Ten days in Xi’an

Probe International Exclusive: The extraordinary account by acclaimed independent investigative journalist, Jiang Xue, detailing the unprecedented lockdown of the city of Xi’an, in central China’s Shaanxi Province, is now available to read as an English translation.

“Ten days in Xi’an” has been called the Xi’an version of “Wuhan Diary,” by Chinese novelist, Fang Fang. Similarly, investigative journalist, Jiang Xue, documented the spiral of her city, Xi’an (with a population of more than 13 million residents), into complete lockdown.

Jiang observes that the real tragedy is not the deaths from the spread of COVID-19, but from the hardships and emergencies strict lockdown led to – such as access to medical help (for high-risk pregnancies and existing conditions) curbed by the order to stay in. Food and other necessities weren’t in short supply, she says, but lack of access as a result of restrictions plunged people into crisis.

The government took on an impossible role in the pandemic lockdown that Jiang says the restoration of market order was far better equipped to cope with.

Published on January 4, 2022, “Ten days in Xi’an” is a log of Jiang’s daily experiences under lockdown posted to the WeChat social media platform. It’s life there drew millions of views and more than 2,000 messages in response. But a life short-lived. The piece was scrubbed from WeChat four days after it appeared. On January 5, the very next day after Jiang’s post went viral, two policemen knocked on her door, warning Jiang not to write again. The many articles supporting “Ten days in Xi’an” were also deleted and the account that posted her log was shut down permanently two weeks later.

Jiang explains she did not write her account in anger, which she kept under control. Her wish was to release “a few words of truth” about “people in pain desperate to hear authentic voices,” and to ensure the suffering of many had not been in vain.

Those experiences were erased in China. But Jiang’s “Ten days in Xi’an” nevertheless took flight and has found its voice beyond the country’s borders. Read those voices here and carry their lessons forward.

Originally posted January 4, 2022 on the WeChat account “MoCunGeWu”(默存格物)

Translated by Andréa Worden, courtesy of China Change and Probe International

The loudspeaker in the community rang again, repeating over and over, calling for people to go downstairs to take a PCR test. The queue was long. The girl who administered the tests vigorously slapped her plastic gloves with disinfectant after each one. I smelled the icy smell and imagined that the cold had frozen her hands badly.

This is December 31, 2021. The last dusk of the old year, twilight is about to fall. Looking out from the balcony, the street was deserted. There are no more busy evenings in the city, and the deadly silence feels absurd and a little fearful.

  1. First day of lockdown

On the afternoon of December 22, the day Xi’an’s city closure order was announced, I plodded away in silence working on a manuscript at home in the southern suburbs, and vaguely felt that the epidemic had become serious. Some restaurants in front of my home were sealed a few days ago, and the convenience store in front of the house stopped accepting express delivery the day before, making life inconvenient. After three o’clock, Suixi, a friend of mine, left a message on WeChat, saying that I should go buy some vegetables and stock up on food, and that the supermarket would be closed soon. I believed her, she is a veteran NGO worker, and has a lot of experience in remote disaster relief. So, I went out immediately.

As soon as I got to the supermarket, I discovered that something was wrong. Although the press conference that day had not yet been held, and the evening shopping had not yet begun, people’s shopping carts were full. I decided to buy more. I wouldn’t be able to carry everything on a shared bike, so I ended up taking a taxi to go back.

Sure enough, at the 5 o’clock press conference, a “city closure order” was issued. Although the government said, “material supplies are sufficient,” people had already begun panic buying. Because I had already bought some things, I was calm and at ease. After I returned home, I went out for a walk. Along the way, I saw a large crowd of people gathered at the entrance to Shajing Village in the High-Tech District. The outside perimeter of the entire village, about two or three hundred meters along the road, had been completely separated off by green boards.

I walked across the road from the overpass to get a better look. Only then did I find that there was a store that was open for business, which was inside the boarded-up perimeter but was still brightly lit for the moment. I stood on the steps of the overpass and greeted the shopkeeper. He told me that Shajing Village had been urgently locked down in the afternoon, and that the store would have to close soon, too.

