Late last month, Shanghai entered a “phased lockdown” as it confronted the country’s worst-ever coronavirus outbreak. The lockdown, now in its third week, has brought the lives of the city’s 25 million residents to a grinding halt. Although some neighborhoods have begun allowing residents to go outside for up to an hour a day, for the most part, only essential workers such as doctors, delivery drivers, and social workers are allowed to leave their homes.
With e-commerce and food delivery platforms unable to function normally, to say nothing of supermarkets, the task of distributing food supplies to locked-in residents seemed at first like it would fall to the municipal government. When it became clear that local officials had too much on their plates — and residents not enough on theirs — communities citywide had little choice but to fend for themselves.
The result has been an unprecedented explosion of grassroots mutual assistance and organizing in neighborhoods across Shanghai. The bulk of this activity has taken place on WeChat, the country’s ubiquitous chat app, as people join group chats with their neighbors to barter food, place large “group-buy” orders with wholesale suppliers — the only delivery service still running in much of the city — and share requests for help.
Some of these groups are dominated or facilitated by officially recognized volunteers working with neighborhood committees: a theoretically self-governing body made up of and elected by neighborhood residents under the supervision of the subdistrict government. Others are wholly grassroots in nature. For many residents, the groups represent the first time they have ever engaged in community affairs — and possibly even the first time they’ve learned their neighbors’ names.
To Sun Zhe, a sociologist who has spent 15 years studying Shanghai community organizations, the lockdown is both a crisis and an opportunity. Most middle-class Chinese live in gated residential compounds, “cities within cities” that are serviced by private property management companies who put the interests of property owners above those of renters. Prior to the lockdown, residents seldom interacted with their neighbors and the neighborhood committee played a largely invisible role in their lives. The recent outbreak, which has highlighted the importance of community solidarity in an otherwise atomized city, is reshaping Shanghai society in real time.
Late last week, Sun sat down for a telephone interview with Sixth Tone in which he shared his thoughts on how the lockdown is changing Shanghai communities, why some neighborhoods have banded together while others have fallen to infighting, and why women are taking the lead in community organizing.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
An aerial view of a Shanghai neighborhood, April 19, 2022. Shen Qilai/Bloomberg via VCG
Sixth Tone: As a Shanghai resident yourself, what have you observed about community self-help and mutual assistance organizing during the lockdown?
Sun Zhe: I’ve mainly focused on residents’ online activity. During the outbreak, I noticed many communities were creating WeChat groups for residents for the first time. These groups were typically set up by volunteers as they went door to door distributing at-home antigen test kits. While many communities previously had WeChat groups for homeowners, these typically excluded tenants and merchants. In the face of the virus, however, such differences in identity have been erased and all residents have been thrown into the same online communities.
Within resident chat groups, there’s a class of volunteers who play a critical role as information screener, or xinxi yuan. Two of the problems people have faced during the lockdown are information anxiety and a lack of media literacy. Plugged-in volunteers sort through and summarize the large quantities of information published by media and government bodies, filtering through the endless waves of official messages and presenting the practicalities to residents, such as the schedule of that day’s COVID tests and material distribution. Not only do these volunteers help fill the communication gap between understaffed administrative agencies and neighborhood committees, but their non-official status also allows them to respond to people’s queries more flexibly and effectively than official sources.
One woman I know volunteered to work as an informal information screener. She is highly adept at dealing with information and social media, but many other residents, including senior citizens, are joining large WeChat groups for the first time, having previously only used WeChat to message their families. For these people, the work of volunteer information screeners has been especially helpful in easing their anxiety.
Sixth Tone: Joining a public chat group for the first time seems like an important step toward active community participation.
Sun: That’s right. When someone joins a community group chat, they quickly find that the large group has sub-divided into many smaller ones, such as groups for buying food or organizing medicine deliveries. The problem with earlier, homeowner-centric groups was that they were based on the ownership of property. Discussions in these groups focused on complaints about property management services and the payment of fees. During the lockdown, however, members of the residents’ groups realized that homeowners, tenants, and traders are all part of the same community, and they all share the same interests.
I think that these “communities of common destiny,” as some might call them, will remain even after the outbreak is brought under control. We will still face a variety of risks, including public security and fire safety. How should fire safety procedures and ventilation systems in residential communities be designed? Peoples’ memories of living together under lockdown will focus their attention on these issues, turning individuals into community members.
Sixth Tone: Looking at the issue from another angle, when communities are large, it is inevitable for there to be conflicts of interest. For example, during the lockdown, there have been issues between buildings with positive cases and those without.
