Answering Questions About China’s Lockdowns

I saw these questions on Twitter this morning and they are very good questions. Coming from an American friend @crakkkerwoood: How did the government handle lockdown? How did people afford to eat? How did they afford medical care? People lost jobs; how did they pay rent and afford to live?

We need to start by debunking a few myths and the main one is that Chinese people are the same, hold the same values and have the same needs, desires and goals as other countries. They don’t. They have an entirely different psychology which I’ve written about elsewhere in When Chinese people are asked to do something by their government, almost 100% just do it — it’s not fear of consequences for disobedience, it’s much more-simplistic than that — it’s because what the government asks, makes a lot of sense.

So, when China locked down, I was here — I still am — a lot of things changed. I don’t work, I’m retired but I’ve always had a steady stream of kids I help to get through IELTS exam (the exam a student needs to study in an English language country) my group of “students” dried up. It didn’t matter much to me: it gave me more free time and didn’t impact on my income as, for visa reasons, I am not allowed to earn an income anyway. But in the case of my students, I know for a fact that many of them entered an entirely different lifestyle. Suddenly, their parents had no income, they were locked into apartments with parents they hadn’t spent much time with over the last 10 years or more — most kids in High school live in the school and only go home on weekends. This was new, it was interesting, and for a while it was fun.

We’re lucky in China, we’ve been a cashless society and internet shopping society for a few years. Delivery drivers were allowed to continue with their business and we were able to get food delivered and paid for over the phone. Most of us carry several hundred or even a few thousand RMB in our e-wallets. ($1:00USD = 7RMB £1:00GBP = 9RMB) and things are a lot cheaper here than they are in the west. My own wallet at the moment has 1,540RMB in it, I can live the next three or four weeks on that alone.

There’s an interesting statistic I found a few years ago where I learnt that the citizens of China, on average, spend only 60% of their income, they save the other 40%. The citizens of the USA in contrast, spend 112% of their income — hence deepening their debt each year. This was apparent in the early weeks of the US lockdown when charities needed to step up to fill the needs of people who didn’t have the funds to buy food for their families — something every Chinese person thinks is very strange — especially when the lines of cars driving up to the charity outlets were such nice cars, every Chinese person aspires to own one yet only about 20% of them do. A few comments were made to me about people driving to collect charity food: how can they afford that car and the fuel they put into it, if they can’t afford food? A fair question when we look at the difference in psychology, we see, Chinese wouldn’t buy the car unless they can afford the lifestyle that goes with it, they almost certainly wouldn’t borrow beyond their ability to repay, just to own it.

Most people didn’t lose their jobs, what happened was they were already on holiday and the holiday was extended. At Chinese New Year (CNY), it’s a tradition to give a bonus to each employee, often as much as 1 month’s salary. So many people were already prepared and had saved some money for the CNY period — let me use my wife here as a good example of what happens in China at CNY. She saved for a couple of months and went to her local bank, withdrew several thousand RMB in new notes, so she could put them into red envelopes then to give to relatives and children of friends. As the lockdowns started and people were told not to go visiting each other we realised, she had a lot of cash in crisp new notes and no one to give it to. So, we could call it a bonus or call it a disappointment, especially for the kids who would normally receive this money in their “lucky red packets” but suddenly, there was a lot of cash available in the market to be used for other things — we are now in June and my wife still has some of this money left. We use it if we want to go and buy something large, day to day shopping is done on the phone.

During our lockdown, we were (actually only one of us, I was) allowed out of the house every second day and only for three hours. What this meant was we didn’t go to restaurants, they were closed, we didn’t catch taxis anywhere, because there was nowhere to go and we didn’t spend any money except on basics for living. We cooked at home, ate at home and saved a considerable amount of money — I suspect many of the people in many of the towns and cities suddenly started to find they were spending less than before. This helped with managing on a lower income. For many people in smaller towns and villages, not much changed, they were always catering for themselves and living off what they had. Many people, even in the cities, grow their own vegetables, some have their own chickens and so a ready supply of eggs and meat wasn’t hard to come by.

Getting sick might have been a problem, but every employee in China has some degree of medical insurance. So, if you have a job, even if you are laid off, but had a job last year, you would have a medical card and that card can be taken to the hospital to either pay for, or subsidise the costs of treatment — but all that doesn’t mean anything at all for the pandemic because, as far as COVID19 was concerned, all testing, treatment and any medications needed were covered by the government. The philosophy was that, if people don’t need to worry about getting a bill, they won’t worry about going to the hospital and that’s how China treated so many and were able to isolate, track, trace and treat where necessary.

