway.
C: But New Year’s Eve wasn’t until January 24th, right? Wouldn’t a lot of people plan on shopping on the 23rd? I wonder if a lot of people got stuck without enough food.
X: No. Most people start shopping like a month in advance, and they’re already stocked up a week or two before New Year’s Eve.
C: Oh, so this was a really convenient time to start the lockdown. People had already stocked up on supplies, and most were on vacation anyway so wouldn’t think it was too strange or inconvenient to have to stay at home in those first days. If it were at any other time of the year, this could have been a huge problem.
Z: Absolutely! There would have been a major panic.
X: At first the only way to get around was on foot, and most of the supermarkets were closed, so if people hadn’t stocked up large amounts of food for the holiday they would definitely have run out of food.
C: When did the markets reopen?
X: They never reopened [until the whole city reopened in April]. A few big supermarket chains stayed open: Zhongbai, which is the main supermarket chain in Wuhan; and the big online supermarkets: Hema [owned by Alibaba] and JD.com. Zhongbai stayed open throughout most of the lockdown, but eventually you couldn’t go inside—instead you had to order food through “Community Shopping” (社区采购) [i.e. through the government].
C: How did “Community Shopping” work? When did that start?
X: It started when the housing complexes were sealed off, because you couldn’t go out to buy anything, so you had to make a list and send it to the director (负责人) of your shequ’s residents committee (居委会), or to whichever volunteers were in charge of that service.
Z: I think that started in late February.
C: So individual housing complexes weren’t sealed off until a month after the city as a whole went on lockdown?
Z: They were closed off earlier in the urban core, but our village wasn’t sealed until later because it’s in the outskirts of the city.
X: Yeah, everything was freer and took longer to implement here, and the authorities’ “regulatory consciousness” (管理意识) wasn’t as strong here, for one because the village isn’t a walled compound, so it’s harder to close off, and people aren’t used to living like that. […]
C: Why was Zhongbai allowed to stay open when all the other brick and mortar stores had to close? Is it a state-owned enterprise?
X: I think it’s a municipal enterprise (城市企业).
Z: I think the idea was that it would be easier to manage than the smaller businesses. […] Also a lot of the smaller business are run by people who aren’t from Wuhan, and they went back to their home towns for the New Year. […] We went out on January 26th and everything was closed except for Zhongbai and two pharmacies.
C: Had the government ordered all those businesses to close, or had they just stayed home out of fear of infection?
Z: I think they had just stayed home out of fear. […]
X: I remember people talking about how the government had not yet announced any clear rules about whether businesses could operate. In our area, only those two pharmacies were open, but they didn’t have any facemasks or other PPE. My mom had the same problem in the city: I searched online for businesses in her area and found a convenience store that was open, but they were sold out of PPE. Everything had been bought up already in the first days of the lockdown. […]
Housing complexes weren’t all sealed off at once. The press would announce which shequ had been shut down. And I have a note from February 23rd saying that the press had criticized our shequ for failing to shut down the villages here properly, so it was only after this that many of the entrances to the village were actually closed off, and that a checkpoint (执行点) was set up at the main entrance. Based on memory I think the urban shequ were shut down about two weeks before that, in early February.
C: So in late January all that was officially shut down within the city were the markets and the buses? What about private automobiles?
X: The rules about private automobiles kept changing. […] At the time people made fun of them because they were so contradictory and full of loopholes. Like one said that if you didn’t receive an SMS message from the Transportation Department stating that you were prohibited from driving, then it was ok to drive, and no one in the city seemed to receive any such messages, so that meant everyone could drive as usual. Later they changed it to say you were only allowed to drive if you got a pass (通行证) from your shequ’s residents committee. At that point the traffic police set up checkpoints throughout the city, where they would stop people and check their passes.
By then the responsibility of quarantining housing complexes had been assigned to the residents’ committees. All shopping, medical care, etc., had to be arranged by the committee. If you needed to drive somewhere you also had to contact the committee and get a pass. For example, if you had to go to work, or if someone was sick and had to go to the hospital, you had to get a pass.
Later the government provided a vehicle to each shequ’s residents committee, and if anyone in the shequ needed to drive somewhere, they could apply to use that, and at that point it became much harder to get a pass for driving your own vehicle.
Z: Wuhan has eleven districts, and each district was supposed to get twenty vehicles, but our district only got 8 vehicles because it has a lower population size.
C: I heard that these vehicles were provided by taxi companies, complete with drivers, is that right?
X: Yes, the government requisitioned vehicles from taxi companies and hired some taxi drivers to work as “volunteers” (志愿者).
C: They were paid, right?
Z: Yeah, I heard they were paid a lot more than they would have normally made as taxi drivers. Also the other “community volunteers” were paid wages (工资).
X: They weren’t paid wages, they were just given stipends (补贴). […]
C: So in the early days of the lockdown, even though housing complexes weren’t under quarantine, most people didn’t go out—both because the buses weren’t running, and because they were afraid of infection?
X: Yes. People had already stocked up on food, and everyone was afraid, because they had just heard there was this disease but didn’t have any clear information about it, so they just stayed at home to wait and see what would happen, looking online to try to get more information. So most people didn’t go out. […] A lot of firsthand information was coming out of the hospitals—a lot of videos. For example, when people got sick and went to the emergency room, they would take scary videos of deathly ill people waiting in packed rooms or standing in line outside. […] Then after the buses stopped running, there were a lot of people who still needed to get to work, including doctors and nurses, who couldn’t get to work. At that point a lot of people volunteered to drive them to work. These were ordinary citizens who spontaneously volunteered to do this without compensation.
C: This is an example of the mutual aid networks you mentioned [when we spoke previously]?
X: Yes, the earliest mutual aid networks emerged to solve transportation problems, because the government had shut down the buses but hadn’t yet provided any other way for essential workers like medical staff to get to work. […]
C: At that point these volunteers could drive freely without needing passes. Did they run into trouble getting passes later on?
