Lockdown Thoughts

Lockdown is over. For now. Enjoy it while it lasts, eh?

Mine lasted exactly 80 days. Lot of ups and downs in there. Some of the downs were pretty far down. Let the collective amnesia begin!

But I don’t want to forget, not entirely. Something has to be learned from this. So I have been trying to make sense of lockdown. What was it all about? Has it changed anything? Has it changed me? So far all I have are a collection of thoughts. So that’s what I am sharing below – a collection of thoughts.

1. Lockdown is always someone else’s problem

When you’re in lockdown, it’s incomprehensible that there are people not in lockdown, that their lives are still going on, that they can decide where to go and when to go, that they are not worried about getting enough food to eat, that they aren’t being called for COVID testing every day by a bullhorn on repeat.

Somewhere toward the end of lockdown, a friend posted on Wechat Moments from ClubMed in Zhejiang. It seemed indecent, even insulting that other people were free to go to a shitfuck place like ClubMed and have a great time drinking bad cocktails and cheering on the insipid floor show without a care in the world.

I saw someone else post from Universal Studios Beijing and I was like – that place is open? It seemed impossible.

And don’t even get me started about people in the rest of the world who are going to NBA playoffs games, planning trips to Italy, and antiquing after a Michelin-starred brunch.

But that’s the thing about lockdown, it’s a completely subjective experience. That sounds trivial  – what isn’t subjective? What I mean is that in lockdown you can really only empathize with other people in lockdown.

Lockdown divides people physically but more importantly it divides them mentally and it does so completely.

If you’ve been in lockdown for 63 days but the neighborhood next to you is free to roam around, you take zero comfort knowing that they are free. You can hardly imagine what it’s like not to be in lockdown. Lockdown systematically and violently reduces your horizon to one single, very narrow viewpoint – your own.

The view from the other neighborhood is completely different. They are very satisfied, glad even, about your situation. They may say the right things, but for them the reality is that your lockdown ensures their freedom. To them it seems eminently logical and infinitely wise for the government to do this.

Think back to the original COVID lockdown – Wuhan. Nobody in Shanghai questioned this policy. In fact there was a palpable sense that those people somehow brought this on themselves and that they needed to do whatever it took to make it right no matter what the cost.

The Wuhan lockdown ended on April 8, 2020 – 74 days. There were many celebrations and genuine heartfelt congratulations and expressions of support from around the country. 辛苦了,武汉!

In the two years since, there have been dozens of other lockdowns in China, some small, some big. Xi’an with a population of 13 million, Dec 22, 2021 – Jan 16 2022. Shenzhen with a population of 18 million in early March. They say that on the border between Myanmar and Yunnan there is a city that has been lockdown for almost two years.

To be honest I didn’t pay much attention to those lockdowns  – other people’s problems.

Here in Shanghai we carried on with our business going to work, hitting the bars, strolling the Bund,  enjoying life, posting the occasional “加油西安” motivational meme, confident knowing that someone somewhere was solving the problem. The idea that the problem would one day reach our shores and drown us for two months wasn’t something anyone seriously considered.

If you had seriously considered it, then you would have long ago bought an extra freezer unit for your apartment. If you did that, I congratulate you.

When we found ourselves at the bottom of the sea, surprised and shaken by the rapidity of it all, it was a chorus of “this policy is terrible and it must be abolished immediately and anyone who supports it is a fool.” It was easy to justify ending it – it’s against morality, it’s crippling the economy, it’s creating more deaths then the disease itself, etc etc.

Of course, no one in the non-lockdown world took Shanghai seriously, though they were happy to post motivational memes smugly satisfied that our lockdown was completely necessary for their weekend at ClubMed.

Now that we are out of it, ask yourself: what if Hangzhou blows up with Omicron? Would you be for or against doing whatever it takes to stamp it out down there? Not an easy question.

2. Never lose hope

If you are in lockdown, the important thing is you must not lose hope.

Your first hope will be for release. The authorities give you this hope because when they announce a lockdown it is never open-ended, there’s always an expiration date. Just four days, they say. When four days passes and nothing changes, then just one more week, they tell you. When another week passes and nothing changes, the end of the month, they say.

