Illustration by Ahmed Bilal.

Voices of Shanghai: A City in Lockdown

Shanghai has been on lockdown since the end of March. With residents struggling to get food and the government cracking down on reportage, we speak to three Shanghaiers to learn more.

May 9, 2022

Shanghai is an international city that hosts a variety of people with different backgrounds. We interviewed three people who live in Shanghai: Xavier Juhala, an American student at NYU Shanghai; Sam, who prefers to be known only by his first name, a Kenyan who works at a big tech corporation in Shanghai; and Sean Shan, Class of 2023, a NYU Abu Dhabi student who identifies as Shanghainese.
As the highly contagious Omicron variant ripped through Shanghai, Chinese authorities decided to lockdown the city as part of its “zero Covid” strategy.
The initial plan was for a staggered lockdown. The area east of the Huangpu River that runs through Shanghai, Pudong, was to be locked down starting March 28 for five days. The area west of the Huangpu River, Puxi, was to be locked down from April 1 for five days.
Based on our sources and first hand accounts, people living in Pudong only had around a day to prepare for the lockdown, whereas people living in Puxi had some more time. There had been rumors circulating that the city was preparing for a lockdown, so some people prepared supplies ahead of time. There had also been various lockdowns of smaller areas prior to the citywide lockdown as well.
However, the lockdown extended well past its original five-day plan. At the time of writing, the city has been locked down for over a month. This resulted in many problems as people were only told to prepare for four days of lockdown.
There are various levels of lockdown depending on the severity of Covid-19 spread within the area, but the impact of lockdown has still been immeasurable. Ships wait offshore to dock, delaying shipping of goods all around the world. The hit gacha game Genshin Impact recently announced that the release of the highly anticipated Patch 2.7 has been delayed, likely due to the impact of the Shanghai lockdown. This lockdown has major implications for not just the lives of those in Shanghai, but Shanghainese abroad and the whole world.
Chinese urban neighborhoods tend to be organized into “communities”. The communities consist of roughly a block with gates and security guards at entrances and exits. Within the block, there are residential buildings and often some small stores such as convenience stores. The security guards tend to live within the community that they service and are well-informed about community affairs. They are acquainted with residents and often their living conditions as well.
For this reason, Shan believed that a lockdown in Shanghai is different than those around the world as residential communities are much easier units to lock down effectively.
Various communities also have varying levels of lockdown: lockdown zone, controlled zone, and precautionary zone. If there is an active case of Covid-19, the community will be regarded as a lockdown zone. If there has not been a case for seven days, it will be a controlled zone. If 14 days have passed since there was an active case, then the community will be considered a precautionary zone.
Furthermore, Shan mentioned that while the circulation of goods has been problematic, it has not been as bad as it could have been because the Chinese government has been emphasizing self-reliance as competition with the United States has increased in recent years.
Xavier Juhala, Class of 2022, was one of the many people that tried to leave Shanghai after hearing about the lockdown. Prior to the lockdown, NYU Shanghai had informed students that they would have classes online for two weeks. This was then extended for another two weeks.
Because of this, he and his boyfriend decided to leave Shanghai for another Chinese city, Sanya. As they were preparing to leave Shanghai, his boyfriend’s place got locked down. When he was in the clear, it was Juhala’s community to be locked down.
They were initially worried that they would not be able to go back to their homes, but they were able to convince the guard to let him grab his belongings. Juhala remarked, “It was still pretty relaxed at this point … no one really knew what to do or what was going to happen.”
Juhala tried to convince his friends to leave Shanghai with him and his boyfriend. At this time, people still thought the lockdown would be four days. His friends decided to leave Shanghai, as did most NYUSH international students, especially after it was announced that classes would be online for the rest of the semester.
This proved to be a difficult course of action.
Firstly, this is because NYUSH students living in dormitories were locked down even prior to the Pudong lockdown. Also, at the time of the interview, there were police cars surveying the roads in Shanghai making sure that cars had a special permit that would allow them to drive on the road. There is also no public transport, so it was very hard and expensive to find transport to the airport.
When many of Juhala’s friends left, it cost about 4000 RMB to get a car to the airport (at the time of writing, about 600 USD); at the time of the interview, it fell to around 2000 RMB. Flights to the US are around 1500 USD, according to Juhala.
Aside from the expense, there were also many rules for leaving Shanghai. People needed to get special permission from the neighborhood committee to leave their community, which often required a written letter from their respective embassy, a confirmed appointment for a Covid-19 test, a flight booked and a confirmed driver to the airport.
