One morning in mid-March, somebody knocked on my door. Since the apartment community where I live had been closed to the outside world for two months, this was unusual. Through the spyhole I saw a woman wearing a mask and a protective suit that looked a bit like a raincoat: standard gear in an epidemic. She was holding a folder and had a pen in her hand. I put on my mask and opened the door. As I did so, we both stepped back.
‘I’m from the community residents’ committee,’ she said. ‘I’m delivering a notice and doing the second household investigation. Someone from Number Four in Building Six returned from abroad yesterday and will be quarantined for 14 days. I would like to request that you not walk in the community. If you have a valid reason to go out, please take precautions, bring your pass, register to go out and we will check your temperature on your return.’
Her throat was dry. She must have said the same words dozens of times that morning. She looked at a densely printed form in her folder and read out my name, ID card number, family members, phone number and my landlord’s details. ‘Since 15 February, has anyone in your family returned to Beijing from Hubei? Has anyone ever been in contact with anyone from Hubei? Has anyone returned to Beijing from a province other than Hubei? Has anyone returned to Beijing from abroad?’ I replied no to each question and then asked: ‘What if someone hides this information?’ Without looking up she said: ‘Nobody can hide. Everything is under control.’ With that, she turned to knock on my neighbour’s door.
Although she was wearing a mask, I recognised her. Yan Yun has knocked on my door twice before. The first time was for a population sample survey in 2015 and the second was in March last year when she came to tell me about the election to the community residents’ committee. I realised then that she knew more about me and my family than any of my neighbours or even my friends. She is a ‘grid member’ of the community.
Communities are enclosed apartment complexes. Small ones consist of a couple of buildings, big ones may be the size of a small town. The community I live in was built in the 1980s by several government departments, which allocated the apartments to their staff. Some resourceful departments still act as real estate developers, building communities and selling apartments to their staff at subsidised prices, but the majority are developed and run by commercial real estate companies.
The Chinese police force couldn’t have singlehandedly enforced the home isolation of 1.4 billion people that started in Wuhan on 23 January and was later extended to other provinces and cities. Beijing has about 35 policemen for every ten thousand inhabitants; Shanghai and Tianjin have 25, while ordinary prefecture-level cities make do with fewer than twenty. Instead, the community residents’ committees, equipped with smartphones and extensive personal data, implemented and regulated the lockdown.
Residential areas are divided into a ‘grid’ of small zones for the purposes of information gathering, population monitoring and management. I had a chance to visit the grid control room of an upscale community some years ago. Viewed on a computer the grid is like a map, with each building assigned to a zone. Technicians randomly clicked on a building and selected a household. The ‘household information’ popped up immediately, including the names, ages, jobs and contact details of everyone living there. A grid member can see whether the family lives in the apartment or rents it out; whether there are children, elderly people or women of childbearing age; whether or not the family qualifies for a subsistence allowance. A click on a communal area reveals how many cameras, bulletin boards and trash cans there are. You can view information about the organisations in the community, including the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) branch, the Communist Youth League branch, the Women’s Federation branch and so on. Managing the epidemic requires exactly the sort of community supervision made possible by the grid.
After the lockdown order was issued in Beijing, mobile technology was used to track people’s movements. Our smartphones became electronic passes. Many city governments developed apps on Alipay or WeChat to assign health status codes: green means ‘nothing abnormal detected’, yellow ‘quarantine at home’ and red ‘quarantine at an approved facility’. A few weeks ago a colleague of mine drove out for a hike in the suburbs of Beijing. He saw no one, but at a mountain pass his phone received a text message: ‘Welcome to Hebei Province!’ When he swiped his phone on arriving home, the entrance machine announced: ‘Your record shows you left Beijing today; please quarantine for 14 days.’ His health code had changed to yellow. A poster at the gates of some communities reads: ‘Take a one-day holiday outside Beijing, stay home in quarantine for two weeks.’
