This year, China celebrated Lunar New Year — the first of the new decade — with a soul-shaking jolt. In a country known for migration, both internal and external, the ongoing novel coronavirus epidemic has brought life here almost to a standstill.
In a rare move, the national government extended the Lunar New Year holiday as it dealt with the crisis, and local officials have since extended the extension, shutting down schools and keeping factories in their localities closed for weeks. To identify suspected carriers and reduce the chance of cross-infection, local governments have enacted rigorous health check requirements for public spaces and instituted mandatory quarantines for carriers, both suspected and confirmed.
The fundamental goal of these measures is to bring the outbreak under control and eventually allow the country to resume operations in an orderly manner. But there’s been plenty of disorder, too. Some provinces and cities have adopted peculiar NIMBY-style epidemic control measures, unilaterally sealing off roads in an attempt to contain the virus, engaging in tit-for-tat requisitions of emergency supplies with other localities, and locking returning migrants in or out of their homes. While a number of netizens have praised these so-called hardcore preventative measures as necessary to contain the epidemic, it’s worth reflecting on the potential risk they pose to China’s economic and social order.
Villagers set up roadblocks in Hebei province (left) and Henan province, January 2020. From @大越楚卿 on Weibo
Take roadblocks, for example. The central government has long explicitly prohibited regions from sealing off roads. This was as true during the SARS epidemic 17 years ago as it is today. Roadblocks not only make it hard for ambulances to enter certain areas, but also for the critically ill to get out. They may even constitute a criminal offence if they damage transportation facilities.
So why are so many springing up now? The proliferation of roadblocks across the country reflects each province’s growing sense of self-interest. After 40 years of uneven growth, the economic power and fiscal revenue of China's provinces has diverged significantly. Wealthy regions along the coast have the means to run fiscal surpluses, while the less-developed hinterland often relies on regular transfer payments from the central government.
This new pattern of wealth distribution has spawned different forms of local protectionism. Meanwhile, Chinese citizens may not have a say in their city or province’s political leadership, but officials know they are nonetheless somewhat responsible for the social and economic welfare of the people under their jurisdiction and are therefore inclined to protect the interests of local residents, even if it means upsetting interregional cooperation.
But many of the measures currently being taken are short-sighted and reckless. First of all, not only will they not necessarily contain the epidemic — there is evidence quarantines don’t work — they will also inevitably exacerbate divisions between local residents and migrants, a long-running fault line in Chinese society.
Since the beginning of the “reform and opening-up” period in the late 1970s, the percentage of Chinese living in urban areas has risen from 18% to over 60% — an immense internal migration. There are more than 7 million migrants with permanent residency in Beijing, nearly 10 million in Shanghai, and another 5 million in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.
Although they often face discrimination, migrants are essential to how Chinas cities function. The group includes college students as well as a huge percentage of workers in secondary and tertiary industries. Of course, as urban populations become increasingly dense, the risk of disasters — including epidemics — grows. But when faced with these risks, our first priority must be to protect all residents’ legitimate rights and interests, not just those of the local population, even if it complicates our emergency response efforts.
Rash isolationist policies and tendencies also undermine the structure of the economy by weakening the ties between regional markets. In today’s market economy, with its high division of labor, provinces are far more interlinked and interdependent than ever before. China’s cities, large and small, are now connected by the world’s largest high-speed rail network. The country’s extensive logistics industry, as well as the infrastructure and consumption habits of the internet era, have also bolstered domestic market integration and reinforced the ties between local economies.
All of this is to say: Sealing off areas is never as simple as it seems. A major metropolitan area and center of global trade like Shanghai may think it’s equipped to go it alone, but it remains highly dependent on the rest of the country.
This was shown in 2008, when a severe snowstorm in South China caused the price of vegetables in Shanghai to skyrocket. Agriculture accounts for less than 1% of Shanghai's GDP, meaning the city relies heavily on the nation’s main agricultural producers for food. However, the closure of roads during the snowstorm meant that Shanghai suddenly found itself dependent on its own extremely limited local supply. That January, the municipal ministry of finance was reduced to slashing all tolls on roads into the city in an attempt to get farmers to increase shipments.
To lock out others is to lock yourself in. Our cities cannot function normally for extended periods if we seal off our communities from delivery workers and migrants; make white-collar workers work from home; and prohibit intercity commuting. The country’s social and economic structure is completely different than it was in the planned economy era, when local self-reliance was the watchword. We cannot undo the consequences of 40 years of urbanization in a fortnight.
Sooner or later, more than 200 million migrant workers will eventually filter back into China’s cities, and the gargantuan machine that is our country will gradually stutter back to life. When that happens, appropriate and reasonable epidemic prevention measures will still be necessary. We cannot, however, resort to “hardcore” tactics that will exacerbate conflicts between local and migrant populations; widen the divide between rural and urban China; and destroy the integrated domestic market. And once the epidemic is under control, there will be much work to do to restore social order, solidarity, and trust.
Population mobility is conducive to the spread of disease, but it is also a source of social dynamism. We must strike a balance between economic growth and social stability — or risk losing both.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: Workers set up a roadblock in Nanzhang County, Hubei province, January 2020. From @一手Video on Weibo)