China under Lockdown: Social Media and Labor Conditions during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Delivery service becomes a lifeline during the stay-at-home period. Source: //
Anan Zhou examines the use of social media and labor conditions in China during the coronavirus pandemic.
[Ed. note: This is the final installment of a series of reports on the COVID-19 pandemic from global cities.]

Internet-Based Mutual Aid

Considering the risk of traffic control following the lockdown of Wuhan, I decided to leave my parents’ house for Beijing on the day after the Chinese Lunar New Year. The family reunion was unexpectedly cut short. My decision was made due to two reasons. The first relates to my knowledge of official Chinese administrative logics. Wuhan’s lockdown was a signal indicating that the government would suppress the spread of the epidemic (later a pandemic) at any cost. The daily economic activities in the whole country might be readjusted a great deal. The second reason points to my economic anxieties. As one of the new migrants to the metropolis, I clearly understand the frustrating results of failing to return to a normal schedule, especially when the economy is in decline. Many of my friends made the same decision. They left their hometowns and went back to the major cities immediately after learning about the lockdown of Wuhan. 

Working people leaving their hometowns for jobs in major cities is still an important pattern in the integration of Chinese society, even if such a pattern is much less consolidated due to the government’s plan to contain the scale of major cities and reactivate local economies. With 1.4 billion residents, China is constructed as a fully mobile and migratory network: the metropolises are the central nodes among which traffic lines allow the easy flow of people nationwide. Information and communication within such flows are now made possible by the internet. The picture of China’s radical industrial infrastructure construction can help explain two things: the basis of the erupting media information during the Covid-19 control campaign, and the origin of the inequality and fragility of labor conditions during the same period.

Local governments tend to obscure information regarding public security when it confronts local economic stability, which has been a long-term problem in the Chinese bureaucratic system. Influenced by widespread anger and grievances, the general public recently requested an explanation—had a similar cover-up been carried out by the Wuhan/Hubei government(s) to misguide the central government or to deliberately suppress media reports on the epidemic? The public was the mainstream voice in various press and social media during that time. 

Let me explain how the Chinese media information network works. The network had undergone a massive expansion in market-run media through China’s neoliberal-driven economic reform policies during the 1990s. Back then, Chinese leadership anticipated replacing the national propaganda system shaped during the socialist period with a system similar to the liberal democratic media system in the US. In that period, the institutional print media characterized by newspapers and magazines made up the information network for the emerging Chinese urban middle-class, which also represented the government’s ideological reason for building a free market system. After Xi Jinping took office, the printed media network decreased dramatically because of the rise of political struggles and thriving internet communities. China’s radical approach to developing a universal and inclusive infrastructure was to make the internet information system similar to other basic public services, such as water and electric utilities.1As reported in June 2019, China has 854 million netizens, which constitutes 60% of the country’s population. Now, because of smartphones, various informal information sources (such as workshop-style “we media”) and social media quickly substituted institutional media and became the main information gateway for the Chinese. Consequently, very few high performing print media outlets that focused on in-depth investigation for “well educated” readers survived.

While Wuhan was locked down, the internet was not. Wuhan became the absolute focus on social media. In addition to angry voices demanding that the government explain the outbreak of the epidemic, every detail on the battle against COVID-19 in Wuhan was intensified under the spotlight of social media. The city has a unique central geographic location which earned it a time-honored designation, “the nexus of nine provinces.” In recent years, the mobile population around Wuhan is still growing. Moreover, because of the highly integrated Chinese economy, most people in major metropolises would know, or be familiar with, someone from Wuhan. Therefore, Wuhan’s ability to function normally is a reflection of the nation’s ability to maintain economic stability. When the entire country was ordered to lock down, the emotional and psychological bonds to the city became a tremendous impetus for concern about Wuhan on the internet. The spotlight on Wuhan enabled stronger cohesion on social media. Angry Chinese voices criticizing the poor performance of the Wuhan/Hubei bureaucratic system converged into widespread public opinion regarding the transportation and allocation of medical-related equipment and the circumstances of common citizens regarding food and accommodation. This mediated flow of public opinion soon combined with various formal and informal social forces, which contributed to the effective frontline battle against the epidemic.

An example can better illustrate how internet-based support could be effective in battling the epidemic. While many other critical voices were widely suppressed, feminist rights gained large-scale traction due to a large number of participants and their decentralized organization. Female doctors and nurses combating the virus in Wuhan used social media to promote the use of protective suits. Since those suits were in great scarcity then, they had to keep wearing dispensable suits for more than 10 hours at a time. A feminist social media user saw this and spoke out, calling for the donation of hygiene and feminine products to alleviate the discomfort of female medical workers, especially those who kept working during their period but had no opportunity to use the bathroom. Within less than a week, enough funds were raised, factories connected, transportation constraints cleared, and finally, the products arrived. The process also ignited significant debate online, which allowed informative opinions to disseminate broadly. Thousands of female workers from different occupations joined the debate and convinced the public that for a long time they had been confronted with a lack of occupational protection according to their physiological needs. They won the debate.

