Winding Down ‘Zero-COVID’: The View From an Urban Village
On Nov. 30, Guangzhou lifted lockdowns in multiple areas and no longer required mass testing. Several other cities relaxed similar restrictions around the same time.
More followed just a week later when the National Health Commission announced that China would pivot away from long-term lockdowns, and those infected with mild or no symptoms could isolate themselves at home.
As the country enters the fourth year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the decisions marked the most significant relaxation in China’s strict “zero-COVID” policy.
As millions across the country heaved a collective sigh of relief, a Weibo user named “BeichuanKafka” found herself unemployed. Again.
This time, it happened just three days after she started working as a security guard at a large urban village in Guangzhou’s Panyu District. After graduating from a university in Chongqing, she previously worked at a major internet company in Guangzhou with a decent salary.
But before completing six months of work, she was laid off. To pass the time, she turned to the only temporary job she could start immediately: working as a security guard who stopped quarantined residents from leaving their neighborhoods.
Her role was part of the most basic unit of China’s epidemic prevention and control system. From her vantage point, BeichuanKafka first saw the stringent “zero-COVID” policy up close, and then the last three days before the policy was wound down.
This is her story.
On Nov. 29, I worked until midnight and went home to sleep. When I woke up at noon the next day, my phone was full of messages saying that Guangzhou’s lockdown was lifted and that tests were no longer needed to travel within the city.
I quickly opened an official post that read, “Districts including Haizhu, Liwan, Tianhe, and Panyu have lifted measures for temporary control areas.” In the group chat for our security team, I saw the next day’s work schedule with this message: “Don’t check for PCR test results anymore. Shifts at each checkpoint are cut in half.”
I was stunned and spent the rest of the afternoon scrolling through my phone. The long-term lockdown had made me skeptical of any positive news like that.
It only really hit me that Guangzhou was out of lockdown when I was on duty that afternoon. A few young people approached the entrance, and my colleague asked to scan their health code. Without even stopping, they laughed and said, “It’s just like a regular cold. We don’t have to scan to come in!”
Nov. 30 was my last day as a security guard. I saw so many people walking out with suitcases that day. Flights leaving Guangzhou had shot up exponentially to around 2,000 yuan ($287), and trains were sold out.
I heard that South Railway Station was full of scalpers reselling tickets at exorbitant prices. Even rideshares had skyrocketed from the usual per-person rate of 150 yuan to 600 yuan.
I planned on leaving Guangzhou too. I hoped to head to Beijing or my hometown of Changsha, capital of the central Hunan province, and look for work there.
But my main concern now is getting tested so that I can change my health code from yellow to green. (China’s colored health codes of red, yellow, and green indicate the individual’s COVID risk status and ability to travel). The problem is that all of Guangzhou’s testing sites have been shut down.
My health code was actually yellow during my last two days as a security guard, but since I always checked other people’s codes nobody ever checked mine. I haven’t tested in a month.
This is the second time in one month that I’ve lost my job.
The first was on Nov. 18 at 2 p.m. It was my 16th day in lockdown, and I was working at my rental home when my company called me. At first, I was excited by the news of the layoff. I didn’t have to work anymore and was basically paid to be on vacation. Freedom!
But that night, other mixed emotions surfaced. There have been massive layoffs in the internet industry in the latter half of this year. I worked for a major livestreaming company that was on its third wave of layoffs, so I was mentally prepared for it; I just didn’t expect it to be so fast.
As I was leaving, I glanced at the company group chat and saw that a quarter of the staff had been let go this year.
I’m 22. I graduated from college this past June and had interned with Douyin, Kuaishou, and other companies while an undergrad, so my job search went pretty well.
I’m from a small town in Hunan province, and when I got my job offer, I quickly became the pride of the whole family. After being laid off, I immediately wondered how I would explain this to my parents back home. That night, I finished almost an entire bottle of vodka.
On Nov. 25, I went to the office to hand over my work. On the subway, I saw a post on WeChat from the urban village where I lived. It read: “Due to the need for epidemic prevention and control, we are recruiting temporary security personnel. 18 to 55 years, male or female. 150 yuan per day.”
The next afternoon, I went to the village committee to apply for the job. The lobby had become a makeshift interview setting, with a plain wooden table placed in front of the head of security. He asked only one question: “Have you had three vaccine doses yet?”