Sun: This is a key issue, which has its roots in lack of community trust. Shanghai’s citizens have demonstrated a strong ability to organize themselves during the outbreak, but it varies. Many resident chat groups went from zero members to organizing neighborhood group-buys in three days. That’s impressive, but I’ve also seen communities that accomplished the same process in just a single day. Typically, the latter communities have a stronger history of community building, with many people having previously met in person, whether through choirs, gardening, or sports like table tennis. This allowed them to establish trust very quickly.
As for when disputes arise between residents, I tend to see them as an extension of the logic behind property rights. Similar disputes are common in homeowner groups. The owners are led by a logic of protecting their personal property, and conflicts of interest inevitably arise whenever private property is involved, resulting in factional conflicts among owners. During the outbreak, some residents advocated strict lockdowns of any buildings in their neighborhood where positive cases were found. In the process, they simplified public problems into private problems and sought to realize their private interests through segregation. If residents had more experience in community engagement, we would see greater community trust, rather than a logic ruled by property rights that insulates individuals from one another.
Sixth Tone: What other factors have contributed to the resilience of communities during the lockdown?
Sun: Women have played a very important role in community organization. One obvious example has been “group-buying coordinators,” or tuanzhang, most of whom are women. They quickly set up supply chains for their communities after the lockdown, organizing the purchase, delivery, and distribution of food faster than the authorities.
The rise of tuanzhang is closely tied to the more active role of women in their communities. If a community only has one WeChat group, it’s likely to be for mothers, since parenting has a strong communal aspect: You need to know about the community’s security situation, be familiar with the nearby supermarkets, and keep up to date on issues like food safety. Empirically speaking, groups of young mothers are common in urban communities. Mothers also tend to play a more direct role in the care of the elderly and better understand the needs of older people.
I’m not talking here about cultural stereotypes. Motherhood-based social networks have played a crucial role in binding community members together. Because of the traditional gender division of labor, men are often absent at the family level, which makes them much less able to participate in community affairs.
A volunteer passes out toilet paper to a resident in Shanghai, April 14, 2022. Zhang Lihua/VCG
Sixth Tone: There have been a lot of complaints directed toward neighborhood committees on social media, including for not sending enough food and not responding to residents’ demands in a timely manner. How should we view the different competencies of neighborhood committees and grassroots resident organizations?
Sun: Neighborhood committees are a particularly tricky topic. Located between residents and the government, they are an important link for residents connecting their home lives, community lives, and society at large. However, I’ve noticed that many residents don’t particularly understand neighborhood committees. Misled by consumer-based thinking, they tend to conflate neighborhood committees with private property management companies and are accustomed to filing complaints in order to solve the problem of inadequate “services.” Legally speaking, neighborhood committees are “resident self-governance organizations” — not government offices. Their members should theoretically be residents elected by residents.
When we complain about neighborhood committees, we should ask ourselves one question: Have I ever voted in the neighborhood committee elections? I’ve spent 15 years researching Shanghai’s neighborhood committees, and I’ve consistently found that young people show little interest in the elections and day-to-day activities of these bodies. They don’t think of themselves as residents of a community, even after extensive mobilization. What we need is to put community autonomy into practice through more widespread participation and turn neighborhood committees into a means of expressing the community’s interests.
Sixth Tone: On the other hand, we could also view the rising number of complaints as a sign of growing interest in community governance.
Sun: That’s right. During the initial flurry of group-buying, many residents of upscale residential compounds competed on social media by posting pictures of Western food and afternoon tea that their communities had procured. It was a way to display their social status. As the lockdown stretched on, however, it had the opposite effect: flaunting high-end consumption amid material shortages only served to highlight inequality and undermine the social prestige of these communities, and even the wealthy have been unable to buy their way out of food shortages.
A community’s ability to procure food seems to come down to the ability of the relevant district governments, subdistrict offices, and neighborhood committees to allocate resources. I look at this as a lesson about the importance of supportive neighborhoods, well-run neighborhood committees, effective governance, and transparent information distribution systems. In order to achieve these, individuals need to think of themselves not just as “consumers,” but also as active participants in public affairs.
Nearly two weeks after Shanghai entered lockdown, people began sharing an online “Community Red/Black List” document on social media, with residents flocking to edit its content to express either their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their subdistricts, neighborhood committees, and property management company’s handling of the outbreak, as well as the delivery of supplies. Given how comprehensive the survey is, and how enthusiastically people are participating in the survey as a public space, it signals a potentially profound change: one in which more people develop a sense of citizenship and participate in the governance of their society.
Translator: David Ball; editor: Kilian O’Donnell.