In this four-part article, I’ll go over some of the lessons I learned living and doing business in China’s tech industry. During my time in China, I’ve led a team of 10+ engineers to develop a location-based IoT and sensing platform, co-founded an open-source project called Towhee, and developed countless relationships with folks in a number of difference cities (many of whom I now consider good friends). I’ll go over some of the common misconceptions about China ranging from living and working in China to the government’s pandemic response.
I originally intended for part II of this blog post to cover the tech industry in more detail (996, CSDN, open-source, etc…), but given the current spike in COVID cases these past two weeks plus the current lockdown in Shanghai, I felt it was more appropriate to first cover pandemic life in China. As always, if you have any questions, comments, or concerns, feel free to connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Thanks for reading!
Before reading this blog post, I strongly recommend you read part I if you haven’t yet. Part I received much more exposure than I had anticipated; I received a lot of positive feedback and I enjoyed reading many of the responses, especially those which provided a different outlook on China and its citizens. While I had originally intended for part II to cover China’s tech industry, I decided to instead cover China’s handling of the pandemic first, given Shanghai’s current lockdown.
Stocking up on food right before the Shanghai lockdown in March 2022. I imagine the conversation with supermarket staff went something like this: Q - What kind of ramen would you like? A - All if it.
A couple of words before steaming ahead into part II:
1) This article will be focused around three pandemic stories from China which will depict how China’s zero-COVID policy has affected Chinese citizens. These purely anecdotal stories are not meant to directly prove a point or argue a cause; rather, my hope is that they can provide a “boots-on-the-ground” perspective for readers unfamiliar with life in China (and, to a lesser extent, other east Asian countries) during COVID.
2) Recent articles with visualizations which conveniently ignore certain population segments (or other statistical anomalies) have unfortunately reduced my faith in “data-driven” articles1. As such, a small portion of this blog post will be dedicated towards picking apart pure data-driven arguments against China’s COVID statistics.
3) Lastly, I’d like to remind everyone to keep comments civil. I was subject to a private but fairly negative personal attack from one of the readers over the Personal identity section in part I. As the post’s author, I’m fine with it, but do not subject other readers and community members to the same or similar treatment - it’s irresponsible and does nothing to improve the quality of the discussion.
With that said, let’s dive in.
Three pandemic stories
It would be easy for me to simply “tell you” how the pandemic has changed China; instead, I’d like to start this blog post with three “pandemic stories” - short excerpts which highlight the scope with which China’s zero-COVID policy has affected the population. These purely anecdotal stories are not meant to directly prove a point or argue a cause; rather, my hope is that they can provide a “boots-on-the-ground” perspective.
Alex (I’ve used an alias to ensure privacy) is a Taiwanese expat working in Shanghai. Her story is a bit unique given her background - she’s been in Shanghai since early 2020 and, due to quarantine policies on both sides of the Taiwan strait, hasn’t been back home in over two years. More on this in a bit.
When Alex flew from Taiwan to Shanghai in February of 2020, she immediately found herself in unfamiliar territory. Streets were nearly completely empty, and the few folks who did wander outside were tightly masked. The only businesses open were supermarkets, which were required by central government policy to have workers and/or guards standing by entrances, recording everybody’s name, ID number, phone number, and body temperature. News on Wuhan and the COVID-related restrictions popping up around the country were being constantly broadcast by state-run media. Red propaganda posters filled the streets, warning the general populace to remain masked and to stay away from wild game (野味). As time progressed, it became clear to Alex that, while people living in Western countries had lost jobs and loved ones, people living in China lost significant freedom and social capital in a country already short on both.
In a culture that prides itself on family and connectivity - especially during Lunar New Year 2 - not returning home for over two years is borderline criminal. However, for Alex, this was not by choice. The policy for foreign travelers entering Taiwan is 14 days of quarantine, while the policy for travelers entering Shanghai is 14 days of hotel quarantine plus another 7 days at home. Because no human contact is allowed during the entire quarantine period, these quarantine periods are generally referred to as isolation (隔离) in Mandarin. For Alex, spending over a month in quarantine/isolation would simply be unacceptable, especially as the rest of her co-workers are all in-office. Two years away from Taiwan also resulted in a loss of something known as household registration (户籍). Although it may not seem like a big deal, household registration is more significantly meaningful in Taiwan than residency in the USA or Canada - everything from local health insurance to voting rights are impacted by the loss or acquisition of household residency.
While she’s still in Shanghai today, she remains hopeful for the opportunity to return home to Taiwan later this year. Although the strict COVID policies have soured her attitudes toward working and living in mainland China, her views on the citizens of Shanghai and Cross-Strait relations remain positive.
Ding Liren’s story
A bit about competitive chess before I continue. The World Chess Championship is almost universally recognized as the world’s premier chess tournament. It is a head-to-head match between the reigning world champion and a challenger. In modern times, the challenger has been determined via a biennial 8-player tournament called the Candidates Tournament. Ding first participated in 2018’s tournament, placing 4th of 8. It was a decent showing, but after an unbeaten streak of 100 games ending in late 2018 and a win in the 2019 Sinquefield Cup (where he beat top-rated Magnus Carlsen in playoffs), he was widely considered to be one of the favorites in the 2020 Candidates Tournament (along with Fabiano Caruana, the winner of the 2018 Candidates Tournament).