I was interviewed along with two slender, young girls. One worked at a clothing manufacturer, the other at a brick-and-mortar store. Both of their jobs were outside the urban village, and they couldn’t leave once we were locked down, so their managers marked them as absent and never paid them. They said becoming a security guard guaranteed them minimum income at the least.
That night, the head of security added us to a WeChat group called “November 27.” The first message in the chat was, “Congratulations, you’re hired.”
I officially started my security guard job on Nov. 27. Out of three shifts, I worked the 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. shift. We didn’t have a uniform. Instead, we wore a red armband that allowed us to move freely through the urban village.
My responsibilities were to guard the checkpoint and permit only incoming — never outgoing — traffic. I checked the non-residents for green health codes before they entered and also stopped residents from leaving. For those eligible to leave, I checked their permit or work certificate.
The checkpoint was sealed with a rolling iron fence, flanked on both sides with a temporary sentry box. The fence opened with enough space for only one person to pass through.
I got along best with a millennial colleague who was also from Hunan. Before the pandemic, he ran his own clothing store on Taobao and managed 75 people at its peak. Thanks to the low costs of making clothes in Guangzhou, his business had a daily turnover of more than 10,000 yuan ($1,437) and made 7,000 yuan in net profits.
Being stationed at the checkpoint marked the first time in ten years that he had “worked.” Every day, he acted like it was something novel, saying “I’ve never experienced stable work like this” or “I got too lonely during lockdown and wanted to find people to talk to.”
He never needed the money; he got the job purely to chat. We made 150 yuan each day, and the late-night food he treated me to cost 60-70 yuan alone.
There were also two women in their early 20s. I called them Blue Hoodie and Red Vest.
Blue Hoodie stood on her feet for the full eight-hour shift every day. Incredibly dedicated, she tried to reason with every resident trying to leave. “The pandemic is dire in Guangzhou right now, and there are close contacts within the village and a lot of yellow codes,” she would explain. “If there’s anything you don’t understand, please see the public announcement.” And residents would grow impatient and turn back.
On the other hand, Red Vest just shouted at them. “Go read the announcement! Don’t keep me from doing my job!” When people tried to break through the checkpoint by force, she yelled: “Who do you think you are? If everyone acted the way you do, society would be a mess!”
Asked if they could leave tomorrow, she always replied, “Who knows what’ll come first: tomorrow or the unknown?”
Having started the job five days before me and my Hunan colleague, Red Vest often lectured us. “You’re too nice and smiley with people. You have to be meaner to get people to be afraid of you.”
Our supervisor was a middle-aged man who usually stood beyond the traffic barriers, often smoking and scrolling on his phone. His bulging belly was barely contained within an overstretched shirt, which he always paired with tapered jeans and leather footwear.
I called him Leather Shoes. When people tried to sneak by the younger guards, he stepped in to body block them. He was the adult and the “brute force” in the group.
Meanwhile, I was the slacker of the group. Most of the time, I sat in the sentry box or behind the traffic barrier and read, listened to podcasts, or wrote my journal. When fights broke out, I was busy taking pictures and recording them.
My Hunan colleague said that I bummed around for seven of the eight hours at work. The remaining one hour was spent eating.
Greasing the wheels
The rule was that people could only enter but never exit. The only exceptions were those with permits or work certificates — usually property management staff or health personnel.
Residents technically have no way to get a permit, but in reality, all you need is a stamp from the village committee, so there’s fluidity in that policy. Sometimes, the foreman of some construction site outside comes over to “facilitate goodwill.” They want the village committee’s stamp to get the migrant workers out to work.
Residents without permits could only break out of the village, which ultimately forced us to concede based on how much trouble they might make.
Once, a man in his 40s came into our village to run an errand. When he was stopped on his way out, he yelled, “Check my test! Check it! I’ve been testing for 30 days straight, and it’s all green codes! Are you still not letting me go home? What then? Do you want me to live at this checkpoint for the rest of my life?”
Red Vest and Leather Shoes pulled him aside to ask if he had any proof. They suggested quietly that he show a random test result and then allowed him to leave. It was really all just an act, put on for everyone else who might think about trying to leave too.
Whether to release someone without a permit was up to Leather Shoes, whose general principle was to avoid any commotion at the checkpoint. Disturbances can easily agitate people, and if all the residents rushed to the checkpoint, then the security team would be held responsible. Consequently, as soon as someone made a scene, Leather Shoes would implicitly let us know to turn a blind eye.
