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2022-08-09 12:20:17 Voices

In early June, as Shanghai slowly emerged from its two-month lockdown, my building remained sealed. By the time I was freed on June 10, a surreal sense of normalcy had descended on the city. The ordinary rhythms of life had returned, but with none of their former vibrancy.

For the vast majority of residents in China’s economic and international capital, the idea that Shanghai might shut down would have been unthinkable as recently as March. Their experiences this spring forced them to reevaluate everything they thought they knew about the city they call home.

In that moment of uncertainty, “run philosophy,” or runxue, emerged from nowhere to capture the public’s imagination. There were media reports of expatriates who fled the city and of longtime residents who decamped to their hometowns in search of a normal life. Shanghainese, tired of lockdowns and tests, fantasized about “running” somewhere, anywhere, that promised relief from the tedium of COVID-19 prevention.

As a scholar of migration, I was naturally interested in how Shanghai residents perceived their mobility — and immobility — during the extreme disruptions of the past several months. At the same time, I remained skeptical of the extent to which this fantasizing would translate into concrete action. Run philosophy is by nature accessible only to members of China’s middle class, who have the cultural and economic capital to contemplate running for the exits. Nevertheless, I was interested in how widespread and serious the interest among this comparatively tiny group was in the idea of running.

Yang was the most vocal of my interviewees in his commitment to leaving China. He described the lockdown as a collective trauma — one that will have lasting psychological effects on the city’s residents. He said he first made up his mind to emigrate after being sent to a temporary fangcang quarantine center in April, but claimed the decision had less to do with his time in quarantine than his growing concern that the era of global freedom of movement in which he grew up is drawing to a close.

Born in the 1980s, Yang belongs to the generation of Chinese that has benefitted greatly from globalization. Like many of his peers, he wants to feel “close” to the world. He moved to Shanghai for university and chose to stay partly because of the convenience of traveling to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Prior to the pandemic, he regularly traveled abroad for work and pleasure.

Although not all of Yang’s fears were representative or relatable — he expressed especial concern that the mandatory home disinfection measures enforced in some neighborhoods might damage his collection of rare books — they all share a common thread: a fear that he is no longer in control of his own life. The lockdown forced middle-class Shanghainese to grapple with the fact that, at a moment’s notice, they could be severed from the things tying them to the city. For Yang, that meant his elderly parents, his friends, his job, and his books. “Even if I wanted to watch over them, I could not keep them,” he said.

The lockdown forced middle-class Shanghainese to grapple with the fact that, at a moment’s notice, they could be severed from the things tying them to the city.

That loss of control was particularly disconcerting to middle-class Chinese of Yang’s generation, who grew up in an increasingly individualistic society. Ultimately, Yang framed his decision to move as values-based, claiming that he was willing to give up his career and socio-economic status in China in exchange for not losing his connection to the rest of the world. “If the world is divided into two, I want to be on that side,” he said.

Not everyone sees the country’s repeated lockdowns in quite such apocalyptic terms. Veronica, a Shanghai resident who left the city just before its lockdown started, spent the last four months in the southwestern city of Dali. Long a popular destination for hippies and yuppies alike, Dali’s natural beauty and slower pace of life has attracted growing numbers of middle-class Chinese in recent years. According to Veronica, she and the other Shanghai residents who spent the lockdown in Dali fit right in with the city’s other self-proclaimed “refugees” from the ills of modern life.

Although southwest China is by no means a stranger to strict COVID-19 prevention measures, Veronica was confident that Dali was a better place to ride out the rest of the pandemic than the country’s megacities. “Being stuck in your apartment is too depressing,” she told me. “Dali is safer — and you won’t lose your freedom.”

Key to Veronica’s more sanguine attitude is the belief that the current controls on movement are temporary, rather than the new normal. She’s even planning a trip to Europe after China lifts its restrictions on international travel.

Broadly speaking, the number of Chinese with the means and willingness to “run” remains small. Within my own social circle, the initial weeks of chaos and panic quickly gave way to regular posts of government-issued food or luxury group purchases. Although it’s tricky to infer people’s attitudes from their social media activity, it’s clear that many Shanghai residents are trying to move on with life as best they can.

That doesn’t mean pretending the lockdown never happened, but for many residents, it’s not so easy to turn their backs on the lives they have built. One close friend told me that, although she was not particularly hopeful about the future, her family was keeping her rooted in the city. “With a son, I think the uncertainty of the future is multiplied by 10,” she said. “Even if I can live a peaceful life, he for sure will experience turmoil. What can I do?”

Her answer, like that of so many middle-class Chinese over the past decade, was to invest in real estate — in this case, an apartment in the city center. Although overlooked in the media frenzy surrounding run philosophy, for many Shanghainese, “running” meant upgrading their living conditions within the city, whether that was a bigger apartment, a new place with a courtyard or balcony, or even just a home in a complex run by a better-organized property management firm.

Those who lived through the Shanghai lockdown will carry it with them for the rest of their lives. For some, “running” can be a defense mechanism or even a kind of resistance. For many others, however, it’s an escapist fantasy. Mobility is a privilege restricted by access to passports, education, skills, and economic or cultural resources. Ironically, if the ongoing pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the people best able to move out of its destructive path — whether to the countryside or across international borders — are rarely those in the greatest danger.

Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: Lyubov Smirnova/VCG)