Early 2020 is where Ding’s story take a turn for the worse. The 2020 Candidates Tournament was scheduled to take place mid-March in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Upon entry, the Russian government decided to put Ding into quarantine in a rural cottage near Moscow due to the COVID pandemic. This quarantine took an incredible mental toll on Ding, putting him in a tie for last place after 7 of 14 rounds. After the 7th round, FIDE, chess’s governing body, decided to suspend play to mitigate the spread of COVID. When play resumed mid-April 2021, Ding (who did not have to quarantine this time around) looked to be back in top form, winning his final three games of the tournament, one of which was over the eventual challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi. In a game where draws are incredibly common at the highest level of play, three wins in a row can be considered a major accomplishment in and of itself.
The story doesn’t quite end there. With Ian bombing out of the 2022 World Chess Championship match with Magnus, Ding is once again widely considered to be one of the favorites to win the 2022 Candidates Tournament… if he could actually qualify for it. The top two finishers of the 2021 Chess World Cup, 2021 Grand Swiss Tournament, and 2022 Grand Prix are given berths into the FIDE Candidates Tournament4. Although Ding was invited to and had planned on participating in all three of the aforementioned tournaments, he ended up being unable to attend any of them due to a combination of China’s zero-COVID stance and the Schengen area visa policy; he’s repeatedly been unable to purchase a return flight from Europe to China due to China’s constant updating of return flight rules and the complete lack of available flight options. For reference, a one-way flight from San Francisco to Shanghai on 05/13 of this year costs $9628 (transiting through a third country is disallowed if direct flights exist). I was able to secure a one-way flight from San Francisco to Shanghai for $267.20 pre-pandemic.
In a major twist of events, it seems that Ding may yet qualify due to Sergey Karjakin’s chess ban5. If Ding does end up playing in the 2022 Candidates Tournament, I’ll certainly be rooting for him - I hope you will too.
Ding Liren so obviously belongs in the candidates tournament. That he does not even get a chance to qualify, is saddening.— Peter Heine Nielsen (@PHChess) February 1, 2022
My own story
The word “lockdown” is generally understood to be a break in transportation and other non-essential public services; this is not the case in China. The last story that I’d like to share is a personal one detailing the time I had the great displeasure of participating in a 48-hour COVID-induced building-wide lockdown in Shanghai.
On the evening of December 13th of 2021, the Anlian building in Shanghai’s Yangpu district went under a full-fledged 48-hour lockdown. Although I had left before police and health officials came to lock the building down, Anlian’s building management was still able to contact and inform me of the mandatory 48-hour quarantine (I was obviously not enthralled by this). Right before I re-entered the building, I took the picture below. One of the police officers noticed me snapping photos and was about to confiscate my phone before I told him that I had already deleted them (I lied). I didn’t end up taking any more pictures of the lockdown due to this strict “no photographs” policy.
Shanghai's Anlian building on the first night of lockdown - notice the barricade at the entrance to the left of the blue tent. There's police everywhere, and local health workers arrived in full personal protective equipment (PPE) to administer nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs).
The first night was the most eventful. Occupants ordered takeout (外卖) for dinner, resulting in mass confusion as bags of food were left outside the building entrance with nobody to bring them in. There was also mandatory COVID testing for the entire building and strict mask requirements while lining up for the test; those who weren’t wearing them tightly over both the nose and mouth were forcibly pulled aside and given stern warnings.
Later at night, internet speeds slowed considerably as everybody began streaming television shows, downloading Steam games (CS:GO, anyone?), watching Netflix (through a VPN), etc. Long lines formed at bathrooms as well. In particular, the women’s bathroom became congested as many vied for mirror space to apply dry shampoo and/or remove makeup. Local health workers brought and distributed blankets, but only enough for about 1/5th of the people in the building - tough luck for everybody else.
Day 2 was much of the same, with most folks fairly tired and sleep-deprived from the night before. Another round of NAATs took place on the first floor during a very specific time window. I was unfortunately late, which resulted in a heated argument between building management (who was supposed to make sure everyone in the building was present for the second round of COVID tests) and local health workers (who had to once again put on PPE and re-open test kits). This happened even though it was fairly clear at that point that nobody in the building had contracted COVID.
I later found out that the 48-hour lockdown wasn’t due to secondary contact (次秘接) as opposed to primary contact: an international traveller from Japan who was in contact with a confirmed COVID case had passed through the 25th floor of the building earlier in the day. I was skeptical that health officials would go through , but I later confirmed it with both a local health official as well as one of the folks most heavily affected who worked on the 25th floor of the office building.
In any case, if there’s one thing I learned from this whole ordeal, it’s that sleeping in office chairs is extremely uncomfortable.
On China’s COVID statistics
These stories should help shed some light the three distinct phases that China’s zero-COVID policy has gone through.