Technology is only part of the system. Much of the work has been carried out by community residents’ committees, an administrative organ at the bottom of the civil service hierarchy. Residents’ committees are supposed to be ‘democratically elected, communal autonomous organisations’; in practice they rarely work that way. When Yan Yun knocked on my door last year it was to tell me to cast my vote for two ‘building representatives’ to assist the committee and represent the residents in committee elections. When I asked why I couldn’t vote in the committee elections directly, she said: ‘There are too many people: one-person-one-vote is impossible. If we listen to everyone’s opinion, we achieve nothing.’ When I went to cast my vote, the committee staff took a photograph of me putting my ballot into a red box. I received a commemorative shopping bag with the slogan: ‘Promote grassroots democracy and exercise divine power.’
Our residents’ committee set to work as soon as Covid-19 struck. A small dusty warehouse was cleared and a sign posted on the window: ‘Epidemic Prevention and Control Workgroup’. A blackboard, grey with chalk marks, was soon covered with paper notices in various colours and sizes: home isolation rules, propaganda posters, newsletters giving recent case numbers. There were a dozen QR codes for residents to scan: some for location tracking, others for shopping schemes or communication within groups, such as ‘quarantine residents in Buildings Five and Six’ or ‘CCP member volunteers’.
Although they each wore a mask and some wore protective suits, after a couple of weeks we recognised the workgroup members guarding the community gate. Two members of the residents’ committee were joined by the two building representatives, along with two hired security guards, four or five staff dispatched from the Haidian district Street Office (they call this a ‘sink to the bottom level’ task) and a number of volunteers from the CCP. Occasionally a policeman turned up. The workgroup erected a big red flag at the gate, announcing in golden characters: ‘Advanced Party Member Model Workstation’.
Most of the committee’s time was spent guarding the gate, patrolling the community, carrying out door to door investigations and visiting households with special requirements. Yan had only two or three days off each month. She and her colleague were elected by the residents, or more precisely by the residents’ representatives. They aren’t civil servants, but all the work they do is on the orders of the upper-level party branch, and thus, indirectly, of government. Their boss, the director of the residents’ committee, is not only ‘elected’ by residents, but is also the secretary of the party branch.
February was strenuous. The figures from Wuhan and Hubei province spiked. Rumours and conspiracies were rampant on the internet. The streets were deserted. In the third week a case was confirmed in our community and the atmosphere became extremely tense. Notices were pasted up everywhere:
A family member in Building Two has tested positive for Covid-19. As required, the family is quarantined at home. We ask residents to stay at home and not to come out. Please contact our community workers for help shopping for food or other emergencies. Residents should supervise one another. If you come across a member of the infected family or anyone in contact with them, please call the residents’ committee immediately.
A disinfection team arrived, soon followed by epidemiological investigators. We read the report in the news. The man had caught the virus in his hometown, taken a train back to Beijing and developed symptoms while in quarantine. The number of his coach on the train was made public to help trace his fellow travellers. My community’s workgroup had been careful to register his return, take his temperature every day and report his fever. They made no mistakes. A residents’ committee in Beijing’s Dongcheng district wasn’t so lucky: a woman managed to travel through the blockades in both Wuhan and Beijing and return to her apartment. It was particularly surprising because she had recently been released from Wuhan Women’s Prison. The Party Commissions for Discipline Inspection in Beijing and Hubei dispatched teams to look into the matter. The director of the Provincial Justice Department was investigated for violations of party regulations and state laws; a number of other officials were removed from their posts. The warden of Wuhan Women’s Prison had already been removed after an outbreak of more than two hundred cases took place on his watch. In Beijing, a deputy director of the expressway checkpoint was punished, along with the party secretary of the Street Office and the residents’ committee. Those who weren’t party members, including the auxiliary policemen and a manager in charge of the community parking lot, lost their jobs.
For almost a month, the community was deadly quiet, day and night. The south windows of our building face an elevated section of Beijing’s third ring road, usually full of traffic, but now there was barely a car in sight. Immediately to the north is a building occupied by companies providing all kinds of extracurricular training for students. Their floor-to-ceiling classroom windows used to shine like TV screens every evening, illuminating rows of teenagers sitting at desks. Now they were completely dark.