“Stand By Her” poster to promote sanitary products donation online, May 12, 2020.
Source: Weibo (Liangyu Staycey)

Fragile Fragments in Suspended Urban Life

Differing from the nationwide solidarity that emerged in the network of mutual online aid, Wuhan and the Hubei Province were stigmatized in their administration of urban social life. In order to avoid possible trouble, many cities where Wuhan/Hubei migrants had settled no longer allowed them to travel from their hometown after the Lunar New Year. In Beijing, rapid expansive urbanization led to the significant emergence of an urban fringe area, where many migrant laborers choose to live, which lacked effective administration and social service provisions. These areas are only managed by village-level resident committees. During the COVID-19 outbreak, a brutal and restrictive local conservatism emerged in those areas. Even though the Beijing municipal government repeatedly required that residents who came from Wuhan/Hubei were not discriminated against, the orders did not work because the threat of the epidemic was still a frightening mystery. The mobile “outsiders” became the most vulnerable groups in cities overnight. Many were refused the ability to go back to their apartments and rendered homeless, including those who earned a middle-class income. The contradiction between a secure and exclusive housing registration system and living conditions based on mobility was another area of possible discriminatory conflict apart from class and gender.

It is hard to explain to an international community to what extent high social cohesion had been reached and the strict policies that were implemented. Western media still remains suspicious of Chinese statistics on the infection rate and the death toll. However, it is reasonable to conclude that the numbers are basically reliable even if we consider minor errors due to statistical methods or, in the worst scenario, take the possibility of a local cover-up into consideration. In China, the more urgent focus should be shifted to the by-product of the stringent stay-at-home order. A massive-scale mobile society came to a sudden stop and the livelihood of workers based on mobility between and within cities was fully suspended. We can imagine how many secondary disasters surfaced. 

The livelihood of lower-middle-class service providers’ is the first example that comes to mind. In cities such as Beijing, the service industry already provides most of the jobs in the economy. After several sizable and notorious eviction campaigns to drive the lower-class migrant population out of Beijing, now only the remaining lower class and upper-middle-class have been integrated into the economic cycle. That is, the former serves the latter. Although the advanced internet service industry enables the work and living conditions of residents in major cities to roughly continue in a “contactless” manner, service workers, however, still experienced significant economic onslaught because of the epidemic. Delivery workers who kept their positions during this difficult period and helped run the contactless economy were highly praised as citizen heroes. But due to the general decline of the economy, the orders they took hugely decreased. For those workers who are not able to use the internet for employment but are more community-based such as personal care, household cleaning, and small business owners, the onslaught can only be worse. Many workers quickly learned to expand their business through the internet such as using WeChat groups to sell their vegetables. Such economic modes of organization temporarily shifted from physical space to virtual space, which demonstrated the vitality of small-scale and short supply chains’ potential to resist massive social crisis. How to prevent such modes from being absorbed into large-scale commercial internet capital should be an important task for progressive thinkers and practitioners in the future.

Doctors scrawled graffiti on protective suits to cheer each other up, March 9, 2020.

The official Chinese first-quarter statistics indicate that there are 26.4 million unemployed people, which seems to represent only 6% of the entire workforce (440 million). But according to an established scholar who participated in the unemployment survey, this number was reported under formal international labor standards, while the de facto impact might reach 100 million people2See Zeng Xiangquan, interviewed by the Chinese media outlet Yicai, May 5, 2020.. The Chinese government is planning to develop multiple policies to increase the employment rate, which will produce another round of policy debate: should we allocate emergency relief funds to business enterprises to promote production or to individual citizens to help the most vulnerable groups survive? Nevertheless, it is certain that the Chinese government’s general goals are to get the mobile society back to normal, to get businesses reopened, and to get the unemployment rate back to a low number. This action is compatible with the role of social policy implemented by state-owned enterprises. Under such logic, however, those who are not officially counted as unemployed (e.g., those in informal employment or self-employment) might fall into a blind spot because of such policies. In fact, they belong to the most fragile groups who may not be able to resume their livelihood.


1 As reported in June 2019, China has 854 million netizens, which constitutes 60% of the country’s population.
2 See Zeng Xiangquan, interviewed by the Chinese media outlet Yicai, May 5, 2020.
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