formalizing boundaries within the city

One of the results of grid management (see Covid Among Us for details) has been the hardening of the city’s informal boundaries. However, this process has been ongoing for several decades in part via the imposition of a second traffic grid on top of the original traffic grid. In practice, this has meant re-purposing earlier, narrow roads as the internal roads of a cordoned off housing estates 小区 and laying a wider, more extensive network around the newly isolated gated community. In other words, what was initially planned as an open city, was incrementally partitioned and closed off even before grid management came online. In some sense, 2022 zero-Covid protocols merely accelerated a process that was already underway. Once you understand the logic of how the traffic grid was re-inscribed, its possible to see how boundaries were hardened through urban expansion.

Continue reading

gaslighting 101: shanghai hasn’t reopened because it was never locked down…

That’s what they’re going with? This is a popular gloss on the press conference that didn’t announce that the city had reopened. Instead, government spokespeople performed a master class in gas lighting.

The past two months are being presented as if neighborhood offices acted independently of the municipal government and Sun Chunlan 孙春兰 never came to take charge of the pandemic; and indeed, unlike in Wuhan and Hong Kong, Sun’s tenure in Shanghai was brief and remarkably not lauded. There is no official position on the not-lockdown, which reads like blaming the victim with Chinese characteristics. So to speak.

In response to the blatant buck-passing, testimonial videos about what happened during the lockdown have been posted. In addition, stories about how the Shanghai government has not taken responsibility for the recent lockdown are also circulating. The pleasure of these second category of stories is that they show an actual representative of the Party and government telling the truth. Below I’ve translated one of those stories that I’m calling, “Speechless 无语 in Shanghai.”

Continue reading

90s nostalgia

I walked Nanshan Road, from Daxin to the Shekou suburbs via one or two side roads. Below, impressions of “Old Nanshan,” which was built during the late 80s and early 90s, now appears highly nostalgic–the narrow roads, the shade trees, and mom and pop shops.

rumor has it… the government had a hell of a night on the town

It’s true, unlike the 2020 lockdown when the government subsidized the lockdown, during the 2022 lockdowns in Shanghai and elsewhere (Shenzhen, for example) the actual costs of game of germs are being passed on to ordinary citizens and entrepreneurs. Owners of cars that were parked in commercial lots, for example, are being held responsible for fees accrued during the lockdown, fees which be over 3,000 rmb. Indeed, one of the jokes currently circulating describes post-lockdown accounting for mass testing as a case of different government bureaus passing the buck:

[The government went out for a night on the town.] The medical insurance department believed that the finance bureau would pick up the tab, while the financial bureau assumed that the medical insurance department would foot the bill. The two sat down for dinner, ordering wine, dishes and escorts. They uncorked bottles of foreign spirits, sang karaoke, had massages and paid for sex. Indeed, they ordered everything on the menu. When it came time to settle the account, however, the finance bureau slipped out the door and the medical insurance department pretended to be drunk. And this is how the absurdity ended. 医保以为财政请客,财政以为医保请客,二人落座后加酒加菜要三陪,开洋酒、点歌、按摩、打炮......所有的项目都点了,拿出店家账单找人结账的时候,财政要遛,医保装醉,荒唐的一幕就这样结束了。

turmoil at the top? an update on the textbook illustration bruhaha

Turns out–after an investigation–that the People’s Education Press has been using the questionable photos (see previous post) for over ten tears??! There are three theories of why the escalation of complaints hinge on rumors of turmoil at the top.

  • The ideological direction of the country has shifted;
  • The purpose of the scandal is to redirect public attention from larger issues, and;
  • The fight to control the profits from the textbook monopoly has broken out into the open.

The conclusion? No matter what the primary reason for media focus on textbook illustrations might or might not be, the actual situation is most likely related to the 20th Party Congress in October this year.

the people’s education textbook incident

So, on Friday, May 27, the People’s Education Edition of forth grade textbooks set the internet ablaze. Seriously, despite everything else that was going on in the country–bank failures and Covid-crazy, rumors of upper level infighting and a tanking economy–the entire country was united in outrage over textbook illustrations. And frankly, the disgust is understandable. It’s as if some cynical artist whose work deconstructs authoritarian childhood was asked to draw the illustrations for books aimed at ten-year olds. There’s a whole level of critique going on that may not be accessible to children, even as their parents moan about aesthetic standards. “Ugly, ugly, ugly,” the crowd screams. And from where I sit that seems to be the point of the images. Just not the place? Or audience?

