One year ago, things in China were very different. Around the time of the 2020 Lunar New Year people had already brought Covid-19 back to their families, hospitals in Wuhan were overwhelmed and doctor Li Wenliang, who tried to warn his the world of the virus, had passed away. This year, China’s central government in Beijing has advised people to stay where they are for the holiday.
The government hasn’t banned travel but people are following official guidance. The number of passengers travelling during the three-day pre-festival rush fell 70 per cent year on year. Usually billions of trips are made across China for the Lunar New Year period. Train tickets sell out weeks in advance. Stations are mobbed in the days running up to the holiday. This year, they’re not.
But while the central government isn’t forcing people to stay at home, some bosses are. Any controls are happening at a local level, instead. Zhang* a law professor at a university in Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei, says his workplace had banned him and other teachers from travel. A cluster of Covid-19 cases emerged there last month. While the city has reported no locally transmitted cases over the last few days, his university administration is still on alert.
Zhang’s workplace, or danwei, sees the government’s voluntary advice as mandatory. In April last year, they requested teachers hand in their passports, to stop them travelling abroad. Zhang told them he’d lost his to avoid giving it over. Eight months on, near the end of the year, his danwei had each of its employees self-report their travel itineraries in its WeChat groups. They said, one by one, whether they had been to recent virus hotspots. These messages were collected into reports that were sent to the university’s Prevention and Control department.
When it comes to social distancing in the most fundamental way – discouraging travel altogether – danwei have been crucial in ensuring compliance. Danwei were key to how Mao-era China governed. They’re less central to people’s lives now but still powerful. Most people are in a WeChat group with the leader of their danwei – their boss. When your boss tells you it’s a bad idea to travel home across the country, it can be hard to argue otherwise.
China’s epidemic prevention effort has leaned on social organisation, not technology. Feng Ouxing, a state-owned enterprise researcher, is back in her home province of Fujian. To leave Beijing she had to fill in a form stating a reason for why she was leaving, where she was going and what transport she would take. Her work unit was relatively relaxed about her returning to see her family. That is not the case for everyone – civil servants in other areas of China are expected to set an example and so most are required to stay where they work, unless there are “special circumstances.”
While Feng says it’s possible that some employees might hide the fact that they’ve travelled from their danwei, she believes the psychological pressure of false reporting and the worry that something might go wrong will dissuade people. She also notes that the app released by the State Council tracks GPS locations shared by telecom companies and can show which jurisdictions you’ve been to within the last 14 days. She’s more worried about sudden policy changes made by local governments than getting infected. Feng remembers how last year, when she returned to Beijing, she had to quarantine for two weeks. It was already April, far later than she’d expected to be able to return.
Sudden changes in Covid-19 related policies have been part of China’s overall response. If there are new cases in a city, the local government’s response follows a set pattern. There is a swift lockdown, mass testing, and everyone waits within their residential compounds until there are no locally transmitted cases. While it may be effective for eliminating the virus, it has a huge impact on people’s lives. They are often stuck, in cities where they don’t work, for months on end without salaries. And once they do return, that can mean facing another quarantine.
The thought of facing quarantine can be enough to put some off travel. From Dongxindian village on Beijing’s periphery, migrant worker Ren Shanhu called his neighbourhood committee back home in Shanxi. They told him that even if he tested negative for coronavirus, he would have to quarantine for 14 days if he returned. His family would also have to stay inside. Ren heard stories of committees in the same village enforcing quarantine on one returnee while another, who returned at the same time, was simply advised not to leave. He decided not to return – the uncertainty was too much. Last year, he hadn’t been able to return until June and had to pay months of rent as soon as he returned.
An announcement by the Party’s discipline and inspection commission acknowledged that while preventing travel altogether might lead to fewer headaches for officials, it “increases social conflicts” adding that “damage to the image of the Party and government must be corrected.”
Many migrant workers who decided to return had to quarantine for two weeks. Delivery driver Wang Xiaowang was one of those. He returned to his hometown in Hongtong county, Shanxi province, a month ago, where he observed local traditions like staying up until sunrise, as there’s a local saying that equates it with living longer. He had gotten compassionate leave from work as his father had passed away – from non-coronavirus-related causes.
But the logistics company Wang works for, SF Express, wants its couriers to keep working. It has offered them bonuses as the online shopping habits of consumers have only become more entrenched since the Covid-19 outbreak. It’s not alone in offering incentives for workers to stay – local governments have offered subsidies, gifts, and shopping discounts. Had Wang stayed in Beijing, he would have received a bonus of around £100 a day of the holiday, on top of his usual RMB10,000 (£1120) each month. It was not enough to keep him there. Even if his father hadn’t passed, he says he would have still returned out as his mother needs company—the bonuses and the self-quarantines can’t trump family. “You can never work enough, and never make enough money,” he says.
*Names have been changed
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