X: I know someone from one of these groups who was able to get a pass and continue volunteering throughout the lockdown. They would deliver PPE and drive medical staff to and from work. They could get passes if they were in a carpool group (车队). It became harder if you were just trying to do it by yourself, later on. For example, if someone in your family got sick, you couldn’t just get a pass to drive them, you had to apply for your shequ’s residents committee to arrange a vehicle for you. Also, if you got sick, especially if it was some kind of respiratory illness like a cold, the residents committee would not allow you to go to the hospital on your own. If you had any suspicious (疑似) symptoms, you had to go register (登记) with the committee, which would arrange for you to get a nucleic acid test, and while you were in line waiting to get the test, you weren’t allowed to go to the hospital on your own. Then after the results came out, the committee would either transfer you to a quarantine site (隔离点) or take you to the hospital. […]
Z: When was it that LN came to visit? She had managed to get a driving pass.
X: That was late February, but the restrictions on private cars weren’t very strict yet. Because when housing complexes started closing down in early February, it happened gradually – it wasn’t like all the complexes in the city were closed off at one time. At first it was just those near Huanan Seafood Market and other places with serious outbreaks (高发地). Hankou [one of the three cities that make up Wuhan] went into lockdown before Wuchang. Also some older complexes – because implementation depended on the work situation of each shequ’s residents committee, and if it was an older complex, normally the residents committee didn’t pay any attention (管) to them, and often those complexes didn’t have property management authorities (物业) [for the Committee to coordinate with], so they couldn’t be sealed off (封不起来). If it was a new complex, or one that the residents committee cared more about, it would be sealed off earlier and more strictly (严格). I remember when talking to friends in early February, people would always ask “has your complex been sealed off?” “Are you allowed to go outside?” So it was a gradual process. […]
C: Can you talk about some other examples of mutual aid?
X: […] About a week after the city went on lockdown, several major hospitals started running out of supplies, and they began calling for help from society. This was unprecedented, for hospitals to directly ask society for help. After these calls went out, ordinary people began forming volunteer groups to look for PPE and donate them to hospitals—on top of the volunteer carpool groups that had started forming earlier. I got involved because my friend D, she’s in the music industry and had already been pretty active in her work, networking with all kinds of people—kind of like a gangster (大姐大) [laughs]—she organized a group called the Masked Angels (蒙面天使救援队). She just happened to live in the same building as my mom, which is […] close to a lot of the big hospitals. The group was divided into several teams—one looked for facemasks, one was in charge of transport and D’s team was in charge of communicating with hospitals to find out where the PPE was most needed. And I have an aunt who is a head nurse at [one of the big hospitals], so she knew which departments were short on what type of supplies, so I put her in touch with D, and they were able to set up a supply chain.
In the first month after Wuhan went into lockdown, the government hadn’t yet started the residents committees’ intervention (介入), they hadn’t assumed control over (接管) unofficial activities supplying materials to hospitals, so the volunteer groups had to find the materials and transport them to the hospitals themselves. But about a month into the lockdown, more and more hospitals began running out of supplies and followed the initial ones in calling for outside support from people in general. […] Meanwhile, more and more people from all over China were sending supplies to Wuhan, and the volunteer groups didn’t have any central directors, they acted independently at a local level, or in the network of people they had contacts with, so it became hard for them to deal with the vast quantity of supplies that were coming into Wuhan. And I remember that at that time the government started requesting (要求) that all donations go through (对接) one of two [registered NGOs]: the Red Cross and the Charity Center (慈善总会). From that moment, the government started imposing limits on volunteer groups’ activities and access to supplies. For example, they contacted D and told her to stop doing PPE supply work, so the Masked Angels switched to other activities. For example, they started delivering food to healthcare workers. Because the hospital cafeterias were closed, and the restaurants were closed, so they couldn’t get anything to eat.
C: Then how did they eat in the whole month before that?
Z: A lot of them just had instant noodles and cold food.
C: Why did the hospital cafeterias close?
X: I think because the cafeteria staff couldn’t get to work. My aunt would either bring food with her or go home to eat during lunch break […] So the Masked Angels set up their own kitchen (食堂) and delivered food to healthcare workers. Actually, a month before the lockdown they had already started delivering instant food, like ramen noodles and bread, but later, when the government took over the supplying of PPE, the Angels redirected their resources to specializing in food provision, setting up the kitchen and delivering hot food to the workers, as well as to people who had gotten trapped in Wuhan without a place to live, sleeping under bridges and whatnot. They would donate hot food to them as well.
But I had stopped participating by the time they shifted their focus to food provision. Instead, I switched to helping people with COVID symptoms get tested and, if confirmed, get treated at a hospital, since that was something I could do online. This was another big area of volunteer activity […] because the residents committees were too busy to handle all the cases. Also, the committees didn’t have much experience interacting with most residents on a regular basis. Besides, they didn’t have enough staff, especially at the beginning. So if you got sick and went to the committee, they often didn’t have time to deal with you, plus you had to wait in a long line. And while people were waiting, often their conditions got worse, so they went online, on WeChat and Weibo, and sent out calls for help. Sometimes they just needed to get a nucleic acid test, because only if you tested positive could you be admitted to a hospital or a quarantine site. So a lot of volunteer activity was helping these people.
Z: Why don’t you tell them about the LML Mutual Aid Group?
X: It was a group of musicians based in LML that did some volunteer activities, driving healthcare workers and organizing the donation of facemasks. […]
Z: That group was interesting because it started out as just an informal network of people who met by going to see live music performances together, and then after the outbreak they began raising funds to buy PPE and donate them to hospitals. Then when the government restricted such work to the Red Cross and the Charity Center, the group discontinued their activities, worried they would get in trouble if they continued.
C: Why did they worry they would get in trouble?
X: I think the government decided it would be hard to manage these small, independent groups. […]
C: Did the government ever explicitly prohibit independent volunteer activities, or ask the volunteers to work together with the Red Cross somehow?
X: Ms. D from the Masked Angels said that a residents committee they had been in communication with approached them telling them to discontinue their PPE donation and delivery activities.
Z: Also, there was the transportation issue: if you wanted to get the driving pass necessary for volunteer activities, you had to obtain approval from the residents committee.