The first phase takes place from December 2019 to April 2020. During these critical months, China set a precedent for the rest of the world by engaging in mass lockdowns, city-wide testing, and virtual meetings. Official statistics (deaths, cases, recoveries) during this time are highly inaccurate due mostly to intentional but also some inadvertent miscounts. From May 2020 onward, China entered a delicate equilibrium, maintaining its zero-COVID policy through strict 21-day quarantine for international travelers - 14 in a hotel plus 7 at home. Chinese policy became fairly standard throughout the country, and most citizens simply forgot about COVID altogether, save for the occasional article or two bashing America for an unnecessarily high death count. Since January 2022, driven by Omicron’s high transmissibility, China has been grappling with outbreak after outbreak and re-engaging in citywide lockdowns.
Through a fundamental misunderstanding of the first two phases, China writers such as George Calhoun criticize Beijing for underreporting the infection rate. He views China’s COVID statistics as a “statistical, medical, biological, political and economic impossibility” because he’s never lived in a dense, authoritarian country.
Writers like George deserve substantial criticism for cherry-picking statistics while simultaneously avoiding a wholistic approach to analyzing China’s COVID response. China’s COVID eradication program in phases one and two were successful because the central government’s containment policies were unimaginably draconian. The 48-hour lockdown story should serve as a great example of this - a city or state leader in America forcing an entire building into a military lockdown would be political suicide.
As mentioned above, I have no doubt that the COVID cases and deaths for phase one are significantly higher than initially reported. Phase two, however, is entirely different. With COVID’s strong transmissibility and incredibly dense urban centers, entire swaths of the population would be simultaneously unable to work if even a few COVID cases slipped through without quarantine. Simply put, hospitals would be overrun, and the Chinese populace would notice.
Halloween (2020) in a tier 2 Chinese city. Quite the super-spreader event, no?
My personal opinion
The purpose of the three above stories was to portray how lockdowns, quarantine, and general COVID policy in China differs from that of other countries. This should hopefully also show why China’s zero-COVID strategy was considerably more successful than that of other countries in addition to why zero-COVID is socially and economically unsustainable in the era of Omicron.
Unless China cuts its citizens off completely from the rest of the world, I don’t see zero-COVID as a long-term possibility for any country, let alone one with an economy and population as large as China’s. China’s zero-COVID policy was warranted when the disease was much deadlier, but with Omicron accounting for nearly 100% of all recent worldwide COVID cases, it is highly impractical for China to continue these unsustainable zero-COVID rules, as they will have increasingly negative social and economic side effects. In particular, China’s zero-COVID policy has put the population in a COVID-ignorant state of mind - more and more people are showing an unwillingness to comply with local COVID mandates, all while the percentage of fully vaccinated elderly Chinese citizens remains low.
Thankfully, there are rumors that China wants to ease its zero-COVID policy. However, given the speed with which the central government was able to lockdown cities and restrict the flow of people in early 2020, I see no excuse for the current unease and slowness with which opening up is being discussed.
Western media coverage
One final note on Western media and its coverage of China’s pandemic response. The majority of media outlets have repeatedly failed to read between the lines when it comes to CPC pandemic policy6. While part of the reason is to prevent the spread of COVID domestically, another major reason is talent retention.
China is undergoing a fairly seismic demographic shift, with a rapidly shrinking young population (ages 25-34). I personally know several young Chinese professionals who studied at an international university before deciding to return to China instead of staying abroad - nearly all of these instances were due to rising costs associated with traveling in and out of mainland China, both in terms of time and money. Alex’s and Ding’s stories are perfect reflections of this.
It’s time for Western media to treat China’s policies as socioeconomic manipulation at the expense of other countries (including America) rather than natural byproducts of an authoritarian government. Western governments should band together and respond in kind with their own talent retention policies, and, if necessary, embargoes/sanctions against China.
Thanks for making it this far - I hope this post was informative. As mentioned before, this is part II of a four-part series. In part III, I’ll cover the Chinese tech scene, from 996’ing to the open source community. Stay tuned!
有钱没钱回家过年, i.e. returning home for LNY is a must, regardless of one’s fiscal condition. ↩
Ding and Levon Aronian are my two favorite players. In particular, I enjoy watching Ding’s solid playstyle in conjunction with his cold, hard calculation capabilities. He’s also an incredibly humble person.</sup> ↩
Traditionally, there has also been a slot for the highest-rated player, but this was removed in the 2022 cycle due to rating protection/manipulation by previous Candidates Tournament participants (Ding would’ve otherwise qualified this year). ↩
Sergey had qualified via the Chess World Cup held in 2021, but due to his support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he received a 6-month ban from all FIDE tournaments. This reinforces my belief that the only true winners of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are China and India. ↩
China’s great firewall is another example of Western media missing the complete picture. While minimizing external influence and internal dissent is undoubtedly a major reason for building the firewall, an equally important reason was to promote the growth of China’s own tech giants - Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, etc. I’ve actually read articles and papers which argue that the latter reason is the primary one for the great firewall; given the prevalence of VPNs and proxies (翻墙软件) within mainland China, I must say that I agree. ↩
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