Hundreds of people gathered at the entrance to the village, all wearing masks, standing shoulder to shoulder, with no other protection. On the side of the road, there was a police car with its lights flashing, and there was no one in the car.

A young woman who had bought a bunch of things, put her plastic bags down on the ground carelessly, and was squatting and playing a video for her family. A middle-aged man, leaning on his bicycle, looked worriedly at the crowd. He told me that things were just fine when he went out to work in the morning, but when he came back after getting off work at 8 o’clock in the evening, he found that the village was closed, and he could not enter. He told me that his rent was 500 yuan.

I know that kind of housing. Just after I graduated 20 years ago, I lived in an urban village[i] and had about 10 square meters and no bathroom. I cooked in the corridor, with poor lighting, and it was dark.

Two sanitation workers, carrying plastic bags in their hands, had probably also bought some daily necessities. Standing in the crowd, their yellow cleaning uniforms were very conspicuous. I asked them, and they said that when they went out to go to work at four or five in the afternoon, they could still leave their homes, but when they returned at night after work they couldn’t get back in.

Many years ago, I reported on sanitation workers, and I know that they can only rent in urban villages, because they have equipment such as carts and brooms, and even if they could afford to rent in multi-floor buildings, they cannot live in them. In those days, Huangyan Village, near the newspaper office, was a gathering place for sanitation workers. Later, the whole place was demolished and a multi-storey building was built, and they also lost a place to stay.

I stood by the side of the road with them, feeling their helplessness. The older one was timid, for fear of saying something wrong. The young man was constantly smiling and nodded to me from time to time. Behind the mask is a dark face, and I can feel the warmth of his smile.

Suddenly, there was a commotion in the crowd where the isolation boards conjoined, as if a crack had opened. I heard people say that the leaders of the village are currently in a meeting and are still waiting to speak. The two sanitation workers also hurried over, and then after a while, dispersed in disappointment. Looking at my phone, it’s almost ten o’clock in the evening. People gathered here, waiting in the cold wind, for at least two hours.

A few days later, I saw something online about a young man living in an urban village who could not get anything to eat because of the lockdown and was so hungry that he wailed. I am reminded of this lockdown night. I don’t know if this man also lives in Shajing Village, where there are tens of thousands of people, also shut out from the village that night, bewildered.

I then went to a few other places, and headed home; the streets were empty by that time. On Jixiang Road, gaudy red lanterns hung all over the sycamore trees by the roadside. Someone was standing on the side of the road, carrying large and small bags. On Gaoxin Road, Little Wu, a young delivery guy on a motorcycle, was rushing to deliver the last meal before midnight. He said that although the city is locked down, people always have to eat, some restaurants in the mall should be open, and there’ll be orders that need to be delivered. He was smiling as he spoke.

At that time, we did not expect that this “closed city” would develop in such an extremely hasty and unexpected way. On this night, those who were blocked at the door of their homes, those who were rushing to buy goods in the supermarkets, pregnant women, sick people, postgraduate students, construction workers, urban homeless, tourists who were passing through Xi’an … may have underestimated the disaster that this “closed city” would bring to them.

And those who pressed the “pause button” for this city, those who hold power, did they ever think about how they would affect the fate of the 13 million people who live in this city? If this isn’t something bigger than the sky, what else possibly could be?

2.  Surviving markets

At least at the beginning of the lockdown, everything seemed to make sense. Many supermarkets and fruit and vegetable stores at the entrance of the community were still operating in secret. Although the movement of people had stopped, basic living supplies were still available, albeit at a much slower pace.

In my housing complex, PCR tests are done once every two days in the yard. Although we can’t enter and exit freely through the main gate, the property has an “exit permit,” a small piece of paper which enables its residents to go out. It is said that the quarantine policy allows “one person per household can go out to buy groceries every two days.”

I don’t need to go out to buy groceries. First, I have reserves. Second, the convenience store next to the community is still open. The diligent proprietress writes down everyone’s needs from across the fence, whether it is vegetables, rice, noodles, oil, or daily necessities; she gets the goods ready, and then hands them over the fence to the residents. On December 25th, it snowed, and there was a vegetable truck parked outside the gate of the community. The vegetables were very fresh, and there was fresh meat. Neighbors on their own initiative queued up to buy their goods. People looked on enviously as a woman took away a large bouquet of flowers that she had ordered.