C: That brings us back to the question of the changing role of the residents’ committees. You mentioned that at first, they didn’t have enough personnel to deal with problems like the need for testing and getting people to hospitals, and volunteer groups helped to make up for this shortage. When the government moved to take over these activities, did most of the volunteer groups just dissolve, or did they get incorporated somehow?
X: As far as I know, the only volunteer activity the government completely took over was the donation and delivery of PPE. As far as helping residents to get tested and treated, that was still too much work for the residents committees, so they didn’t prevent the volunteer groups from continuing with those activities, along with the provision of food. […]
C: Did everyone have to pay full rent throughout the lockdown? I heard some people got rent reductions.
Z: In most cases, yes. For example our landlord lives right next door, so we had to pay in full every month. But with some businesses, they rent spaces owned by some government entity, and the government announced that rent could be reduced in these cases. But if your landlord is a private entity, then you just have to negotiate with them.
C: Is it common for people to rent from the government?
X: Not very common. But we do know someone who runs a shop in a space rented from the government, and they got a waiver for the first three months of rent, then only had to pay half for the next three.
C: Well that’s good for them. As for negotiating with private landlords, I’ve heard that throughout China there was a popular sentiment that pressured landlords into waiving rent or providing discounts, and that if a landlord evicted someone for failure to pay, they would meet with some pretty intense criticism. Have you heard of any cases like that?
X: I think it was pretty rare for landlords to reduce the rent. The landlord of [the livehouse venue] WP waived one month’s rent for the three months of lockdown, but that was the only case of private rent reduction that I’ve heard of. It was common for landlords to let you wait a couple months to pay, but outright reduction was rare. More common was for businesses to just close down and leave after a couple months.
C: This brings us to the topic of protests and struggles. Negotiation and postponement of payment might be considered a weak form of resistance, but do you know of any collective resistance to rent or eviction?
X: No collective resistance to evictions that I can think of, but there were some collective actions around food.
Z: What were those?
X: In one housing complex, a woman complained about the food that the residents committee was providing for them, saying it was too expensive, that the committee was doing a bad job of coordinating with the residents. So in the [WeChat] group for that shequ, she criticized the committee, and then screenshots of her comments went viral, because other people agreed with her. Before the government had taken over, the residents of the complex had been cooperating among themselves to contact food suppliers and buy their food together. They had already set up their own system of bulk buying, and it felt like the residents committee had usurped (篡夺) that system and weren’t doing as good a job. Plus the prices had gone up, and residents suspected the committee was skimming off the top. […]
C: Did [your collective] host any events related to the pandemic? You mentioned a fundraising party by friends in Japan that you attended online.
Z: Our role in that was just to contact friends in Wuhan and invite them to attend. They raised 5,000 yuan to help our friends at the livehouse pay rent during the lockdown. […]
C: Had the government already prohibited bars and restaurants from operating at that time [shortly after the city was closed off in late January]?
Z: No, it’s just that everyone was afraid of infection so they stayed at home. No clear rules were publicized until weeks later. Some friends would meet up at the livehouse and drink but not open it to the public, because the booze was going to expire and they didn’t want to waste it.
C: That sounds really different from the situation in some other countries, where there have been lots of disputes between business owners who wanted to continue operating, and governments that called for people to “shelter in place.” Yesterday a friend in the UK told me that bars keep operating illegally, because all the government can do is fine them, but the fines are lower than the income they would lose from staying closed. Of course this is after many months of the economy being ravaged by the pandemic, but this sort of thing was already happening from the beginning back in March. And I’m sure you’ve heard of the protests in various countries demanding that governments lift their lockdown restrictions. But from all you’ve said, it sounds like in Wuhan most businesses closed down in January and February just because everyone was staying at home voluntarily, long before the government had proposed any regulations. Is that right?
Z: Yes. Things started to change in April. I remember that at the time, if restaurants or bars reopened, sometimes the police would come.
X: But even then there were still no clear government regulations about this, as far as I know.
C: What did the police do when they came? Did they fine the owners and force them to shut down? Did anyone refuse to shut down?
X: Sometimes they would shut them down, or just say that the clientele had to sit outside. When our friends’ livehouse reopened [in May], the police came and took one of the owners to the station, but they just told him that there were new rules in place saying that people had to sit outside.
C: Did this apply to all kinds of businesses? Doesn’t the chengguan (Urban Management force) normally come and shut businesses down that set up tables on the sidewalk?
X: Ha! Yes, but around that time the central government started advocating the promotion of a “street stall economy” (地摊经济), so the local news started running stories about high-end hotels setting up dining tables on the sidewalk. This never really took off in Wuhan, but in some other cities like Chongqing it became really widespread, with all kinds of businesses setting up shop on the sidewalk. At first [local governments] encouraged the “street stall economy,” but before long they changed their minds and went back to prohibiting it.
C: Yeah, I heard that in Guangzhou it never took off. After the central announcement, a bunch of people went out and set up stalls, but immediately the chengguan came in and shut them down as usual. […] Can you talk about what happened after Wuhan’s lockdown was lifted in April? You’ve mentioned that businesses reopened but the police told them they could only operate outdoors. What about transportation?
Z: City buses resumed operation at that time, only now you had to register a “green code” [i.e. an account in the QR “health code” system on one of several platforms, such as WeChat and Alipay]. The one on WeChat includes more information, tracking all the places you’ve been to, but the one on Alipay seems to be less invasive, so we chose the one on Alipay. […]
X: The lockdown was lifted on April 8th, and I think buses resumed the next day.
C: I remember you clarifying back then that it was only movement in and out of Wuhan that was reopened at first, and that within the city a lot of restrictions remained in place.
X: Actually, people had been allowed to enter Wuhan before that, it was just that they couldn’t leave. So “lifting the lockdown” (解封) really just meant that people were finally allowed to leave the city [and, over the following weeks and months, restrictions on movement within the city were gradually loosened].
C: And within the city you say you didn’t start using the health codes until buses resumed service in April. Before that, didn’t you use them to go in and out of residential areas? In Wuhan Diaries you mention that your village was closed off when two cases of COVID-19 were confirmed there in February, and no one could leave after that, but surely people could still leave under certain circumstances. Weren’t the health codes used for that?