Juhala explained, “For a lot of people it has been really hard getting that, or even getting in contact with their neighborhood community.” This was difficult for two main reasons. One, arranging for a Covid-19 test was a little difficult. Two, getting a car to the airport was very hard. Many group chats were created for people trying to leave Shanghai. One of Juhala’s friends had to camp out at the airport for over 24 hours because she was unable to secure a driver to the airport for a different time.
Sam is an employee of a big tech company in their Shanghai office. He has been unable to work remotely because of the nature of his job, but has continued to receive compensation as has been mandated by the government.
Sam explained how critical the situation was. “People almost starved. They thought they could provide 25 million people with food.” Luckily, Sam was able to order food around March 15, before the lockdown, and has been cooking for himself since. He says that he constantly checks delivery apps to see if there is anything available, but stock is generally out.
Previously, ordering delivery was not allowed, but this decision was reversed. Even after the reversal, the delivery man had to leave deliveries at the gate of the community, which had been welded shut.
He joked, “If you [saw] how dramatic they are, my goodness, you won’t believe [it]. You will think there is an apocalypse.” Sam shared that he has run out of TV shows on Netflix to watch and is very bored. He also shared that there were a lot of posts on social media going around that complained about the situation in Shanghai, but overall his life has not been bad.
Shan revealed that the effect of this situation on him has largely been emotional. Because of the lack of flights into China and the extreme prices of these few flights, Shan had not expected to go back home even prior to the lockdown. Now, he definitely will not go back home.
He has been concerned about his parents, not because of Covid-19 itself, but because of the effects of Covid-19 related regulations. Shan shared that he has been worrying about his parents more than usual. “I can tell they are afraid I might get worried, but generally speaking I can tell that they are doing well.”
Shan mentioned that at the beginning of the lockdown there seemed to be a lot of issues, such as lack of access to medical care or food supplies. However, that situation has improved significantly.
Nowadays, there are various methods that people can use to access food. This first way that people have food is from storing food before the lockdown started. The second way is from the government’s provisions. The third way is exchanging food and bartering with their neighbors. Finally, buildings have created group ordering systems for their residents.
Some residents in Shanghai also have a special permit to move about — such as doctors and members of the military. One of Shan’s parents’ friends is a doctor who is a former member of the military and has been spending his time helping Shanghai residents during the lockdown.
Photo Courtesy of Sean Shan.
Sean Shan’s parents breakfast
Rice, beans, eggs: Previously stored goods Pork: Government rations Tofu: Received from neighbors Tomatoes: Collective buying
Within Shan’s parents’ building, all residents on its 14 floors have a group chat to communicate. Each person is labeled by their room number within the group chat.
In his parents’ building, there are three leaders in the building that are responsible for coordinating mass orders of food. There are also volunteers who deliver food and supplies to each resident. These leaders are known by the community’s security guards and have special permission to leave the building to pick up supplies from the delivery man.
At the beginning of the lockdown, when residents exchanged goods amongst themselves, people would put the goods in the elevator and simply send the elevator to the floor of the recipient. Now it is more relaxed in his parents’ community as they have not had cases in a while.
Shan believes that because of the extenuating circumstances there has been a stronger sense of community within Shanghai. People take care of the elderly who live alone. Security guards might also keep track of the senior residents within their community, as each neighborhood has records of its residents, although Shan was unsure how updated these records would be. Prices are higher than normal as well, but people seem to have been helping their neighbors.
Regarding the politics of the situation, Shan commented that the messaging has been confusing as the government has stated the need for both a “dynamic zero” and coexistence with the virus.
Generally, Shan thinks that the sentiment of wanting to co-exist with the virus has been increasing across China, even in conservative circles. People have been posting on social media and a lot has been censored or removed, but Shan believes that the government has been keeping track of criticisms from citizens, and even though posts are continually being removed, content is also downloaded and reposted continuously.
Although users who posted content deemed to be sensitive by the Chinese government will receive a warning on their social media applications, very few people have faced actual repercussions for their actions. An exception would be if they post false information that becomes widely circulated.
Shan also explained that although this is not shown to the public, different Chinese government officials have differing opinions on various policies, so he has hope that even if there are policies that he does not agree with, there are other more competent government officials that will eventually replace the ones that created the policies he disagrees with.
Chloe Eoyang is Deputy News Editor. Email her at
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