No one could have predicted that after just two days, all the people in Xi’an would be forced to look for food online. So many people in the city were frustrated and panicked so they rushed to shop online. As a result, it was difficult for everybody to buy food. In an era of material excess and everyone trying to lose weight, eating suddenly became a difficult task.

On December 26, the fourth day after the lockdown, I happened to see on the Internet the news that Teacher Tiantian,[ii] who everyone had been focused on, had returned home. While I was happy for Teacher Tiantian, at the same time I thought of Chang Weiping, a young lawyer friend, whose wife was also calling out on the Internet at the same time, hoping that her husband would return home. But her voice was just too weak.

Depressed. I decided to go out for a walk in the name of “grocery shopping.”

Holding the “road ticket,” the exit permit, I swept off a shared bicycle on a road where the snow had not melted and enjoyed this rare freedom. On the main road, the buses were still running, but no one was riding them. On a reclining chair at a certain platform, there is a homeless person. On the street, food delivery guys and couriers passed by from time to time.

There were many police cars on the road. Ten minutes after I came out, I saw about four or five police cars.

The entrance to Ganjiazhai Village, where I would often go to buy vegetables, was covered and blocked with a baffle. Several sheets of paper were pasted on the board, with the words “seasoning,” “chili,” “Yulin tofu,” and “earth pork” written crookedly, telephone numbers were left alongside all of them. There were two men on the other side of the baffle, one handed out the deliveries, the other scanned QR codes to settle the accounts.

This is a huge urban village resettlement area, with a famous market in the surrounding area. Every evening, the village is brightly lit and like a world of mortals, full of people, business is booming, bustling, and noisy. Many courier companies’ service stations are located here. Compared with the neighboring communities, here, stocked with supplies for everyday needs from clothing to food to transportation, this urban village is self-sufficient. Although the city is closed, many small restaurants in the village are still open for business. At this time, a line of delivery workers stood outside the walls of the community. Soon, a few owners of the restaurants hurried over and handed them the meals to be delivered through the fence.

A young delivery guy is sitting on a motorcycle and playing with his mobile phone. I chatted with him for a while.

The young guy’s surname is Liu and he is 29 years old this year. His hometown is Baoji. He said that on the 22nd, when he heard that the city was going to be closed, he wanted to hurry back to his hometown. But when he asked, he learned he would have to be quarantined in a quarantine center when he returned to his hometown. He would have to pay the quarantine fee himself, which cost 210 yuan a day. It was too expensive, so he decided to stay. He rented a place in Shajing Village, but the village was already sealed off, so he couldn’t go back.

There was nothing else he could do, so he stayed in a hotel, because he could go in and out freely, and he could continue to run orders.  A room in the cheapest hotel on the street is 150 yuan per day, which he shares with others. These days, fewer restaurants are open, there are fewer orders, and fewer delivery workers, so he can still earn three or four hundred yuan a day making deliveries, which even exceeds his previous average daily income.

A few days later, I read about a man whose hometown was in Chunhua County, Xianyang prefecture (in Shaanxi province), and that after the city was closed, he took a shared bicycle in order to get home from Xi’an, riding from 8 o’clock in the evening until 6 o’clock in the morning through the Guanzhong Plain in temperatures of minus six or seven degrees (Celsius). After riding nearly 90 kilometers, he was “caught” by the epidemic prevention personnel as he was approaching his hometown and was fined 200 yuan. There was also a young guy who walked from Xianyang Airport to Qinling Mountains in order to go home. He walked in the mountains for eight days and eight nights until he reached Guanghuo Street near Fenshuiling, where he was eventually caught.

I thought of poor Liu again. I don’t know if he can still leave his urban village, as the lockdown gets tighter and tighter. Even if he can come out, will there be orders to run? How can he bear the accommodation fee of 150 yuan a day? I regret not jotting down his phone number that day.

3. Lockdown tightened

On December 27, I suddenly hear that stricter control and prevention measures have been introduced for all of Xi’an. The community security office said that the originally implemented order permitting people “to go out to buy food once every two days” was now invalid. Starting today, no one can enter or leave their community.