Z: No. You were only allowed to leave for certain jobs [or medical reasons] and for that you needed a work permit (工作证明) and your ID, and then they would take your temperature when you got to your destination. […]
C: Did anyone come and check your temperature if you didn’t need to leave the compound?
X: At some point the government issued a notification that shequ staff would start going from door to door on a regular basis to check everyone’s temperature, but later they realized that they didn’t have enough personnel to do this, and also that doing so would actually increase the opportunities for spreading the virus. So they stopped, instead telling everyone to report their own temperatures every day via WeChat. And everything happens later in our village, so we never went through the phase of people knocking on doors—we just self-reported our temperatures. […] Of course most people didn’t have thermometers, so everyone just said their temperatures were regular unless they really felt like they had a fever and wanted to see a doctor.
C: Yeah that’s what everyone did at my workplace in [another Chinese city]. What would happen if you actually reported a fever?
X: You had to report it to the shequ [residents committee] and they would send you to a quarantine site (隔离点). They would get a vehicle to take you there.
C: They wouldn’t take you to the hospital?
Z: No, the government had a rule saying you couldn’t go straight to the hospital. First they had to take your temperature again to confirm you had a fever, then they sent you to a quarantine site.
X: Every shequ had its own quarantine site, usually a hotel that had been taken over for this purpose. And there you had to wait [several days] while [the residents committee] applied for you to get a nucleic acid test. When your turn came up, they would take you to the hospital to take the test, and then take you back to the quarantine site to await your results [for a few days]. If the result was positive, then they would take you back to the hospital for treatment, or one of those temporary facilities (方舱医院). […]
C: A lot of this is already well-known, so let’s move back to the question of people’s attitudes about all of this, such as how the government was handling everything: whether they thought it should have been done differently—both among your friends and the wider public. Also I’d like to hear more about how people’s more critical attitudes at the beginning changed to not only praise for the government but even the strengthening of patriotism and xenophobia, including conspiracy theories about the virus being intentionally unleashed on China by foreign powers.
X: I think it had a lot to do with the influence of the media. Everyone could feel the media relaxing at first and then tightening up, and the shift of public opinion was closely related to this. Within the first month of the lockdown, major news outlets like Caixin and Southern Metropolis Daily ran a series of reports tracking the origins of the virus, its spread and the responses to it, including Li Wenliang’s discovery in late December, constructing a timeline of events. Actually, the media traced it further back to cases appearing in early December. And in the timeline they would correlate the “Two Sessions” [January 6th to 17th] with a period of decline in the public awareness about the outbreak and safety measures that had started to grow before that, and you can see how cases began skyrocketing right afterwards [when reporting on them was allowed to resume]. So everyone could see the connection. […] Then when the central authorities came down and investigated, everyone felt like we were watching a performance (看戏), as central and local authorities tried to push the blame onto each other. No one wanted to take responsibility for what had happened. Throughout the first month of the lockdown, the media was full of reports like this.
C: What did ordinary people think about all this?
Z: Two examples come to mind. One was on the evening after Li Wenliang died [on February 7th], everyone was reposting the news about it. Even many friends and relatives who normally didn’t care about politics at all were sending out really indignant (愤慨) messages. You could tell they were furious. The other was when I went out to a little shop nearby, the owner said [the government] would be handing out money soon. She said everyone in Wuhan would get 3,000 yuan. Messages were circulating about this. I don’t know if they were based on any official announcement, but in the end no one ever got any money. […]
X: That’s the same woman who said that the virus was brought from the US [by athletes from the US Army who visited Wuhan in October 2019 for the Military World Games]. Because at that time [in early March, Zhao Lijian, spokesperson of China’s] Ministry of Foreign Affairs had claimed that. That’s an example of how closely public opinion followed shifts in the mass media. […]
C: Was [Zhao’s statement] an important turning point in popular attitudes—from anger at the local government to the renewal of patriotism and the redirection of blame toward other countries?
X: I think you can say it marked a shift in the attitudes of middle-aged and elderly people. But I think it was different among younger people.
C: What did younger people think?
Z: They could be divided into different points [of focus]: Some were more concerned with where the virus came from, others with who should take responsibility, still others with how to avoid infection. But as far as attitudes toward the government, some were more radical (激烈) while others were more moderate. […]
C: Several friends and I have heard people in [other cities] express that China’s rapid assertion of control over the outbreak, in contrast with the ongoing disasters in other countries, has vindicated China’s political system. Some people go so far as to say things like “other countries are too democratic” or “too free,” that freedom and democracy are to blame for their terrible handling of the pandemic, so “our system is better” (还是我们中国的制度比较好). Have many people in Wuhan expressed different attitudes, considering their experience in January, and the pandemic’s more severe effects on people’s livelihood there?
X: One of my aunts is a low-level civil servant (基层公务员), and another is a nurse. Both of them have expressed criticism of the local government for its initial handling of the outbreak, but overall I think they’ve followed the media in seeing that as a problem of a few individual officials rather of the political system. This seems to be a common attitude, especially among older people. […]
C: What about economic issues, such as the lack of support for people who haven’t been able to work?
X: People do complain about that. One of my aunts mentioned that she heard people in other countries were getting relief funds, but it would be impossible for that to happen here.
Z: That aunt also complained that she’s now having to work six days a week to make up for the months under lockdown. In our area, a lot of shops never reopened after the lockdown. Most of the owners were from other parts of Hubei, and during the lockdown they moved their businesses to other cities.
X: At a gallery where I worked for a few months there was a girl from rural Hubei, and her parents used to work at a supermarket here in Wuhan, but after the lockdown was lifted they weren’t able to find work here, so the whole family moved to Guangzhou to work for a logistics company. Because even after the lockdown was lifted a lot of businesses didn’t reopen here. An old classmate of mine is an accountant at a big local chain of hotels and they didn’t go back to work until the summer. They laid off a lot of employees. She was lucky enough to keep her job, but only made one-third of her salary during those months.
Z: In the construction and renovation industries, no one was allowed to work on privately-owned sites until the summer. Only state-owned sites were open. Our friend W does day-labor in those industries, and he wasn’t able to work until then.