At a certain point, you dare not hope for release. It is like being jilted again by an unstable lover.

But you must not lose hope so your locus of hope changes. You find yourself beginning to hope that the virus sneaks through the defenses everywhere else. You see the numbers creeping up in Beijing and you are pleased. More people to share your misery! Surely if there are more people in lockdown than out of lockdown then the madness must end, right?

In lockdown, hope becomes a perversion, a twisted form of schadenfreude.

3. Speaking of perversion…where’s all the perversion?

Humans are perverse by nature, that’s what I believe at least. To put it another way, the regime of genteel morality is itself something of a perversion. Left to our own devices we will occasionally and happily do weird things with each other.

In lockdown there is no perversion. Lockdown is the ultimate white space for the enforcement of the most draconian form of morality. There are no colleagues to flirt with, no private places to take Tinder dates. Your kids are underfoot all the time and even when they aren’t you’re exhausted.

There is no libido in lockdown.

I was thinking: these big compounds full of apartment blocks all have some apartments which, for whatever reason, are empty. Why not make lockdown more tolerable by using them? Enterprising people should designate them as hook up spaces. Anyone can wander in and see what’s on offer, every night a new thing – depends on who shows up!

Excuse the courseness, I am really trying to make a slightly different point, because we all know that people don’t necessarily want all that messy stuff. What they want is community. Places to come together and talk and sing, be jolly, get in fights and occasionally get naked.

So instead of limiting ourselves to hook up spaces, let’s turn these empty apartments into bars and rumpus rooms and movie theatres and gyms and other places people can go.

But, of course, that violates a core principle of lockdown: lockdown is a form of punishment, lockdown must be painful.

4. Lockdown with Chinese characteristics

Lockdown in China is unlike lockdown anywhere else in the world. People outside China shouldn’t be allowed to use the word lockdown, they should have to find another phrase – “suggested health-related lifestyle changes” perhaps.

Famously, Melbourne owns the record of the longest lockdown in the world, something like 260 days. But for that two-thirds of a year Melbourne people were allowed to leave their homes. There was no police sitting on their porches evaluating their stated reasons for leaving said home and deciding whether or not to issue them a pass.

In the UK there was a series of lockdowns. From what I understand it certainly put a damper on Christmas, but there was still Christmas. There was still Christmas roast, and Christmas presents and Christmas movies, you just weren’t able to go to the pub with your mates afterwards and get absolutely shitfaced.

My 80 days of lockdown included:

  • 7 days of not being able to leave my apartment and having a magnetic alarm on the door to alert the local authorities if I did
  • 10 days of not being able to leave my building except to go downstairs for COVID tests
  • 63 days of being unable to leave the compound but being free to move around inside it
  • 8 hours of being able to leave the compound to buy groceries

It is worth adding that during those 10 days of not being able to leave my building except to go downstairs for COVID tests, the residents of my building were required to volunteer to sit in a chair outside the building and make sure that no one left the building. Each apartment was assigned a slot and the slots ran from 7am – 10pm so basically every other day you were tasked with being warden of your fellow prisoners.

In sum there is no way this can be compared to any lockdown I ever heard of in the west. This is lockdown with Chinese characteristics. And a lot of people had it way worse than me.

5. The script has flipped

It was in January this year during the Super Bowl that the realisation finally took hold: the script had flipped. In the battle against COVID the West was now clearly winning and China was clearly losing.

The contrast could not have been starker: 70,000 people packed in the stands, cheering and going nuts. Snoop Dogg puffed a jay during the halftime show and everyone knew it. I don’t even remember which team won.

Meanwhile in China, there is no sport of any kind happening. In fact they just announced that the Asian Games which were supposed to have happened in September this year in Hangzhou have just been postponed. The Asian Games are a big deal. They are a key lead up to the Olympics and this would have been only the third time in history that China was to host them.

Now the NBA playoffs are on. Every night the stands are full. The people in the stands aren’t even wearing masks! The players on the bench – not wearing masks! What is going on? How are they not all worried about getting COVID? Steve Kerr, coach of the Warriors, actually did get COVID, and he was away from the team for a few days. Then he was back. No one seemed overly worried about Warriors star Steph Curry getting it and being sidelined from the action.