On the 28th, the whole Internet was shouting, “it’s difficult to buy food!” The gate of the community where I live was locked, and the property management people no longer let everyone stop at the gate and register to buy things from the convenience store inside the fence. I scanned the QR code to join the convenience store group, and then I found out that this may be the only supply channel I can rely on the following day.

After thinking about it later, I believe that the reason is actually very simple. Because of the tighter control, people have no freedom to go shopping, so no matter how plentiful the food is, no matter how upset the people are, it doesn’t matter, the officials are slavishly following orders and people have no way to get what they need.

On WeChat, the convenience store group was in chaos. There are more than 400 people in the group, and everyone wants to buy food. Everyone is worried that if they don’t register soon, the store will run out of food. The proprietress stipulated that the “queue” would be limited to one hour in the morning, but many people don’t obey the rules. If anyone tried to jump the “queue,” the proprietress would reprimand them or kick them out of the group.

Looking through the information in the community group online, I saw that there were young people in the community asking for help: “Who can sell me a set of tableware? I can’t find a set to buy anywhere.” I left a message and said he could pick it up downstairs in ten minutes. Then I packed up a set of tableware including a bowl, plate, chopsticks, etc., and set out to find the person who asked for help and give him the package.

Across the green area in the yard, I asked about the young man’s situation. The guy said that his home is nearby, but his company is here, so he couldn’t go home after lockdown, but they never cooked at the office, so there was nothing there. He managed to get a saucepan, but he had no cutlery and nowhere to buy it. To express his thanks, he brought me some snacks, including a bag of chicken sausages, a small packet of Snickers, and a box of Telunsu milk.

The next day, it was even worse. I saw two young people in a group saying that they had only eaten instant noodles for a week and they were developing mouth ulcers. One said that she now has only two packs of instant noodles left in stock. Another said he was already in desperate straits with nothing left at all.

I left a message for the two young people, saying that at noon the next day, I would send them a boxed meal. One declined, the other agreed. Before going to bed, I took a piece of beef from the refrigerator, thinking I would make tomato braised beef brisket for this girl the next day. Unexpectedly, she left a message the next day, saying that she had something to eat, so I didn’t have to make anything for her. Even after my repeated entreaties, she still said no need, she was good. I guessed that she declined out of self-esteem or a bit of vigilance; so, I didn’t push it anymore, and just told her that she could contact me if there was anything she needed.

I also started counting my inventory to pass the time. I heard a neighbor say that they made youpomian (a Shaanxi noodle dish) every day in order to save vegetables. I gave them four mushrooms, two tomatoes, and one zucchini, plus a bottle of beer I bought before the lockdown and hung them in front of her door. She was very happy and gave me a few sweet and crunchy apples in return, which was exactly what I wanted.

Then, I read on the internet that many neighborhoods had begun to “barter” among neighbors, exchanging instant noodles for cigarettes, garlic for potatoes, etc., and I laughed out loud, but I believe this of course is true.

Suddenly, in this state of material scarcity, people began to fuss about food. I constantly wanted to go to the kitchen and take stock of what’s in the fridge. The city has been closed for nearly a week, and the food I purchased in advance has decreased by more than half. I thought about replenishing my stores some more, but among the group of convenience stores, there was no way to get in the online queue. Many people already said that they were hungry and waiting for food, begging the store to distribute the goods earlier. I decided not to get in on the action and support myself via a different route.

4. People’s Self-help

From December 28 to December 31, for at least these four days, most people in Xi’an can rely only on self-help. When it comes to buying vegetables and the necessities of life, that is the only way to get food to eat.

Some friends from other cities were curious and asked if express delivery was available. In fact, around December 21, express delivery in Xi’an had already stopped, and people could not shop online from other cities. After Xi’an was locked down, some online shopping platforms circulated on the WeChat group, saying that they could deliver food during the epidemic. But when I placed an order, I found that as long as one’s residence was in Xi’an, food could not be delivered. The commonly used “Hema” [delivery service] always said “the courier guys’ schedules are full”. I finally found the “Everyone happy at home” service, and ordered some food, but two days after paying the bill, there was no sign of activity, so I canceled it.