C: With so many people out of work for at least half the year, what kind of impact did that have on the economy and life in Wuhan? How did all these people get by? If they couldn’t afford rent did they move in with relatives?
X: Most of the people I know have places to live in Wuhan, and like my friend at the hotel company, some of them were able to get like one-third of their salary even when they weren’t going to work. As for people from other parts of Hubei, I think they mostly just moved to other cities, or went back to the countryside. That musician who used to live with us is from [another province]. He went back there during the lockdown, and after it was lifted he didn’t come back right away because music venues weren’t allowed to open for a few more months, so he wouldn’t have been able to play here. Instead, he got a job as a shop clerk in [another city]. Finally he found a gig at a bar in [yet another city]. And a local friend who worked in music went back to his old job at an insurance company.
C: Last time we talked about mutual aid in transporting people and supplies to hospitals, but do you know any examples of economic mutual aid to help people get through these months of reduced income?
X: Not that I can think of regarding unemployment or lodging, but another example during the lockdown was that some people teamed up to raise money for purchasing women’s sanitary products and delivering them to female healthcare workers.
Z: I can’t think of any other economic mutual aid, but another example was related to mental health. An artist set up a bunch of online groups for people throughout China to make friends with people in Wuhan, since a lot of people here were suffering from isolation and trauma and needed someone to talk to. I’m not sure how far that developed, but it was an effort to use art to build mutual aid networks for supporting people’s mental health. […]
C: What were people’s first impressions of the health code system? You mentioned that the government’s announcement on February 16th required it when anyone visited public venues, but that many people didn’t actually start using it until April, when you needed it to get on the bus.
Z: I think we first came in contact with green codes in mid-March, when we went out to work on the land that we rent from one of the villagers [for gardening]. We met up with him out at the field to pay the rent, and he had a photograph of his green code with him, because he didn’t have a smart phone. Someone had prepared it for him so he could scan it to leave and re-enter the village.
C: So already at that time people had to scan their health code to enter and leave? How did you get out of the village without it?
Z: We took a side path. The village boundaries weren’t monitored very strictly at that time.
C: Had the shequ residents committee stationed someone at the village entrance to register people in the system and scan their codes?
Z: It was mainly “volunteers” from the village who were hired by the committee [for 200 to 300 yuan per day].
C: I thought in March people were still not allowed to leave their residential complexes except for certain essential jobs. Were villagers allowed to go out for farming?
X: Yes, it must have been around that time that the village started allowing people to go out for farm work, because the weather was getting warmer and it was time to plant. If they had waited any longer it would have been too late. And some villagers had this problem, because they had moved to the city and their complexes wouldn’t let them come out to access their land until after the [citywide] lockdown was lifted in April. […]
C: As far as leaving the complex for medical treatment, you said that everyone with a fever was moved to a quarantine site, where they had to wait until they could get a nucleic acid test, and then again until the results came out. If positive, then they would be sent to a hospital. But what if the tests were negative? Were they sent to different hospitals for other illnesses? And were they able to get treatment during all this time of waiting for test results?
X: Generally not, as far as I know, because it was considered a risk for medical personnel to enter housing complexes and quarantine sites, so they just had to wait. Sometimes they could get some medication delivered. […] And yes, some people with other illnesses were sent to special hospitals, but a lot of people were not able to get treatment, because regular hospital facilities were converted to specialize in COVID-19 care. I’m sure a lot of people died for that reason.
Z: For example, [activist filmmaker] Ai Xiaoming’s father died at that time from another illness because he wasn’t able to get treatment. This also happened to someone in my friend’s family. […]
C: To some extent this was probably unavoidable, simply due to the large number of cases overwhelming the medical resources available in Wuhan, but do you think any of these problems could have been avoided if things had been done differently?
Z: I think the system wasn’t prepared at all. Actually you can see this sort of problem in normal times as well, just at a smaller scale. The government doesn’t normally do anything useful, then when anything unexpected arises and higher-level officials come down to investigate, or when ordinary people start asking questions, all of a sudden the government mobilizes lots of resources in an effort to patch things up. […] For example, with the East Lake incident, when [the Wuhan government signed a deal with a developer to] fill in part of the lake [and convert the ecological preserve into a set of commercial projects], you could see how these government officials don’t normally do anything. But then when you go and demand that they release information—like the blueprints [for the project], the location of drainage outlets—suddenly they can get all that information within a couple days’ time. When they deem it necessary to shut you up, suddenly they can mobilize resources from multiple departments to get what they need. […]
X: I think the government’s behavior felt like a joke, when they suddenly decided to close down the city after weeks of inaction, without providing any information about the virus or how to deal with the crisis—and worse, propagating misinformation. At that time people were wondering whether the government was giving up on (放弃) Wuhan, and our trust in the authorities was shattered, so we felt that we could only rely on ourselves to get whatever we would need to survive, be it food or healthcare. When the city was first locked down, a lot of people rushed to the hospital to check and see if they had COVID—people with any kind of symptom. Lots of videos circulated of people crowded into the hospital corridors, many without facemasks, terrified that they might have the disease. It was like a run on a bank (挤兑). Later we learned that a lot of transmission occurred at that time, in the hospitals. Many otherwise healthy people with common colds went to see if they had COVID, and then they got infected. […] This state of panic continued for weeks after the lockdown began. Nobody knew what to do, so they just depended on their own judgment and rushed to the hospital [if they could get there], because they knew the hospitals were running out of resources, so they were afraid if they waited it might be too late. Before the lockdown, [the government] just tried to suppress information, then afterwards it still didn’t provide much practical assistance, including basic information about how people should deal with this kind of crisis.
C: So during the first couple months of the outbreak, not only in January but even through February, it sounds like people were mainly coping with the crisis on their own through mutual aid, not so much in cooperation with the government but more in spite of its initial suppression of information, and then its sudden imposition of severe restrictions on movement—which at first stimulated a panic that made matters worse. The mainstream explanation of China’s relative success in quickly bringing the outbreak under control, in contrast with most other countries, is basically that the government was able to react in a more draconian manner, with many people here now saying that this vindicates the political system. But what you’re saying suggests an alternative explanation: that if you can call Wuhan a success, this was due especially to the responses of ordinary people in spite of the government’s reactions. This is consistent with another discourse circulating in China, that people here have responded more effectively than in other countries, starting with initial news of the virus in December, due in part to their greater experience with previous pandemics such as SARS in 2003. What do you think?