How can this be? What is going on here? What madness is this?

Can it really be true that the pandemic is over in the West? How are they still standing? How are the hospitals not overwhelmed? How is everyone not dead? How is society not teetering on the edge of collapse? How can they think of basketball at a time like this?

I remember very clearly, shortly after the pandemic broke out in the West and the West was fumbling the response, someone published a tweet which said something like: “China just won World War 3.”

The implication was that by doing all the smart things – the lockdowns, the mass testing, the health codes, the quarantine – zero-COVID basically – that China had dodged a bullet which the West was now taking in the chest.

I remember feeling very pleased about that, primarily because a war between China and the US is the absolute worst case scenario as far as I’m concerned, but also because it felt good knowing that the Chinese government had proven itself wise and the fumbling bumbling governments of Trump and Boris looked like buffoons.

Two years later, I’m on Day 63 of quarantine, I can’t leave my building, and the rest of the world is traveling, smoking weed, having tailgate parties and feeling each other up. My friend in Singapore sent me a video of him cycling along the waterfront – Singapore, goddamit, the ultimate patriarchal, conservative, no-fun place in the world! Even in Singapore COVID is over!

If China already won World War 3, did they just lose World Wars 4, 5, and 6? Perhaps it’s too early to tell.

6. Perhaps it’s always too early to tell

But is everything really so rosy in the West? Not by a long shot. Inflation is on a tear, the stock market is way down, there is a hot war in the Ukraine, supply chains are broken, opioids are rampant, Roe v Wade is being overturned, horrific school massacres are happening, social divides are deeper than ever. Horrible stuff!

I’m no economist, but the situation in the West doesn’t look that promising. Too much money printing, they say. Weaponization of the dollar, they say. Meanwhile they say that Russia and China are creating their own financial system around a currency backed by gold and other commodities,  a real currency as opposed to the fiat fiction helicoptered in by the Fed. They say the US dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency is finished.

And what would be the consequences of that? Again, hard to say! Some say it would be good for the world, some say it would be a disaster for America. Some say it would be good for poor some say it would be bad for the rich. Who the hell can say with any confidence what’s “the right thing” anymore?

My tinfoil hat friends read deeper meaning and purpose into the Shanghai lockdown. This was a strategic chess move to thwart a threatened biowarfare attack on China’s financial capital. It was a clever way of dealing with inflation by suppressing demand and implementing price controls. It was a way of diverting public opinion over the war in Ukraine which had been naturally gravitating to the Taiwan question.

In short, even though on the surface there was a lot of annoyance and suffering, it was a smart, long-term move made the clear-eyed Mandarins.

If you want to go more mainstream, imagine if COVID were to mutate again and become even marginally more deadly – say 10% – then zero COVID again looks pretty damn sensible.

Who knows? Too early to tell! To paraphrase the old saw, it’s just opinions all the way down.

7. Politics

Or maybe it’s politics all the way down.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Shanghai lockdown is the political component which many Chinese people believe to be the main component. Given that no one seriously talks anymore about the disease as an existential health threat certainly backs that up.

The story goes that the “Shanghai faction” is in a tug of war with the “Xi Jinping faction” and zero COVID is the rope.

The Shanghai Faction – or Shanghai Clique -  is an offshoot off the Jiang Zemin years. Now there’s surely an element of wealth to it – the Shanghai crew gotta get theirs – but there’s also pure decision making power at stake as well as ideology.

Jiang represents something very specific. He represents, for lack of a better word, the meritocracy.

Jiang rose through the Party ranks to the highest office in the land, not because of family background or connections, but because he worked his way up. He studied electrical engineering at university, then worked in an auto factory. Jiang was also pretty cosmopolitan. He spoke several languages and wasn’t afraid to use them. His recitation of The Gettysburg Address in English to student protestors in Shanghai in 1986 is legendary.