One night, a clothing factory owner wanted to leave the urban village to go to work. He tried to slip out behind a delivery scooter but was caught by Red Vest and forced to return.
But later, I saw him from afar as he was climbing over a six-foot-high iron sheet to escape. There were a lot of shared bikes parked in the village, and every day, there were a handful of residents who stepped up on the bike seats and catapulted themselves over the fence.
A few hours later, the same man came sauntering back into the village with a bag of supplies in his hand. We all pretended not to recognize him.
I’ve also done my part in breaking the rules. There was an old lady from a nearby village who came to ours to buy vegetables, not knowing that she couldn’t leave afterward. She pleaded with each of us to let her out, saying that her disabled grandson was waiting alone at home for her.
We all said no, so she sat quietly on a small stool by the checkpoint for over an hour. When there were fewer people around, I secretly opened the gates a little to let her slip out.
That day, our security group caught 15 people with yellow codes and had 11 people try to rush the checkpoint. We photographed all of it and made a record of everyone in that latter group.
The security guards were tougher if they could communicate with you, or else they just stayed away. On my third day, I encountered two foreigners who ignored all the barriers. They entered and left freely, completely unfazed by the notices.
When Red Vest stopped them the first time, they jabbered back in English. Red Vest covered her ears, saying, “Don’t talk to me. I don’t understand.” But as more people gathered around and watched, she had the foreigners present a random permit and then let them leave. After that, they were never stopped again.
Then came a couple that afternoon. The girl, who spoke Cantonese, started interrogating us as people online had said to do: “Why can’t we leave? Who made this rule? Who’s in charge? Which unit sent you here?” Her line of logic was clear, but Red Vest only replied, “Ask the village committee. I don’t know.”
The Cantonese girl grew more emboldened as her questions grew louder. She almost managed to clear the checkpoint when her boyfriend pulled her away, saying, “Stop arguing. No is no. There’s no use asking them.”
Incidentally, the multiple restrictions only affected people. Animals, however, roamed freely around.
A young man wanted to take his sick dog to the vet, so he called a friend who lived outside and asked him to wait on the other side of the checkpoint. “Go on then,” he said to his white, curly-haired dog with a pat. As this tiny animal strolled coolly past us, we could do nothing but stare.
We jokingly told every animal that passed through the barrier, “Stop! No access allowed. You can’t leave — come back and take a PCR test!” They left; we laughed. But sometimes, a dog was obedient enough to actually come back.
The village had a curfew, and delivery workers weren’t allowed to enter after 10 p.m. One of our residents ran a barbeque business and had to come to the checkpoint late at night to hand over an order to the courier, who would then deliver it to the customer. My Hunan colleague saw him and casually remarked, “How exhausting, having to work this late.”
The man suddenly burst out, “How would I live without working? You guys are still getting paid for being security guards, so you probably don’t want the lockdown lifted, but what about me? My children have school; we have to pay rent on the store in December; and I still have over 30,000 yuan in credit card debt to pay. What would I live on? I can’t if we stay locked down!”
Up in the air
On Dec. 1, all the guards were let go. The head of security issued a notice in the group chat that said, “As per higher authorities, there is no further need to check health codes, beginning this afternoon. All temporary staff are dismissed.”
My Hunan colleague decided to go home and run his social media account. For Blue Sweater and Red Vest, their original jobs — the brick-and-mortar store and the factory — were both reopening, so they were going back there.
I worked as a security guard for three days. I answered countless questions, though some were rhetorical, like: “If you don’t know why we’re locked down, then what are you doing? Are you all stupid and heartless?”
What I said the most was “Wait for an announcement,” “I don’t know,” “You can’t leave,” “Scan your code to pass,” and “There’s no point asking us.”
Everything that I saw, and everyone’s outbursts of emotions all became a spinning wheel in my head when I grew lost in thought: memories that were broken down and stored away, one by one.
Up to now with the pandemic, I’ve gone through school, internships, jobs, and layoffs. I’ve bounced around a dozen cities, and now I’m about to leave Guangzhou again. Who knows how the COVID policy evolves after this?
Have I really woken up from a dream, or is this the next dream? Perhaps I might never really know.
A version of this article originally appeared in SlutsOnChina, a women-centric content producer. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is published here with permission.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Xue Yongle and Apurva.
(Header image: A boy plays with a toy gun near demolished barriers in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Dec. 1, 2022. VCG)