Z: That sounds about right.
X: I think the experience of SARS in 2003 was important, but for my cousins who have children, for example, they belong to [WeChat] groups with other parents [that shared information about the virus starting in December], and in normal times they’re always discussing the latest scares over things like food safety, problems in the schools, etc. Parents devote a lot of energy to concern for the health of their children, including the transmission of infectious diseases, because when a disease breaks out, the government’s response will be merely remedial (补救性的施政), just making a show of responsiveness to satisfy public opinion after it’s too late and a lot of people have already been affected. Parents don’t want to take a risk of waiting for that, so in these groups they often discuss preventative measures, how to protect themselves against things like epidemics before the schools and the government [take action.…]. Just to ensure basic health and safety, you have to expend a lot of effort to form your own social groups, like these parent groups. You have to do it yourself, rather than leaving it up to the schools or the government, otherwise your child may be at great risk. Remember the incident at RYB Kindergarten in Beijing, where the teachers sexually assaulted the children [and the police helped them destroy the evidence]? There have been a lot of things like that, and it scares parents into forming these groups.
C: Do you think people here trust authorities like schools and the government less than in other countries?
X: I don’t know about other countries but Wuhan could be contrasted with some other Chinese cities like Shanghai or Hangzhou, where people seem to trust the government more. Here people are less likely to turn to the government for help, because they know nothing will come of it. […]
Z: Some people say that after Xi came to power he got rid of a lot of people who were technically qualified to deal with issues like this health crisis, replacing them with his political cronies. Early on in the pandemic some people talked about that as an explanation for what went wrong.
X: For example [in early January] when the Chinese Center for Disease Control sent people to Wuhan to investigate, they should have been able to identify that an epidemic was emerging, but still they didn’t do anything about it. […] People say that the scientific experts have been marginalized for political reasons.
C: [Laughs] That sounds like the US! Among other countries. […] But the fact remains that China managed to bring the outbreak under control much more quickly than most other countries, so I’m wondering whether that should be attributed mainly to the political system (which you say actually made the problem worse at first), or to popular initiatives, or something else?
Z: I agree with the idea that popular initiatives played a big role, and I think this is partly because people here have long been in the habit of distrusting the government, so they have to take matters into their own hands.
X: I think people in Wuhan distrust the government, even more so than people in some other cities, as I was saying. One example that comes to mind is the incident in Hangzhou a couple years ago, where a nanny set fire to her employer’s apartment. The employer and her kids might have survived if they had run away down the staircase, but instead they just called the fire department and sat around waiting for them to come until it was too late. In Wuhan, as soon as there’s a fire, we run. As soon as something happens, we try to save ourselves—we don’t trust state agencies enough to rely on them. […]
C: What do you think about the idea that China’s efforts to control the outbreak domestically was a success, in contrast with other countries?
X: I think that’s true in some respects, but in others, I think ordinary people had to pay too high a price for it. Especially looking at things from a longer-term perspective. For example, the way the government has used the pandemic as an opportunity to push forward its “grid-style social management” (网格化管理). The pandemic has provided not only a new excuse for implementing this system, but also a way for us to become accustomed to its logic and technologies. I think this is terrible. Not only is your personal information exposed, they also monitor your specific location at all times. For example, after a few new cases of COVID recently emerged in Beijing and Dalian, our village’s grid manager kept sending messages in our village’s [WeChat] group reminding anyone who had been to those places to go register with the authorities.
Z: In the past we never felt so controlled (管制) in the village. […]
X: They had already started up the grid system throughout Wuhan over the past couple years. We saw signs designating that a given area belonged to a certain zone in the grid, and who the grid manager was for that area. But it wasn’t until after the lockdown that we actually came into contact with the managers. […] If a case of coronavirus emerges in a given zone, it is the responsibility of the grid manager for that zone. So the managers go around making sure that everyone implements policy directives to the letter.
Z: In Wuhan Diaries, there’s a story about Yulin where the system is represented visually as a grid pattern with the people and buildings in it. After one of my relatives tested positive for COVID-19, [the grid managers] looked up all their information and sent the entire family [of ten] to quarantine at the hospital, then they sealed off the area around my house, trapping everyone inside for two weeks and delivering food every day. They also posted my relatives’ personal information publicly on WeChat, where it was shared by people throughout the city. […]
C: What did grid managers do, exactly, during the lockdown? Would they knock on your doors?
Z: Yes, they would knock on the door and get everyone registered in the system. […] They were also responsible for making sure everything got disinfected regularly.
C: I thought that was the responsibility of the shequ residents committee.
X: Yes, but there seems to be an overlap in their responsibilities. The grid manager seems to be the person who gets blamed if there is a problem. But the grid managers work more closely with the Public Security system [i.e. the police]. If there’s a problem, they can immediately send information, including the precise location, to the Public Security authorities (公安). In fact anyone can scan the QR code on the stickers [that grid managers affix to everyone’s doors] and directly alert the police of an incident. […]
C: Let me ask you the same question I asked X and Z last time: how do you feel things have changed in Wuhan since the pandemic began a year ago? For example in everyday life, the economy, people’s attitudes toward the government, or anything else that comes to mind.
W: Well one big thing for me is that there was no work for several months, from the start of the lockdown last January until after it was lifted in April [and really not until the summer]. There were no regular jobs in renovation or construction. Some factories were able to get a Work Resumption Permit (复工证明) at that time. But there were no construction jobs during the lockdown, except for building hospitals.
C: Why didn’t you go work on the hospital projects?
W: I didn’t have the guts. [Laughs.]
X: But you could have gone if you wanted, right? I remember someone offered you a job on a hospital [during the lockdown].
W: Yeah, they did, but I was too scared!
C: You mean afraid of being infected?
W: Of course! Who isn’t afraid [of COVID-19]?
C: And you say factories reopened first—when was that, exactly?
