A reporter looks back: Better times in Shanghai

The lockdown contrasts with more freewheeling times in China's biggest city.
A commentary by Dan Southerland
2022.05.09
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A reporter looks back: Better times in Shanghai Workers wearing protective gear stack up boxes with food over a cart to deliver in a neighborhood during a Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown in the Jing'an district in Shanghai, May 7, 2022.
AFP

The current plight of Shanghai after weeks of draconian COVID-19 lockdowns causes me to recall better times in the 1980s when I enjoyed walking through the streets of China's most populous city in search of a story.

I always thought of Shanghai as a place where you could meet everyone from workers to leading intellectuals and discover that they would be honest with you.

Or they’d at least let you know that under Communist Party rule they couldn’t be honest about everything.

I covered demonstrations by protesting students and workers in Shanghai in 1986, and most were eager to explain why they were protesting for political reforms as long as I didn’t use their names.

The demonstrations took place in Shanghai and other Chinese citizens in the context of high inflation rates leading to increased living costs.

I remember once trying to board a bus in Shanghai and being pushed aside until a few people realized that this foreigner needed help in getting on board. They kindly stepped back until I could get up into the bus.

One of the most bizarre meetings which I participated in in Shanghai took place in 1988 when Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, met with Jiang Zemin, then the city’s mayor. Jiang later went on become General Secretary of the Communist Party, the most powerful position in China.

I was the Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post at the time.

In the meeting with Mrs. Graham, Jiang seemed to be determined to avoid addressing serious issues. Instead, he spoke at length about difficulties facing Shanghai’s garbage collectors. It sounded as if watermelon rinds littering the streets was issue number one for him.

The Christian Science Monitor summed things up well recently when it reported that Shanghai has now emerged as “an epicenter in China’s worst coronavirus outbreak since the pandemic began in Wuhan in 2019.”

The report described how Shanghai citizens are now using social media to share information that the city government has failed to provide to them.

'Big white'

The report described quarantine enforcers—nicknamed “da bai,” or “big white”— shouting through megaphones at an intersection.

They were summoning city residents for testing, carrying out an extraordinary order issued by municipal officials to test the whole city in a single day to combat COVID-19.

Individuals in Shanghai are now tracked through their phones for test results, their locations, and even whether they bought medicines.

It assigns them a risk status that determines whether they can move around, are restricted at home, or are quarantined. Their data is then shared with the police.

People in Beijing worry they will face draconian lockdowns similar to that in Shanghai. In Beijing, local news reports showed road closures and apartment buildings sealed off with metal fencing as officials imposed “targeted lockdowns” in neighborhoods.

Officials in Beijing are under pressure to makes sure that the capital city doesn’t become a repeat of Shanghai’s lockdown, which was marred by food shortages, clashes with authorities, and angry citizens venting their frustrations online.

Foreigners in Shanghai are concerned about crowding, traffic congestion, and air pollution, among other things.

Shanghai is the home to some 150,000 officially registered foreigners. This includes some 31,500 Japanese, 21,000 Americans, and 20,700 Koreans.

These numbers are based on official figures, so the real number of foreigners based in China’s financial capital is probably much higher.

The number of foreigners who have left Shanghai since the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus isn’t clear.

The South China Morning Post reported that foreign residents rushed to supermarkets to stock up on food following the outbreak of the virus at the end of March this year.

On April 22, foreign businesses reported that less than half of their employees were able to get to their factories due to lockdown restrictions.

Cleaner air

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal recently described how China’s strictly controlled, top-down political system was affecting Shanghai’s e-commerce.

Until recently, Shanghai boasted one of the world’s most robust delivery services. With a few taps on their smartphones, consumers could find groceries at their door steps within 30 minutes to an hour.

But the rigid lockdown of Shanghai that began in late March put an end to that network. It had been built on sophisticated technology and an army of delivery workers.

The network collapsed as Shanghai began fighting a surge in COVID-19 cases, according to reporters

In late April, Beijing was reaching a critical point in its efforts to halt a COVID-19 outbreak, as new cases spread from school students and a tour group, while deaths in Shanghai more than tripled from a day earlier.

As of May 8, Shanghai had reported 554 deaths, while Beijing recorded nine–out of a total of 5,185 deaths nationwide.

While still low by global standards, the numbers are a challenge to the ability of China’s top leaders to halt outbreaks with their zero-COVID policy.

Shanghai is an important financial and shipping center both for China and the world. Its port has ranked first for container ship throughput in the world in recent decades. There is fear that China’s COVID shutdowns could feed inflation by disrupting the supply chains that many manufacturers rely on, pushing up the cost of making and transporting goods.

A major downside of Shanghai’s industrialization has been air pollution.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Center, the Shanghai government has intended to invest 100 billion yuan, or more than $15 million, in 200 projects to reduce air pollution.

According to the website “Health and Safety in Shanghai,” air pollution has been one of the main concerns of foreigners living there. But it claims that much improvement has been made in recent years.

A “Shanghai Clean Air Action Plan” was unveiled in 2013.

A report issued in 2014 said that Shanghai’s air pollution was derived from motor vehicle and factory emissions, power stations, and straw burning by farmers, among other things.

Shanghai introduced the strictest air pollution law in China. It went into effect on October 1, 2014.

 Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.

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