Since Shanghai got locked down, the local government has taken on the responsibility of uniformly distributing food and necessities. Many people online say it feels like a return to the planned economy era.
So Sixth Tone asked a Shanghai resident who remembers the planned economy.
Born in 1965, Hua, who only gave his surname for privacy reasons, has witnessed China’s transition from a planned economy to an open market.
In 1989, Hua quit a factory job in Shanghai and stepped into the business world. In the 1990s, Hua sold various things in Wuhan, such as engraving machines and jeans, and later worked as a technology transfer agent for a variety of small machinery such as cigarette lighters. He also acted as a salesperson for imported factory machines in central China.
Hua achieved financial freedom in 2001, and became interested in solar-heating technology. He filed several patents. In 2019, Hua became interested in sociology after reading Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” Recently, alone in his apartment, Hua told Sixth Tone he’s reading “Making Things Work: Solving Complex Problems in a Complex World” by Yaneer Bar-Yam.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You can listen to an audio version of this article via “China Stories,” a SupChina-produced podcast sharing the best writing on China.
Pork and rice
In our neighborhood WeChat group, one of the residents complained that the community had only given out pork, and the meat is too fatty.
I felt just the opposite. Pork has always had a strong appeal to me. It was always short during my childhood. When I was growing up, meat was a rare commodity and had to be purchased with a ration ticket. At that time, fatty meat was worth more than lean meat, because we could also render it to make cooking oil, which was also scarce back then.
Hua’s Shanghai lockdown reading. Courtesy of Hua
These days, people who run out of oil at home also have to use the method of rendering lard. It feels like going back in time.
What we are experiencing now definitely cannot be called a “planned” economy... But with scarce supplies and limited variety, our relationship with food has changed. It’s gone from eating whatever comes to mind, to requiring some planning ahead of time.
When I was growing up, my parents were the ones who planned what the family ate. I don’t have many memories of how they planned the food. The time I started to plan for myself was when I went to college in the north. Each student was given a certain amount of ration tickets every month, and 40% of them were for coarse food — cornmeal and millet. As a southerner, I hate coarse food, but if I didn’t eat them, I’d starve. So I forced myself to eat the coarse food by cooking it as porridge for breakfast, so I didn’t have to deal with it the rest of the day.
Now I am doing something similar. I don’t like the noodles our community is giving us, so I eat them for lunch, rather than for dinner.
Volunteers move packages at a residential community in Shanghai, April 14, 2022. Zhang Lihua/VCG
I grew up in a shipyard’s work unit, where everyone worked for the same factory. At that time, the factory issued ration tickets to families every month based on how many people they had, and some families might exchange some extra rice with their neighbors for eggs.
It was the natural thing to do, to swap goods with each other in an “acquaintance society.” Families were close-knit and everyone knew each other intimately.
Now, I live in a high-rise apartment complex built in 1996. I don’t know any of my neighbors. And I think modern buildings don’t foster an intimate atmosphere.
Last week, I took a whole day to make tofu from soybeans. It was a huge batch, more than I can eat alone. I posted a picture on WeChat, and a friend suggested that I should give some to my neighbors.
I did give it some thought. But I’m feeling a bit sensitive, because my recent attempts to make friends with my neighbor failed. I have a habit of playing badminton. Last week I saw two young people downstairs playing, but not very skillfully. I volunteered to join and helped them to play better. The next day, I brought an outdoor shuttlecock, meaning to give it to them. However, when I stood there, they acted as if they didn’t know me. And the previous time, when the game was over, they neither suggested that we could be WeChat friends, nor took the initiative to ask me to play with them again.
I gave up on giving tofu to my neighbors. I didn’t know which neighbor I should give it to. “If I asked in the WeChat group, and a lot of people wanted it, it would be a very embarrassing decision to make,” I told myself. I just put it all in the fridge.
Group buying is the only group activity I participate in. I force myself to participate, because the food supplies given by the community are totally insufficient. But community group buying only works for those who actively follow the group chat, so if you miss the message, you miss the group buy.
One elderly person in our community called the head of the neighborhood committee, and said he was about to run out of food. The leader said they would report upwards, and also suggested he call 12345.
In the acquaintance society of the past, people would help the old man during the group purchase, not just throw the responsibility of taking care of the old man to the neighborhood committee.
A worker in hazmat suit stands next to a perimeter wall of a locked-down neighborhood in Shanghai, March 26, 2022. Photographer: Shen Qilai/Bloomberg via VCG
Reform and opening
I lived my young adulthood during the transition from the planned economy to the opening of the market.
Reform and opening up began to take shape in Shanghai in the late 80s. After I graduated from college, I was assigned to work at the Shanghai Machine Tool Factory in 1986. I soon felt that the atmosphere was changing. People around me were getting out of the system and going all over the country to look for business opportunities. Before, it was a crime — “speculation” — to take something from a place where it was abundant to a place where there was scarcity.
In 1989, I took a leave of absence from my job and went to Shenzhen to experience the business atmosphere, and then started to go around the country, trading sand, cement, and rebar, and later trying to sell computers, stereos, and printers in Shanghai.
At that time, each city had its own food specialty, and these things could only be bought when you went to the local area. Each city had its own brand of milk. Beer too. Now, you can buy any local food brand you want online.
During this lockdown, all of a sudden there is less choice of food brands. It does seem like a return to the old days. Shanghai’s local food brands are easier to find in group buying groups. Of course, there are also some food brands that we’ve never seen before. I think these brands are hard to notice in the free market by high-spending Shanghai citizens, with competition from all over the country, and even from imported brands.
I’ve heard that now it’s all companies with good relations with the Shanghai government that are on the guaranteed supply list, and big private companies like JD.com are not on the list, so it leads to very poor transportation.
If we were still in the era of the planned economy, this might not feel so jarring. At that time all the enterprises were all state-owned and it would all be down to the government to coordinate.
But then again, the recent phenomenon is actually quite understandable. China’s economy was slowly opening up into a free market, but it has never been entirely free. Any regional business that wants to enter the market in another area will encounter top-down resistance. Like Wahaha — after it captured almost all of the national market with the strategy of “encircling the city with the countryside,” it still took a long time to enter Shanghai.
In China, the free market has always been carried out in a macro-controlled way by the government. So I think we shouldn’t dichotomize and say that a free economy is better suited to solve the current situation or a planned economy. Rather, we should reorganize the relationship between these two methods and use them in an optimal combination.
Through this time, I’ve realized that lots of us, including myself, our thinking has been stuck in the past, in the ways of industrial mass production — a much more standardized system.
Now it’s the internet era. The complex logistics within the city are built with a lot of reliance on algorithms to distribute things individually. Now this system is not working, so we’re going back to top-down distribution, and supply is inadequate. Now the self-initiated community group buying is supplementing this.
There needs to be a new management solution for this state of abundance. It’s a state of rapid change for everyone. This lockdown of the city is a good test. It forces us to ask how to manage things with a complex system.
We shouldn’t do nothing ourselves and just complain about being managed in a one-size-fits-all manner. We, the citizens and community leaders, should take the initiative to discuss with people close to us and come up with a solution that works for us, but also meets the “dynamic zero-COVID” requirements from the government.
Editor: David Cohen.
(Header image: Visual elements from Shijue Focus and LokFung/Digital Vision/VCG, reedited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)