In contrast to the emptiness around us, the community WeChat group we were requested to join was lively. At first people were cautious and reserved (sharing opinions and information is always risky) and most messages in the hundred-strong group were notices and advertisements: ‘Yunnan red-skin potatoes are rotting in the field, buy them to save the farmers’; ‘Sweetest oranges cannot be sold due to the lockdown, cheapest ever prices’; ‘Export deal cancelled, big-brand T-shirts stuck in factory for sale.’ Then, in mid-March, the committee staff reported that a student was coming back to the community from a US high school. The WeChat group exploded.
Residents in the same unit as the student’s family were the first to object. Someone forwarded articles describing how inefficiently foreign countries were dealing with Covid-19 and how rudely overseas students behaved once they returned. ‘Why should we let someone come home from abroad? We have already been isolated at home for two months and this child’s arrival will mean we’ll be in isolation for ever!’ Less friendly comments followed: ‘Didn’t the rich families send their children to the US to enjoy safety and human rights? Why not let them stay there?’ ‘Human rights or human life, they have to choose.’ Usually silent neighbours were eager to express their opinions from behind their online personae. The student returned home. Two weeks passed; he and his family remained healthy. The restrictions on their unit were lifted.
Thousands of security guards hired by residential communities and office buildings left Beijing for the Chinese New Year in late January and didn’t return, but our two guards remained. The younger of the two, Sun, was especially industrious. A neighbour complained to me that Sun deliberately ‘fixed’ him one day when the thermometer didn’t work in the cold air; Sun told him to wait 15 minutes for the machine to ‘warm up’. He offered to go home and do it himself, but Sun wouldn’t let him. My neighbour could have complained to the committee but, sensibly, decided not to. When a resident in another community refused to comply with the confinement policy he ended up confessing his misdemeanour in front of a camera at the police station. A video widely shared on the internet showed a woman jogging in Beijing the day after she arrived from Australia. She quarrelled with the community staff when they asked her to self-quarantine. The police were called and the following day her employer, Bayer China, sacked her; a few days later she was told to leave China and return to Australia. My neighbour didn’t want to risk his job by finding out whether the security guard was serious. He waited in the cold.
Since the middle of March, all travellers to Beijing have had to undergo viral nucleic acid testing within seven days of arrival and quarantine for 14 days, either at home or at a designated hotel (at their own expense). In April many cities started to loosen the lockdown restrictions, but not Beijing. All international flights continued to be diverted to other provinces and the passengers put in compulsory quarantine. ‘Only the Communist Party and China can do this,’ members of our community workgroup said to one another.
Beijing’s spring is famous for its fleetness. I went out to see it for myself rather than make do with WeChat photos. The buses were almost empty and the brightly coloured city bikes were neatly parked in long rows, where usually they would be strewn across the pavement. The small park was more crowded than I had expected; other visitors must have had the same idea. A security guard sat behind a desk by the gate, listlessly taking visitors’ temperatures. Everyone was in a good mood. Some people were flying kites, dozens were walking on the concrete paths around the artificial pond, obeying the instructions to ‘walk in one direction and keep your distance.’ Children were playing. Young couples were taking selfies in front of the blossoming trees. I caught a few words from a group of retired men: ‘The virus was from the US military … they are in trouble themselves.’ Everyone was wearing a mask: N95 masks, surgical masks, KN95 masks with ventilation valves, anti-dust masks, non-woven fabric masks, cloth masks, shiny silk masks, elastic masks that shape the chin in a pretty curve; masks in white, blue, pale pink, light grey, cartoon print, plaid, flowery patterns, black.
In late April, our community began to edge back towards life as usual. The workgroup stopped checking our passes, but continued to take our temperatures. More people began to leave the building in the morning to go to work. Children are still at home but the committee staff have called those parents whose children will be the first to return to school. The workgroup staff have changed into spring clothes, lightening the atmosphere of the guardroom. When I came back home yesterday, I saw grid member Yan wearing a khaki dress. She laughed about the protective suit she had been wearing two months before and asked her colleague to take a photograph of her while she pointed the thermometer at my wrist. She took my temperature several times until the picture was satisfactory. ‘Thirty-five degrees centigrade,’ she said. ‘Normal.’