W: Already during the lockdown I went to work in a [motorcycle seat] factory for a few days. They hadn’t completely reopened, I just [went there with the owner and his son to do some machine repair work for a few days]. There was also a [flooring project] near our village where I worked [for about a week] during the lockdown. It had already started before the lockdown […] but took a break for the Chinese New Year, when the workers went back to their hometowns [….] The boss knew I was in Wuhan, so he asked me to come help [finish it up in March]. We couldn’t get food delivered, nothing was open, so every morning the boss brought a rice cooker, and at noon he would cook rice right there on the site, while his wife went home and cooked a few dishes for us. We didn’t dare order take-out, we were too scared. Besides, nothing was open. […]
C: How many workers were there?
W: Just four or five plus the boss and his wife. […]
C: But throughout Wuhan you say factories opened earlier than construction sites. Why was that?
W: Because a lot of the construction workers hadn’t come back to Wuhan yet. Also it was harder to meet the safety requirements necessary to get a Work Resumption Permit for construction sites than for factories.
Z: I heard there was a factory in Jiangxia [District of Wuhan], making something like screens for cellphones, and it never stopped operating throughout the lockdown. The workers got stuck there [they couldn’t leave Wuhan to return to their hometowns during the lockdown] so they just stayed at the factory the whole time and kept working.
C: But most factories had to shut down during the lockdown and then gradually reopened starting in April, followed by construction sites? And last time Z said state-owned construction projects were able to reopen a few months earlier than privately owned ones—is that right, W?
C: Why? Did private companies have more trouble getting the permits?
W: For the sort of small renovation projects I normally do, they just couldn’t find enough workers [because everyone had left Wuhan and it took a few months for them to start coming back].
C: Why were state-owned companies able to find workers then? Do they hire more local people?
W: Let me give an example. Right now I’m working on a renovation project at a hotel, and the contractor says that last year he got a bunch of permits for all kinds of work. And he’s not a big company, he just has connections. For state-owned companies, it’s even easier. […]
C: Then why didn’t you get a job on a state-owned site, instead of waiting until the summer for private sites to reopen?
W: I was afraid. Even by the summer I still had mixed feelings [about taking the risk of going out to work]. Because the people who worked on those hospitals [during the lockdown] had to be quarantined after they finished. Also, I live together with Z and X, and I didn’t want to risk bringing the virus back to them. So my thinking was that I should just wait as long as possible before going back out to work.
C: So you could have gotten a job at a state-owned site if you had wanted to?
W: Well you couldn’t just show up at the site and get a job—you had to know someone there who could introduce you. [… Also] you would need to have a license for a lot of the technical jobs, such as electrician or welder, [whereas you don’t always need those for private sector jobs].
C: Although you were afraid to work until the summer, were there a lot of other people who wanted to work but couldn’t find jobs in those months? How did they survive? Did they have to borrow money from relatives?
W: Yes, there were lots of people like that, not just in Wuhan but all over China, because construction sites closed down in those months throughout the country. […] Most people went back to their hometowns and lived on their savings. Some people with land went back to farming. But I know there were a few people who got stuck in Wuhan, and they just got by however they could. Usually there was somebody in the family with a source of income they could fall back on for the time being. […]
C: Now that things have gone back to normal, more or less, have there been any changes in the industry compared with before the pandemic? Like are wages lower, or have they gone back to the same rates as before?
W: In the first few months when people started coming back to Wuhan [around the summer and fall], you couldn’t find any high-paying construction jobs, they all paid less than in the past. Even the bosses [i.e. contractors] had it rough. Everyone had gone for several months without any income, so they were desperate for anything, there was no room to bargain. But this situation didn’t last very long. After things stabilized and everything reopened, the wages got better.
C: Are they now the same as last year?
W: They weren’t affected much.
C: How much do you make?
W: I mainly work for bosses I’m already familiar with, and they pay me the same as in the past. If I went out to work for someone I was just meeting for the first time, someone I had found online, they post rates online for certain jobs, saying what type of work they need. […]
C: Your type of work is called “common laborer” (杂工), right?
C: What is the market rate for that, and how much do you normally get paid working for the bosses you’re already familiar with?
W: A little more [than the market rate]. I’ve been doing this longer [than most people], I’m more skilled, like I know how to use all kinds of power tools.
C: So you’re not really a typical common laborer. But do you know what the market rate is for ordinary laborers in Wuhan now?
W: 180, 200… No one gets paid less than 160 [yuan per day].
C: And you make a little more, since you have some skills and the bosses know you.
W: Yeah they pay me 240 or 260.
C: How many hours do you normally work in a day?
W: That depends on the season. […] It won’t be more than eight or nine hours. […]
C: Have there been any other changes in the industry since last year?
W: There’s less work. For example, some people had planned to renovate their homes, but because of this year’s hardships, they decided to postpone those plans. Lots of people have done that, so there’s less work available.
C: So in addition to losing several months of income in the first half of the year, would you say that even now monthly income is lower than last year for most construction workers?
W: Yes, monthly income is definitely lower than before [even though daily wage rates are about the same as before]. When I talk to skilled workers (师傅), many of them say they used to make sixty or seventy thousand yuan a year, but this year they just hope to make enough to cover their living expenses. They’ve lowered their expectations and just hope to cross over into next year safe and sound (求个平安). […] A lot of people I used to work with have gone to the Northeast to work this year. They waited until July or August to leave their hometowns, thinking “It will be enough if we just make it through the year safe and sound, if the situation is still so complicated [i.e. if the risk of infection is still high], then we’ll just stay at home and not make any money this year.” […]
C: Do most of the workers you know have land at home? And do they know how to farm?
W: Yes, the people I’m talking about do.
C: Do you think they’ve chosen to devote more time to farming this year as an alternative source of income?
W: Yes, if it weren’t for [the pandemic] they would have already come out to make money, but now that they’ve run into this situation, they’re just staying at home, taking care of the work that needs to be done at home [i.e. farming…]
C: Are there any other things that have happened in the past year that you’d like to talk about? Anything that surprised you?