In the live stream of the government press conference on December 29, the comment area was overtaken by people writing “difficulty in buying vegetables”; as a result, the comment section was promptly shut down.

I had a discussion with a few friends in a volunteer group. They had all participated in various disaster relief work and had rich experience. They all said that it was too difficult to help out in Xi’an at this time. At the beginning of the lockdown, they organized thousands of volunteers online and offline, but they were unable to play a role. The government has one uniform approach, shutting down all communities, thus making it very difficult to obtain a pass. Volunteers can’t leave their place of residence and go to the frontline to serve. This is also a situation they have not encountered for many years.

In fact, it is easy to think that we, the residents of the community, are lucky; most of us generally have a little surplus food at home, so we won’t go hungry right away. The most tragic is the old communities, urban villages, construction sites and other people in the city’s “three neglects”.[iii] It is unimaginable that those young people who work in the companies on weekdays have become one of the groups that has found it most difficult to eat after the city was closed. They don’t usually cook, so they don’t have cooking utensils, and some live in their offices. At this time, the restaurants outside were closed, take-out stopped, and they couldn’t even leave through the main gate of their rooms and offices. Even instant noodles soon became a rarity.[iv]

On the evening of December 30, the temperature was below zero. In a small online group, a friend left messages, after returning from delivering meals to homeless people on the street. This friend is enthusiastic about charity and public welfare and has cooperated with others for more than 10 years as if it were just one day, dedicated to providing food for the destitute living on the streets of Xi’an. These days, he prepares food for the homeless at the factory he owns in the southern suburbs and then sends it into the city, delivering 185 hot meals in one night. Because he has a pass, there is no obstacle.

Before the closure of the city, I participated in this friend’s activity and gave the homeless a cotton-padded coat. I know that they usually spend the night at the city’s banks, under the ATM machines and other places to shelter from the cold. Now that the city is closed, on the one hand, they have been driven out, and on the other hand, because there are no people on the street, whether it’s begging or picking up rubbish, their circumstances are grim; there’s nothing for them. It was destined to be an extremely difficult winter for them.

On New Year’s Day, I chatted for a while with Ms. Zhang, who finally had some free time to talk. She has been working for a public welfare organization for more than 10 years. She originally provided services to the disabled and devoted herself to community work over the past three or four years. During this epidemic, she has tirelessly cooperated with the community, linking up resources, and participating in many relief activities.

Ms. Zhang told me that it is very important for community neighbors to engage in self-help when faced with extreme situations such as city closures, to take care of special-needs groups such as the elderly and children living alone, and some urgent needs, such as the special needs of the elderly, children, and those who have nothing to eat and drink, etc. In some extreme emergencies, neighbors helping each other can solve the problem; when big crises strike, self-reliance and self-help within the community is indispensable. But in the current situation communities can’t do these things because people in a community cannot interact with each other. It is as if they lived on isolated islands. In this, non-profit organizations (NGO) could play a role, working to cultivate and build communities. But now, more often than not, this type of work is prohibited by the government.

Speaking of the current situation where it is difficult for people to get food, she likened it to everyone being fenced in and then “being fed” (like in the zoo) by government workers. Imagine how this is possible in a city with tens of millions of people.[v]. In a big community of 20,000 people there are generally no more than ten local government staff or community workers and they can’t even complete all the various administrative tasks. She lamented that most of the community workers that she recognized were young women, and many were also mothers. These days, they can’t go home at all. They are overloaded. Many people sleep on the floor in the office, which makes her feel “distressed”.

“The government still doesn’t realize that their administrative power can’t solve everything. Just like this epidemic prevention, the local government workers are working hard day and night, to what effect?” We chatted, and before I knew it, an hour had passed by. 

5. Our Suggestions

On the morning of December 31, I finally bought my first box of vegetables since the epidemic lockdown began. Speaking of which, actually, I got it through the community’s mutual assistance. I saw the seller’s post in the community’s WeChat group and found that the price was fair: 108 yuan per box, 20 jin (a jin is a little over a pound or half a kilogram) per box. I quickly placed an order, and it was delivered the next day, still very fresh.

