Throughout 2022, as corona testing has become normalized (常态), testing status and QR codes have increasingly been used to prevent possible political “outbreaks.” The most recent case involved depositors who were unable to withdraw money from their banks in rural Henan. This case broke over a month ago. It concluded several weeks later, when depositors went to provincial capital, Zhengzhou in order to make official complaints. As the depositors converged on Zhengzhou, their health codes turned red, which prevented them from using public transportation, getting rooms in hotels, or entering buildings with strict compliance.Continue reading
Once-every-three-days Covid testing continues in Shenzhen, but we seem to be going through the motions. We are now up to twenty cotton swabs per test and many have noticed that the swabbing isn’t as “sincere 认真” as it used to be. Moreover, although it is possible to go an extra day or two without testing, however, after the fifth day, you have to go to a designated test station. There are, of course, differences between stations depending on location. Some health workers still jab, while others seem more careful. But. Regardless if the hand that pokes the throat is strong or gentle, testing at all the stations that I’ve used seems so cursory. Even when boarding the metro (the buses never checked covid passports), the security guards look at the QR code and just wave a thermometer in one’s general direction, begging the question: what purpose are these tests serving? (Other than the ongoing transfer of wealth to biotech enterprises.)
Dark sci-fi paranoia du jour: All this bio-monitoring has me wondering about the kinds of data that are being collected, how it is being stored, and the reliance on cellphones for this system to work. Indeed, the entire system hinges on the belief of direct link between an individual and a particular phone, which is true in my case. But. Easily hacked, I would think. If that was your goal and/or skillset. It seems to me that if the goal is bio-surveillance, then the logical step would be to chip us all, guaranteeing that the data you’re seeing is linked to a specific body. Although, there are no doubt technologies at play I don’t know about. Kind of like gene-editing cockroaches, we could be gene-edited to transmit selected information. And on dark and rainy nights, these ideas don’t even feel fanciful, but rather inevitable. Sigh.
Over at Made in China, Ivan Franceschini and Christian Sorace have co-edited Proletarian China: A Century of Chinese Labour, which traces the history of Chinese labor since 1898. Compiling events from the late Qing, Republican, and PRC eras, the book offers a diversity of voices and perspectives on the meaning and experience of work in China. Indeed, the brevity of each chapter allows for a comprehensive introduction into how political movements, economic restructuring and individual desires have constantly shaped and redirected the norms and forms having (or not) a job and the meaning of said job within and against a landscape of shifting national goals. Moreover, the scope of the volume allows for more refined comparison; for example, the unstable meaning of women’s labor, how technology has been mobilized inside factory walls, or even how the spatialization of labor has changed in the years from the rise of Shanghai to the socialist factories of Tianjin and then the emergence of assembly manufacturing in Shenzhen. I contributed a chapter on the moral geography of Shenzhen’s dagongmei 打工妹 during the early years of the Special Zone, mapping how the path to respectability was differently manifest in Shekou, Luohu and Bao’an.
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
“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.
Yesterday, I participated in a day-long conference to promote environmentalism. I think I was invited for some combination of two reasons: I’m a recognized foreign friend of the city and anthropologists tell better stories than scientists do. Although technically, I’m a scientist, too! (Social science for the win–hee!) Anyway, the other guests have been diligently working alongside and via the government apparatus to create green spaces throughout the city. Event host, Nan Zhaoxu 南兆旭, for example, wrote The Shenzhen Natural History Encyclopedia 深圳自然博物百科 and event organizer, Meng Xiangwei 孟祥伟 has been director of the OCT Wetlands Field School since its establishment seven years ago. Their efforts have been instrumental in elevating district-level events to municipal, provincial and even national levels, not only contributing to Shenzhen’s status as China’s greenest first-tier city, but also to getting environmental sustainability on the city’s urban planning laundry list.
So, now you’re wondering: what was my takeaway from the event? Just how sustainable is Shenzhen’s environment? And what can environmentally conscious people do via an apparatus that is structured to sustain a political environment, rather than an economic let alone non-human environment? Unfortunately my thoughts are not so grand. Instead, I ended up thinking about the cultural forms of environmentalism:Continue reading
Yesterday I spoke with a cabbie about the future. He was excited to learn that I hold a US American passport, and quickly reassured me that even if many Chinese people dislike the USA and its residents, he felt otherwise. He wants China to become more democratic and for more voices to be heard in political conversations. He emphasized that presently China only has one voice, making everybody else what we in the US would call “sock puppets” and in China are sometimes called “marionettes” or 傀儡. He also felt that Shenzhen’s housing market made it impossible for anyone not rich to purchase a house and make a life for themselves, so why not “lay down” 躺平. If you have a place to lay your head and enough to eat, why bother with marriage and children?Continue reading
I recently downloaded this sheet of Covid stickers and emoticons. I really like them because they reference specific features of Shenzhen’s experience during the February and March 2022 Omicron outbreak. However, I haven’t yet used any of them because I’m feeling nervous about being called out for cultural incompetence if I misuse them. Or even more scary is that I won’t be called out and I’ll just continue making the same mistake over and over again. That said, I don’t actually want to use emoticons enough that I am willing to learn how to use them by stumbling along and making mistakes. And there’s the rub: emoticons don’t actually resonate with me. They’re just part of a dialect that I recognize has overtaken me, but even so, I haven’t really put in any effort to learn.
So why don’t I emote-icon with confidence? What am I missing when chosen family and friends insert emoticons into a dialog? And why do I feel more comfortable writing in 普通话 than I do texting in either English or Mandarin?Continue reading
人才是第一资源。古往今来，人才都是富国之本、兴邦大计。我说过，要把我们的事业发展好，就要聚天下英才而用之。要干一番大事业，就要有这种眼界、这种魄力、这种气度。Talent is the first resource. Through the ages, talented people have been the foundation of a country's wealth as well as great plans to rejuvenate the country. I have said that to develop our cause, we should gather talents from all over the world and use them. To realize a great cause, we must have this vision, this courage and this bearing. -- Xi Jinping, 2018
In some of my more fanciful moments, I imagine Confucius and Ignatius Loyola sitting down together to talk education, “Just how,” they muse, “do we cultivate the kinds of people we need to properly govern/ shepherd our people?” They agree to disagree about just how the will of god/ heaven should–and they enjoy a frisson of pleasure as they impose their shoulds on young bodies–manifest locally, but they share the supremely feudal idea that the purpose of education is to cultivate talents who will be of use to god/ heaven and the king/ emperor. And yes, the idea of education as a means of cultivating particular kinds of ideological subjects is feudal, directly contradicting the modern idea that the purpose of education is to cultivate enlightened and independent thinkers. (How feudal our minds are is topic for another post. Maybe.) Anyway, this is why it makes sense that before the protestant evangelicals sailed into Victoria Harbor, HK on the ships of predatory traders, Jesuits enjoyed over two hundred years of pleasant chats with Confucian scholars about grandiose topics, such as wither the world? (Check out The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire by Thomas Reilly for an insightful account of why Matteo Ricci and his Jesuit brethren received warm welcome in Beijing, whereas the protestant mission was criminalized because it informed rebellion.)