To Tame Coronavirus, Mao-Style Social Control Blankets China


SHANGHAI — China has flooded cities and villages with battalions of neighborhood busybodies, uniformed volunteers and Communist Party representatives to carry out one of the biggest social control campaigns in history.

The goal: to keep hundreds of millions of people away from everyone but their closest kin.

The nation is battling the coronavirus outbreak with a grass-roots mobilization reminiscent of Mao-style mass crusades not seen in China in decades, essentially entrusting front line epidemic prevention to a supercharged version of a neighborhood watch.

Housing complexes in some cities have issued the equivalents of paper hall passes to regulate how often residents leave their homes. Apartment buildings have turned away their own tenants if they have come from out of town. Train stations block people from entering cities if they cannot prove they live or work there. In the countryside, villages have been gated off with vehicles, tents and other improvised barriers.

Despite China’s arsenal of high-tech surveillance tools, the controls are mainly enforced by hundreds of thousands of workers and volunteers, who check residents’ temperature, log their movements, oversee quarantines and — most important — keep away outsiders who might carry the virus.

Residential lockdowns of varying strictness — from checkpoints at building entrances to hard limits on going outdoors — now cover at least 760 million people in China, or more than half the country’s population, according to a New York Times analysis of government announcements in provinces and major cities. Many of these people live far from the city of Wuhan, where the virus was first reported and which the government sealed off last month.

Li Jing, 40, an associate professor of sociology at Zhejiang University in the eastern city of Hangzhou, was almost barred from taking her husband to a hospital recently after he choked on a fish bone during dinner. The reason? Her neighborhood allows only one person per family to leave the house, every other day.

“Once the epidemic was disclosed, the central government put huge pressure on local officials,” Professor Li said. “That triggered competition between regions, and local governments turned from overly conservative to radical.”

  • Updated Feb. 10, 2020

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is possibly transmitted through the air. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • How worried should I be?
      While the virus is a serious public health concern, the risk to most people outside China remains very low, and seasonal flu is a more immediate threat.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      World Health Organization officials have praised China’s aggressive response to the virus by closing transportation, schools and markets. This week, a team of experts from the W.H.O. arrived in Beijing to offer assistance.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The United States and Australia are temporarily denying entry to noncitizens who recently traveled to China and several airlines have canceled flights.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.

“Even when the situation is relieved or if the mortality rate turns out not to be high, the government machine is unable to change direction or tune down,” she added.

China’s prevention efforts are being led by its myriad neighborhood committees, which typically serve as a go-between for residents and the local authorities. Supporting them is the government’s “grid management” system, which divides the country into tiny sections and assigns people to watch over each, ensuring a tight grip over a large population.

Zhejiang Province, on China’s southeastern seaboard, has a population of nearly 60 million and has enlisted 330,000 “grid workers.” Hubei Province, whose capital is Wuhan, has deployed 170,000. The southern province of Guangdong has called upon 177,000, landlocked Sichuan has 308,000 and the megacity of Chongqing has 118,000

The authorities are also combining enormous manpower with mobile technology to track people who may have been exposed to the virus. China’s state-run cellular providers allow subscribers to send text messages to a hotline that generates a list of provinces they have recently visited.

At a high-speed rail station in the eastern city of Yiwu this past week, workers in hazmat suits demanded that passengers send the text messages that show their location data before being allowed to leave.

An app developed by a state-run maker of military electronics lets Chinese citizens enter their name and national ID number and be told whether they may have come in contact, on a plane, train or bus, with a carrier of the virus.

It is too early to say whether China’s strategy has contained the outbreak. With large numbers of new infections being reported every day, the government has clear reasons for minimizing human contact and domestic travel. But experts say that in epidemics, overbearing measures can backfire, scaring infected people into hiding and making the outbreak harder to control.

“Public health relies on public trust,” said Alexandra L. Phelan, a specialist in global health law at Georgetown University. “These community-level quarantines and the arbitrary nature in which they’re being imposed and tied up with the police and other officials is essentially making them into punitive actions — a coercive action rather than a public health action.”

In Zhejiang, one of China’s most developed provinces and home to Alibaba and other technology companies, people have written on social media about being denied entry to their own apartments in Hangzhou, the provincial capital. Coming home from out of town, they say, they were asked to produce documents from landlords and employers or be left on the street.

For Nada Sun, who was visiting family in Wenzhou, a coastal city in Zhejiang, a health scare turned into a mandatory quarantine.

When Ms. Sun, 29, complained of tightness in her chest this month, her mother told her to go to the hospital. She did not have a high fever, yet the hospital gave her a battery of checks. All came back negative for the virus.

Still, many in China are uneasy about loosening up virus controls too quickly.

Zhang Shu, 27, worries that her parents and neighbors are becoming cavalier about the virus, even as workers drive around her village near Wenzhou with loudspeakers telling people to stay home.

“Ordinary people are slowly starting to feel that the situation isn’t so horrible anymore,” Ms. Zhang said. “They are restless.”

Alexandra Stevenson contributed reporting from Hong Kong. Wang Yiwei and Lin Qiqing contributed research.


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