A lot of news was revealed on the Internet. The government’s free food was distributed to some communities; netizens tracked this down and found that those communities that claimed to have enough food were all connected to the government. Meanwhile, friends living in Qujiang district began to receive “compassion dishes” from the government and, as a result, many people began to send “positive energy”[vi] about the government, praising the government for doing a good job. But in my judgment, even if the government “sends warmth,” it amounts to propaganda because it is extremely hard and even impossible for the government to deliver food to so many people when they need it. The reason is very simple. The market is shut down, and the city’s daily logistics and distribution are suspended. In a big city with 13 million people, is it possible to rely on local government personnel and volunteers to deliver food to your door in a short period of time. Is that possible?

I got the vegetables and asked the seller a few questions. The seller said that the vegetables were delivered from Ningxia, amounting to 5,000 units, but because he couldn’t get a pass, he couldn’t deliver them. As long as the community needs more than 5 units, they were willing to deliver. “The market is always smarter than the government” is an old adage that I can now very much sympathize with, given the current situation here.  

The fact is already obvious that the days-long “difficulty in selling vegetables” is a man-made disaster. In Xi’an, there is no shortage of food and other materials, but it is difficult to get them to those who need them most. I have seen many articles published on self-media, including one by the author who goes by the name of Master Beast, who hit the nail on the head, writing: “We have such powerful logistics systems like Tmall and JD, why doesn’t the government use them? Why must the government insist on thinking they are smart enough to deliver food to your door?”

Every day I look at friends’ circles, WeChat groups, and my heart is bombarded with all kinds of information. With the escalation of control measures, bad news comes every day: high-risk pregnant women cannot go to the hospital to prepare for delivery, patients in urgent need of medicine after kidney transplants have nowhere to buy medicine, migrant workers cannot eat at closed construction sites, and postgraduate candidates are stranded on the streets starving … Various secondary disasters caused by epidemic prevention and control occur frequently, and it is not impossible for humanitarian disasters to continue to break out if the lockdown continues.

On December 31st, I chatted with my friends early in the morning to discuss what to do and, with friends such as Suixi, we came up with some ideas. I decided, first, in my capacity as an individual citizen, to send out these suggestions. My post, “Urgent Suggestions of a Xi’an Citizen on Solving the Problem of Difficulty in Eating Vegetables,” mentioned that market order must be gradually restored.

First, the terminal logistics system must be restored so that vegetable vendors, fruit and vegetable stores, supermarkets, etc. can enter the community to provide services, including allowing various life-saving drugs to get into the hands of residents. Moreover, the government must encourage NGOs and other volunteers to join the rescue system, and encourage private self-help, etc.

In the letter, we decided not to sign our name, to avoid getting a label or “hashtag,” and only allow the voices of the citizens to be expressed. But God knows, was there no fear in our heart? One of my friends wrote a few journal entries two days ago, calling for a solution to the “difficulty in selling vegetables” problem. The essay was available online for two days but then I couldn’t find it. A network platform I am familiar with has begun to delete all the “negative” aspects of the Xi’an epidemic…

6. “Xi’an Can Only Win”

The first day of 2022 has arrived. Early in the morning, I opened the curtains, the morning light is faint, and the streets are still as silent as a wasteland.

I picked up my phone and initially wanted to write a little about my New Year’s mood. In passing, I clicked on a video and saw in the Nanyaotou community not far from me, a young guy returning from going out to buy steamed buns surrounded by epidemic prevention personnel at the gate of the community, and they were beating him up.

On the screen I saw the shining white steamed buns spilled all over the ground, and I seemed to hear the sound of my own heartbreak. How can a person who beats someone else up face his own kind, someone who buys a little food in the cold wind? How can they put their hands on him? Can it be the case that even the tiniest amount of power changes people? Is violence the least costly solution in the eyes of the powerful? I silently turned off the phone. At this moment, I just hope that I can keep my eyes closed and spend this New Year’s Day peacefully.