Continue reading

the animated pandemic: big whites on shenzhen social media

 “Big Whites (大白)” are the omnipresent and seemingly omnipotent figures of China’s 2022 lockdown, so named for their white full-body hazmat suits. Big Whites have been the Chinese government’s social interface for managing the Omicron outbreak. Big White teams consist of medical workers, police officers, community office representatives, and volunteers who come (as the government repeatedly emphasizes) from all walks of life. In their capacity as service providers, Big Whites conduct COVID tests, deliver food to residents in locked-down buildings, and coordinate other public services within a designated area. However, Big Whites are also the public face of COVID security. They conduct building sweeps for testing holdouts, they act as gatekeepers at locked-down estates and neighborhoods, and they patrol locked-down areas to ensure everyone else is in their homes. 

The moniker “Big White” has a double origin story. First, it derives from the gear that the management teams wear. In addition to being fully masked, hands are gloved and shoes are covered. There is a turquoise blue stripe which runs along suit seams and some Big Whites have personalized their suits with magic marker inscriptions. Second, “Big White” is also the Chinese translation for the plus-sized inflatable healthcare robot named Baymax, a character from the 2014 Disney film Big Hero 6. In the film, Baymax teams up with 14-year-old robotics prodigy Hiro Hamada to save their hometown San Fransokyo from an evil supervillain. Baymax and Hiro team-up with four other nerds to form a band of high-tech warriors against evil uses of technology especially biotech. 

In a 23 March post on the English language WeChat account, EyeShenzhen, author Li Dan explained the connection between pandemic work teams and an animated film: “Chinese netizens use it [Big White] as a nickname for frontliners who are fighting the COVID-19 pandemic because they wear white protective coveralls on the job, and they work selflessly to protect the safety of the public.”

This essay touches upon two interrelated issues in the social media representations of Big Whites in Shenzhen—the gender of caregiving and the role of animation in conceptualizing pandemic management.

Hiro and Baymax
Continue reading

where’s the money?

On May 23, protests in rural Henan brought national attention to the fact that five rural banks in the province–禹州新民生村镇银行、上蔡惠民村镇银行、柘城黄淮村镇银行、开封新东方村镇银行、安徽固镇新淮河村镇银行–are no longer allowing clients to withdraw savings. Over 2,900 clients have tried to access over 1.2 billion yuan, and there are reports that this is just the tip of the iceberg because many people have bought financial products that are held by these banks. Estimates suggest that millions may have lost billions. So what’s happened? Where’s the money? And why are people in Henan protesting at banks?

Continue reading

where have all the big whites gone?

I’m not sure if Shenzhen has settled into its new normal, but it does seem that zero-Covid is trying to be low-key in a city where 72-hour negatives remain mandatory for public transportation and buildings? Advertisements for volunteers, for example, are bright pink and non-threatening. Join and help, they invite ordinary citizens to participate. What’s more, while the volunteers who coordinate test lines are masked and gloved, nevertheless some wear the unmistakable red vest of Shenzhen’s volunteer corps, rather than being covered head-to-toe in white hazmat suits. At the station were I get tested, the only people wearing hazmat suits were the medical personal swabbing throats (or ‘poking’ 捅 as the vernacular calls it). The overall effect downplays any threat to public health. In fact, yesterday, many of those who walked or jogged past the lines to get tested were not wearing masks. Instead, as the unmasked went about their ordinary lives, those of us standing on line (masked, of course) performed compliance. And frankly, the overall feeling was not exhaustion, but boredom. Swipe left. Poke. Poke. Swipe right.

shameful dis-ease: over the counter cold meds and covid

Body shaming and its ills are familiar: eating disorders in the pursuit of an ideal body-type; feelings of inadequacy and low self esteem caused by fat-phobic, misogynistic, racist and anti-trans bullying; and the intense pain and despair that come from being isolated from those around us simply because of who we are. Indeed, shame is an important component of social control precisely because it shifts responsibility for indifferent and cruel treatment of others from the shamer to the shamed. The logic is insidious, direct and more often than not internalized before we finish elementary school: I am treated like shit because this body is fat/ ugly/ female/ trans/ black/ old…

Recently, I’ve realized that mandatory covid testing manipulates body shame to achieve political and social goals. It has also changed previous expressions of care for family and friends.

Inquiring minds want to know: How does zero-covid play upon extant forms of body shame in Shenzhen? Well, if you lived through the US AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, you have (because you read Susan Sontag) a pretty good understanding of how illness and shame work to prevent the ill from receiving necessary care, while allowing the healthy and the powerful to justify their indifference to the pain of others. Below, I track how regulation of over the counter cold medicines is part of a bio-governance regime that has made it shameful to catch a cold.

Continue reading