It’s no secret Jiang was a highly unlikely choice to become General Secretary of the CCP; it was only the tragedy of June 4th and the resulting political crisis which did the trick. But he did, and his personal story resonates with Chinese people in a sort of rags-to-riches way. I compare it to the mythology around Jimmy Carter, the humble peanut farmer, who became President of the United States.

Xi Jinping, meanwhile, whose father was a famous revolutionary at the highest levels of power, represents red aristocracy, red by blood. The push and pull between the red aristocracy and those who worked their way up has been a theme really since the Cultural Revolution.

So if the Shanghai Lockdown is a political issue, it’s surely seen as a blow to the meritocracy. It’s a salvo against the idea that the leaders are leaders because they are qualified and competent to be leaders and ergo that anyone who is qualified and competent could in theory become a leader.

All of this, by the way, is well known to most Chinese people.

All of this must also be seen against the background of the ershida (二十大) the 20th CCP National Congress which is coming up in October/November. This is the event where Xi Jinping expects to be re-affirmed as leader of the Communist Party for an unprecedented third term, basically cementing him as leader for life, a highly controversial move within the Party.

There is wide speculation that not only will he be named leader but he will in fact be given the title of Chairman of the CCP, a title which has not been used since 1982 and which was also Mao’s title. Currently Xi is General Secretary of the CCP.

So obviously there’s a lot riding on this. But it certainly doesn’t make you feel any better knowing the your lockdown is someone else’s political theatre.

Shanghainese folks have lost a great deal of confidence in the government as a result of the lockdown. Some even go so far as to say that their government is no better than Western governments, which is pretty much the ultimate insult around these parts.

This loss of confidence will have unpredictable consequences down the line.

8. The silence

One of the things that really stood out to me for those 2 months was the silence – no cars, no trucks, no buses left an uncanny silence which enveloped everything.

It was an eerie silence, the silence of a world without humans, the silence of the prehistoric world. It was weird experiencing that kind of silence for 2 full months in the middle of a 25 million strong metropolis of people. I found it bittersweet, the silence which will surely come after humans destroy themselves.

The sound of traffic, of commerce and human activity, is the wallpaper of modern existence. It’s back now, sweeping the silence far into the background. Maybe that’s where the collective amnesia really begins. Maybe it’s the low-level hum of traffic which ties us all together.

9. Lockdown is the antidote to modern life

Lockdown is the polar opposite of almost everything we think of as salient to modern life. Movement, autonomy, free markets, global travel – all thrown in the dustbin with a single government decree.

Quarantine is what people feared the most. The idea that you could be taken away at any time and put in a hellhole for an indeterminate time without any sort of channel of redress goes against everything that revolutionary movements the world over fought for in the past several centuries.

And people were taken away in the middle of the night. Families were separated, sometimes violently. People were hauled off to the hastily built fangcang, the temporary shelters that sprung up overnight. They made videos to document their experiences and these were widely shared. The fangcang leaked during heavy rains, they kept the lights on 24 hours a day, they were not pleasant places to be.

You didn’t even have to have the virus, just be a close contact. By the end of lockdown, there was so much pressure on the local authorities to achieve zero COVID in their neighborhoods, that entire buildings were being hauled away if one person tested positive. The group was punished for one person’s misfortune – which is exactly how they used to handle the dispensation of justice in the old days.

Beyond the fear of being taken away, the sudden disappearance of the ability to buy for yourself the things you need was also alarming. In place of that was the promise of government veggie boxes and complex webs of “group buys.” Quite simply you were no longer master of your own destiny.

You never really were, of course, all that is a powerful fiction, but one which props up a concrete sense of personal responsibility. In normal times if you don’t go buy food for yourself, no one is going to drop a bag of vegetables on your doorstep.

Lockdown is the polar opposite. You could still buy things beyond the odd government parcel, but you couldn’t buy on your own. You needed 30 or 40 people to buy with you. This was the group buy phenomenon. Your existence had been 100% socialized.

Personal movement was also tightly controlled. To get out of your compound you needed permission from your Residence Committee (juweihui 居委会). Even if you broke a leg and needed immediate medical attention, you still needed a passout from them.