The apparent silence of the city could not conceal its turmoil and chaos. From an individual’s point of view, almost every day since December 27, disasters have occurred. At first the disasters were from lack of food, and later it was more about calls for help for medical treatment. The newspaper office I once worked for set up a column called “Reporters’ Help”. Hoping to “help one means one less in need of help,” reporters would help citizens buy and deliver medicines, and solve other very difficult problems. Every day, thousands of messages asking for help are received.

The new year is here, and in the small community where I live, seals are affixed to the doors of every household. Because there are two confirmed cases of Covid in another building, I heard that according to the latest social “Covid-zero” policy, if there are more cases, all the residents in our community will be taken away for centralized isolation.

In the neighbors’ unit group (refers to a chat group for residents who live in the same unit of an apartment building), I could really feel everyone shivering. In the middle of the night of December 31st, everyone in the Mijiaqiao community were taken away for centralized isolation; this was near my house. And the people living in Mingdemen 8 Mile Community, who were dragged to Baqiao public rental housing for centralized isolation, were already asking for help. At least we were still in our own warm homes. At this time, there was no need any longer for property management’s reminders to stay in: everyone stays at home for fear of being pulled into isolation. There is no need for reminders. Meanwhile, in the neighbors’ unit group, everyone is calling out to help cheer each other up and to stay strong. In the chat group, one neighbor says, if we don’t want to be taken away for centralized isolation, all of us have to do better: first and most important, stop all shopping. Another follows up immediately and says, if you go downstairs, we should be very careful to ensure safety. The other voices her concerns in her post. She says she is worried about her five cats: if she was quarantined, who’s going to feed her cats? She also mentions, three of cats are not hers but fostered at her home by a front-line health care worker who can’t go home. If anything goes wrong with these cats, she’ll feel really bad. A friend reminded me that it is better to do some simple preparations, so as not to be suddenly pulled into centralized isolation.

On January 3, another day passed, and someone in the group said, “Finally, another day has been saved.” This is how we live in the “prosperous world.”

At noon, I saw news of a girl named “Sun Flower” circulating on the Internet: her father had a heart attack, and he went out of the community to the hospital, and then reluctantly stayed; it dragged on for a few hours, and he had to undergo surgery, but in the end, it didn’t work… her father died.

I went through her Little Red Book blog (on Xiao Hongshu) to look for this girl who had lost her father. I wanted to know what actually happened to her in this cold winter. If I have the chance, I want to hug her. I also want to tell her that the hardships we have encountered should be recorded and should not be suffered in vain.

I left a message hoping this girl could contact me. But in the evening, there was no news. I found that the first page of her Little Red Book about her father’s death had been deleted. Fortunately, I had taken a screenshot, which shows that many people have followed her online. I saw in the comments, something to the effect of: In this ridiculous city, as long as it is not a death from the virus, it doesn’t count as death.

The dusk of January 3 fell again. This is the tenth day after the lockdown. I didn’t wait for the news of the girl on Little Red Book, but I saw a message from a friend I used to know well, a long paragraph, probably to applaud for “zero community transmission policy.” At the end there is a sentence: “Xi’an can only win, there is no other choice, there is no retreat.”

I am speechless. I silently sent him a screenshot of the girl’s story about the loss of her father. Seriously, I don’t want to have any debate with him.

But in the end, I couldn’t help but post a few paragraphs to him.

I said: “the government’s slogan, such as ‘Xi’an can only win,’ this is the correct big talk, cliché, and empty talk. Similar to it, there is also: ‘We will do whatever it takes,’ this sentence is good, but it is specific to every ordinary person, we may think that here, ‘we’ are ‘us,’ or that we are the ‘price’ that has to be paid?”

I continued: “After this incident, if there is no reflection, if no lessons are learned from the blood and tears, and if you are busy making meritorious awards and singing praises, then people’s suffering will only be in vain.”

I don’t plan to see him again. But I want to tell him: this city, no matter how this suffering is ultimately told in the grand narrative, tonight, I only care about the girl who lost her father; I care about the girl who went to an unknown anti-epidemic worker to ask for sanitary pads in tears; the young mother who told her plight over and over again. And those who are humiliated, hurt, and ignored. They didn’t need to suffer like this.

I also want to say to him: In this world, no one is an island, and the death of each and every person is the death of everyone. The virus has yet to kill anyone in this city, but other things just might. 


[i] Urban village is a special term in China. There are several concepts: housing complex, unit and community. In China, most residents live in a housing complex or apartment complex, most of which is a group of buildings, high-rise in particular, developed and managed by the same company. A building, such as an apartment building, can be divided into several units. Typically, the residents of a unit share the same gate and staircase. Several housing complexes in a certain region form a community, which is under the management of government workers. Basically, the urban village is run by a committee of villagers, but the government also sends workers to the village to exercise managerial duties. Though the urban village is much larger in size and has many more people (than the housing complex), it is still treated as a “community” by the government. When Xi’an was lockdown, all housing complexes were closed, and the residents were banned from entering or leaving. In some housing complexes, the residents were prohibited from leaving their homes, and no one and no activity was allowed in the yard of the housing complex. Even the gates of all units were sealed.

The urban village or village-in-the-city is a special community in China’s cities especially in big cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Xi’an, which comes with the process of urbanization. In China, with the development of cities and urban sprawl, some rural villages are incorporated into the cities. These villages still maintain their original houses, and the villagers maintain their original way of life. In most cases, the land of urban villages is still collectively owned by the villages, like in rural China, not by the state. In the case of Xi’an, the villagers in the urban villages makes their houses available for rent and they collect rent. Many people prefer to live in the urban villages, especially labourers who came from outside the city and get jobs when they first arrive, young students, and low-income vulnerable groups. One of the most important reasons is that the rent in the urban villages is much cheaper than other parts of the city. Based on unofficial statistics posted on the Internet, there are up to 200 urban villages in Xi’an, which are located not only on the urban fringe, but in the city core as well. A couple of urban villages mentioned in this article, including Shajing Village and Ganjiazhai Village, are both located in the High-Tech District in southwest of Xi’an. When the city was closed due to the epidemic, the streets of the urban villages were closed and blocked, and the entrances of the villages were closed off with fences, and the residents were prohibited from freely entering and leaving the villages.

[ii] When Xi’an was under lockdown, another incident caught public attention all over the country on the Internet, particularly in WeChat: this was about the experience of 27-year-old Li Tiantian, a primary school teacher in Yongshun County in western Hunan Province. Earlier in 2019, Teacher Tiantian published posts online, criticizing China’s education officials at lower levels keen on engaging in formalism, which caused a lot of attention on the Internet. On December 19, 2021, she was not only warned by the local education bureau because of her comments but was forcibly sent to a mental hospital on the grounds that she should be treated for depression. But Teacher Tiantian was pregnant at that time. The news circulated very quickly on the Web. Concern ran deep for the teacher and netizens throughout China became very angry and strongly condemned the local authorities. Under extreme pressure from all parts of the country, local authorities had no choice but to send her home to appease the storms on the Internet.

[iii] Originally, it used to refer to the southern district of Tianjin (City). At the end of the Qing Dynasty, when the Japanese and French Concession in Tianjin was first opened, the area was still desolate, the consulates of Japan and France had no jurisdiction, and the local government in China also ignored it, so it was called the “three neglects” area. Today, it generally refers to places or things that no one cares about. In the case of Xi’an, the “three neglects” refer to the places where the government’s management is not in place and social services are zero or not sufficient. Typically, the urban fringe region, communities in which the vulnerable groups live, and the border areas of urban districts are seen as such areas.

[iv] Basically, these young people live in better communities not the vulnerable communities. While working in offices, they became used to ordering online or eating at the company’s canteen. But with the city closed, they couldn’t do either, so they had difficulty eating: they wanted to cook for themselves but had no cooking utensils; they had money but were unable to find food to order food online.

[v] Xi’an has an official population of 13 million. This number does not include the unregistered, “floating” population.

[vi] “Positive energy” has been an important phrase in the Xi Jinping era. It refers to information control and official messaging, both domestically and internationally. The term generally refers to the need for uplifting messages as opposed to critical or negative ones – and particularly the need for content that places the Party and government in a positive light. Although the term began appearing in various contexts in 2012, it was given a much larger profile at the Central Forum on Arts and Literature in October 2013.

See China Media Project, April 16, 2021:

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