W: One thing that stood out is that after I started working again, a lot of produce markets were being completely renovated, especially those that sell seafood. There were a lot of projects like that—not just one or two, but throughout all of Wuhan. We worked on some of them. Some were multi-story buildings that were completely dismantled and renovated. […]
C: Was the idea to disinfect the markets or to change their structure?
W: Both, but it was mainly to rebuild the drainage systems, because the old ones were just for show, they didn’t actually work. Dirty water would just collect next to the stalls, and it was up to the vendors to mop it up. If they didn’t, it would just stand there indefinitely. So we dug up the whole floor and installed a system where the water would actually drain away. […]
C: Have you noticed any changes in people’s attitudes—toward the government, for example, or toward the economy?
W: Yes, there have been some changes. Let me tell you a little story about that. [Around about August] I was injured and had to take a break from work for a while, so I was hanging out at a game stall near the village, where you could play Chinese chess. […] It was mainly older people, but there was a guy there in his twenties, a guy from out of town playing chess with an old man, and I overheard their conversation. The young guy had returned to his home before the New Year […] and he was asking the old man what it was like here during the lockdown. The young guy had read some things in the news, like about people standing in line at the hospital […] He criticized the government for covering up the outbreak at the beginning, and the old man just said, “Yeah, but it’s even worse overseas now. Looking back at what happened in our country compared with what’s happening overseas, if you just look at the end results, you can see that what our country did was effective.”
So a lot of people have mixed feelings, including myself. We ordinary people didn’t learn about the outbreak until too late, after it had already grown into an epidemic. People outside of Wuhan found out about it before us because the information was blocked. On that point, I think that shouldn’t have happened. But after that, the measures that were taken, like sealing off the city, they came suddenly, and after the lockdown started, there was no concrete preparation, and that caused a lot of inconveniences in our lives. It was really hard. But if you look at the end results, they were effective. […] And the other older people sitting around criticized the young guy, saying “You should be happy! You should be content with your lot (知足).” They mentioned that the government had paid for the treatment of everyone who had gotten sick, and so on.
C: Do you think this conversation was representative of a broader divide between young and old people in their attitudes?
W: I don’t know. I think people of all ages have mixed feelings about all this.
C: What do you think accounts for the difference between how people have responded to the outbreak here and in those countries where it has gotten worse?
W: I think a big part of it has been people’s awareness of the need to protect themselves (自我保护意识). The lockdown of Wuhan was an important measure in its own right, and I’m sure that helped prevent the spread, but at least as important was the way everyone reacted to news of the lockdown throughout the country. When they heard about it, everybody suddenly started to take the virus seriously and stay home. […] Like those workers I mentioned—they could have gone back out to look for a job much earlier, but they decided to stay home as long as they could, because they were afraid. […]
 We use pseudonyms throughout to protect the identity of the interviewees and their contacts. W only appears in the last session below. The quotation about the collective is from their website, whose details we omit for security reasons.
 Later X looked this up and found that on February 16th the Wuhan government had announced (in Circular Thirteen [13号通告]) that certain types of “public venues” (those related to “culture, sports and tourism,” including cinemas, internet cafés, mah-jong parlors, swimming pools and museums) were not allowed to operate, and that others (including hotels and supermarkets) could operate if everyone who went there registered with the new “health code” system and were confirmed there as low-risk. However, these regulations were not well publicized (and people couldn’t keep up with the frequently changing rules), so when businesses began reopening in the spring, it was not until police came and explained the rules that both owners and customers learned about them, by which time they had changed. Also, the health QR code system was not yet fully operational at the time of the February 16th announcement. (The interviewees did not encounter a situation where they needed to register with the system until they tried to take a bus after the lockdown was lifted in April.)
 As noted above, the Wuhan government actually did release a set of regulations on February 16th, but they were so little known that many people didn’t learn about them until businesses began reopening in the spring, when police came and explained them (sometimes after shutting them down and taking the owners away).
 The interviewees refer to these codes as “green codes” (率码), but in most places they were called “health codes” (健康码), with “green” status indicating that you were not “at risk.” These were basically designed to be track-and-trace systems to help with the containment of the outbreak, but often didn’t work as intended. See the final article in this book for more detail on how the system operated.
 Later W clarified that this was not merely a rumor: migrants (people who were not registered as residents of Wuhan) were eligible to apply for such one-off relief money from the Wuhan government, if they met certain requirements, and he knows of a few people who received it. (Wuhan residents were not eligible for any form of relief money.) Z & X explained that their intention in mentioning this and the following story was that a number of rumors began circulating in February that redirected blame for the pandemic onto foreign powers, and cast the local and national governments in a more positive light.
 The 2010 protest movement against this development project is recounted in our article: “Gleaning the Welfare Fields,” Chuang Journal, Issue 1: Dead Generations, 2016.
 “Another Kindergarten Abuse Case: Beijing’s RYB Education Branch Accused of Drugging and Molesting Children,” What’s On Weibo, November 23, 2017.
 Yuan Suwen, Yu Lu and Li Rongde, “Are Prosecutors Concealing Firefighter, Property Management Negligence in Nanny Arson Case?” Caixin, February 2, 2018. In this case, the fire department and the property management company each blamed one another for their fatal delay in rescuing the nanny’s employer and three children.
 This system (inspired by a surveillance system in London) was piloted in Beijing in the 2000s and then expanded to other experimental zones throughout China starting in 2015 (including Wuhan). It employs minimally trained civilians as “grid managers” (网格员) to collect data on everyone living within a certain area, including by knocking on doors to check on residents and, now (starting a couple years ago in the largest cities), to have them register their phones in the grid system by scanning a QR code that the managers attach to everyone’s door. It’s related to the process of experimentation with grid-style administrative subdivision which ultimately established the shequ as the lowest level of urban governance. It’s currently unclear how effectively the “grid manager” system or cellphone registration has been or whether it is beginning to be rolled out nationwide. Currently, it is operational only in central areas of the most important cities. For an overview of the system in its pilot form, see: Wu Qiang, “Urban Grid Management and Police State in China: A Brief Overview,” China Change, Aug. 12, 2014.
 “News from Yulin,” Wuhan Diaries, Part Three, January 31-February 16, 2020.