And even if you could get that, how would you get to the hospital? There were no cabs and ambulance service was unreliable. There was talk of a special ambulance service that was guaranteed to provide service but it would only pick you up from the hospital and take you home, not the other way around. All the basic supports for life which we take for granted as part of modern existence were suddenly unreliable.

And if all that was too much for you and you wanted to get out of the country entirely there was no reliable way even to get to the airport. People were paying insane amounts – 5 or 6 thousand Renminbi (800USD) – to get to the airport.

Streets were also blockaded – I mean like French revolution style with barricades put up across the street so that no one could pass on car on foot or on bike. There were checkpoints set up manned by security guards (保安) and health workers (大白) that would send you back the way you came if they didn’t like the looks of you. People were herded around like animals on a farm.

In modern life, we have a million decisions to make – what to eat for dinner, what to buy from Taobao, what clothes to wear, where to go on vacation, where to take your kid on the weekend. In lockdown there were hardly any decisions to make. Lockdown is decision detox.

Perhaps something like lockdown is inevitable and maybe even necessary, the yin to the yang of the excessive freedom of modernity.

10. What the hell is a Residence Committee anyway?

During lockdown, your life was suddenly put into the hands of a strange and mysterious and mostly invisible group of people called the juweihui 居委会, or Residence Committee. Is it part of the government? Is it not part of the government? Who’s on it? What the hell is a Residence Committee anyway?

The Residence Committee is actually a fascinating thing particular to China.

The simple answer is that the Residence Committee is NOT part of the government. The lowest level of the actual government is the Jiedao (街道), or Street Office. The Residence Committees might receive some funding from the Street Office, but most of the funding comes from the people in the neighborhood.

And the membership of the Residence Committee is not constituted in the same way. Members of the Residence Committee are supposed to be drawn from the people living in the neighborhood they represent, 居民, and in some places this can take place via direct voting or proxy voting.

In practice of course it’s not that straightforward. Residence Committees operate in all of China’s cities as the urban equivalent to the village committee found in rural areas. Here’s a video of one example of democracy at the village committee level.

Residence Committees exist in a symbiotic relationship with the Property Management (物业), the property development company, the Homeowner’s Association, the local police and the 街道 Street Office. Given the complex web in which they exist, it’s no surprise that they function very differently across the country and even in the same city.

If it’s a new development, for example, the Residence Committee is liable to be stacked with people from the property development company. Here a nice case study right here for something like that from Beijing.

The Residence Committee system is not something new that was put in place just to annoy you. It is almost as old as New China. The first Residence Committee was formed in Hangzhou in 1949. In 1954 the were officially recognised by law as an institution. They say that the Residence Committee concept owes a debt to the Baojia (保家) system from the Qing Dynasty.

The original idea of the Residence Committee was a solution to the CCP’s vexing problem of how to do effective propaganda work at the grassroots level. Since receiving that original mandate, the Residence Committee has taken up pieces of a bunch of different portfolios:

  • local security – look out for thieves, drifters and hooligans
  • cleanliness – make sure trash is being managed effectively
  • social harmony – balance conflicting demands of property developers, property owners, and renters
  • provide jobs – Residence Committee run businesses (even factories!) which employ local people
  • buffer between governors and governed – they transmit the opinions of the masses back to government higher-ups

But it can be more.

The Residence Committees became much more important after the state-sponsored danwei system began to be dismantled. Now of course there are only a sliver of people who have a danwei and most everyone is employed in the private sector. Originally all those services would have been provided by your danwei;  the Residents Committee was for that sliver of population that did not have a danwei.

There’s just no equivalent in the US. Homeowners Association comes closest but falls far short of what the Residence Committee is. Imagine asking Americans to go to their local HOA to get permission to leave their neighborhood. They would laugh in your face, then punch you.

My Chinese friends have mixed opinions about their local Residents Committee. Some say they do the best they can. Some say they are corrupt and should be fired immediately. Interestingly, lockdown hasn’t made anyone I know more interested in putting themselves forward as a candidate to be able to influence what is now a clearly critical piece of the zero COVID puzzle going forward.

It would be great if some enterprising documentarian would make a documentary about Residents Committee covering the good, the bad, and the ugly.

11. The CCP loves zero COVID

I have no proof of this, there is no smoking gun document to share, it’s just my feeling: the CCP loves lockdown.

Being able to publish a single Wechat post and get an entire city to jump at the same time – that’s real power.

Being able to use faceless technology from the secure confines of an undisclosed location to gatekeep the movements of every single individual – they love that.

Being able to remove you from your home, put you into an unmarked vehicle and take you to an undisclosed location for an indefinite period of time – hell yeah, they are all about that.

And being able to do all of those things based on something that no one can even see – the virus – and which can only be perceived through its pale reflection – the test result – is bloody brilliant.

It reminds me of the good, old, pre-Opening and Reform days of the Revolution when they could string you up based on how “red” you were or weren’t. There was no direct proof of this “red” identity, just traces.

Likewise, it’s not hard to manufacture a fake COVID test result. “That guy’s no good, mark him down as positive, take him away.” Then you’re gone. Nothing you can do about it.

They also love being able to rescind all rules about who gets into China and who leaves. What are the rules around granting PU letters? No one knows. No one even knows what PU stands for – seriously! Chinese people are allowed back into the country, but they can’t leave without special permission. Who grants it and what are the conditions? Can’t say for sure. Who gets in and who gets out is all down to guanxi networks. A bureaucrat’s dream!

The CCP also loves being the benevolent benefactor. “The people need food? Quick let’s mobilise the party and send a million veggie boxes! Uncle CCP has got your back!” It gives them something to do, a sense of purpose, a motivation and a clear goal, things which seems to be gravely lacking in CCP ideology these days.

Plus, wow, the opportunity for windfall paydays for CCP cadres who happen to have “uncles” who have a delivery business or an egg processing plant or a cooking oil startup is just too damn good to pass up.

It worked out this time, but there’s plenty of instances in the not too distant past when it worked out to the tune of 20 million starvation deaths. I don’t know about you, but I don’t trust those chumps to feed me.

But, you say, the economy! Taking away all that commercial activity jeopardizes the economy and if the CCP has any Mandate of Heaven surely it is based on the continual growth of the economy! Right?

Somehow the West has gotten it into its head that if the Chinese economy falters, then the CCP will fall. In my opinion this is entirely wrong.

The CCP is focused on one thing and one thing only: control.

Economic growth is a tool, not a goal, and never has been. In fact, I am sure there are people in the CCP who see lockdown as a golden opportunity to smash private enterprise for good and replace it with government handouts powered by even more vast amounts of government bureaucracy.

Isn’t this part of the original promise of Chinese communism? Isn’t this what Chairman Mao wanted? People not motivated by profit margin, nor artistic accomplishment, not even by altruism, just pure adulation of the party which stands in proxy for the Chinese people and the Chinese nation.

Zero COVID built around mass lockdown is the perfect tabula rasa to realise this sacred CCP dream.

The people – rich poor whatever – all working in harmony to get their ration of rice, oil, pork and eggs. Nobody working too hard, nobody putting in overtime trying to get a leg up on the other guy, everyone equal, everyone focused on getting through the days and nights in one piece together, no need for higher aspirations, higher ambitions, which are surely the false gods of Western capitalism anyway and all of this built around an invisible enemy that exists everywhere and nowhere but specifically exists inside you.

Ever wonder why they haven’t rolled out a truly mass vaccination program? The same people who can mass test 25 million people in a day can’t get everyone vaccinated? But if they did that then maybe people would stop being so afraid of the virus.

Lockdown is a dream come true for the CCP and that’s why it’s not going away anytime soon.

12. Silver linings

I don’t want to end on such a sour note. Lockdown has had some silver linings. I’ve taken my baking game to new levels. I’ve spent a lot of genuine quality time with my wife and child. My wife has been making amazing meals. I’ve gotten to know the neighbors better. I’ve written 35,000 publishable words in the form of two novellas, one of which is a comedy. I’ve eaten more better, drank less, and kept up my physical health through yoga and running in the compound. I read Anna Karenina. My work has been great, extremely supportive, and for that I am very grateful.

12. But…

But…yeah…lockdown? No thanks.

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