Homelessness is a big problem in the USA, I read that 40,000 former US service personnel were homeless. Ask a Chinese person if they have seen, or heard of a former PLA member being homeless and they would assume you are mad — is just couldn’t happen. If you serve your country, your country serves you. End of story stop being ridiculous!

One other aspect of China that is little understood and simple to explain is the commitment a communal society gives to its people. Every person has a “hukou” this is a household registration and it lives with them from very young until death. You can move your hukou around and you can change cities and provinces, but it’s actually a very time consuming a bureaucratic nightmare to do so, therefore, wherever they live, most people call home the place where their hukou is registered. And, at CNY most people will head back there because it’s where the family are and they want to be with their family at this special time — similar to us on Thanksgiving (US) or Christmas. What happened this year is that many people were already at home when the lockdown started. If they lived in another city and have an apartment there, there may have been some problems making rent but if they were working in a factory or many of the government owned entities, they probably live rent free in a “dan wei”(which is the government’s way of supporting its staff) or company dormitory, so rent commitments weren’t such a big problem here. That’s not to say there weren’t some problems, there are many privately owned apartments being rented out and the owners would have lost money there. But, if you have a second apartment available for rent, it’s s little like the car theory, most people would have enough money in their savings to manage without a tenant for a period of time.

Anyone who found themselves homeless would have either headed back to their hometown where the family would provide accommodation or the community would have placed them into some accommodation. It’s not necessary for anyone in China to ever be homeless — when I showed my wife the rows of tents in Los Angeles, one of the richest cities in the world, in one of the richest states in the world, inside the richest country in the world, she asked me what they were doing there, I said it’s where they live because they’ve either lost their home or haven’t got a home: her response was: why don’t they go back to their family home! My wife is a very intelligent lady, she’s travelled to many parts of the globe, she has wide and varied experience in dealing with charity, poverty and disabilities in China, yet she finds the concept of homelessness to be totally alien. When I told her the number of homeless people in the USA is close to 500,000, she disputed it until I went online and proved it to her.

On the subject of why Hubei residents didn’t starve while they were locked down there’s an amazing fact that didn’t get much, or any coverage in any western media that I saw. There’s an old Chinese saying that when one person has some troubles the solution and help will come from 8 different directions. Some provinces specialise in growing rice, some specialise in growing apples, some specialise in corn, the predominant crop of each province was bundled up and tons of it was sent to Hubei, free of charge. Each province, realising that another province needed help started their own “rescue package” for Hubei. Drivers were assigned delivery jobs from one city in their province to deliver to one city in Hubei. Guangdong, where I live, apart from sending a 2,484 medical member team with three mobile labs, donated 90 tons of lotus roots (a local speciality vegetable) as well as seafood meat, fruit and vegetable amounting to hundreds of tons. The know, everyone in China knows, if a problem comes to their province or their city, other provinces and cities will support them.

So, one final aspect of China that many people don’t appreciate is that the government is not this big behemoth that sits in Beijing and passes judgement on the lesser mortals known as citizens. China’s government is part of the everyday life of every citizen. Very near the front door of my apartment is a community office, these offices are dotted all around the city and a group of people in there know something about everyone. They know me by name when I walk past, I often get a wave and a chat, but then I’m the only foreigner living in this community so that explains why. This group of people who work for a living administrating our local community and making sure all the things we use are working and kept clean, maintained and up to date, suddenly sprang into action with volunteers manning the gates, providing masks and hand sanitiser, in my case, they provided me with three free Covid19 tests and, I guess didn’t have a day off for several weeks. They are the government as far as the locals are concerned and they made sure, by visiting the elderly and disabled, as well as people who were confined, that we all had everything we needed — I saw volunteers dropping rice and oil to elderly residents and at places, and there are a few, where a disabled person lives.

All this, and when I tell my friends in the west how much property tax or rates, I pay, they can’t believe I get any services at all. When I bought the apartment, I paid tax on the purchase price. That was 5 years ago. Since then, I have not paid one cent in property taxes, not one cent of rates, I have no fees other than water, electric and gas to pay. No body corporate, no maintenance fee — nothing. I live totally and absolutely outside the taxation system and it’s entirely legal too.

It’s services like this which make me so grateful to be part of a community which cares. A local government which will not allow its people to starve or be un-cared for. A local government which is personalised to meet the needs of its neighbourhood and a local government that is part of, not in competition with, the city, the province and even the central government. This is the China I have come to know and love!



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Jerry Grey

Jerry Grey


I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences