2020 04, Covid-19, The Chinese Lockdown: a vehicle of analysis of the transformations and constants of Chinese society, between telework, games and shopping, by Dominique Desjeux, Anthropologist

2020 03 2, Dominique Desjeux, anthropologist, Professor Emeritus at the Sorbonne, University of Paris

Between 1945 and 2000, you had to go to the United States to see what could happen in our society. Today, you have to go to China. For the past four to six weeks, the Chinese have been confined to their homes. I asked a dozen Chinese people how they had experienced this lockdown and how it could help us better understand what was going to emerge in France in similar or different forms.

From February and the spring festival, mobility has been very controlled in China. Those living in the Wuhan region were even prevented from moving around. For the others, once the spring festival had been spent with their families in another region, they had to return to their residence. The residence usually has one or more guards. Before entering the residence, the temperature of each member of the family is taken. They have to give their ID card number, telephone number and apartment number. They also have to indicate from which region they are returning.

This is a tracing practice that is an extension of traceability through purchases with Alipay, which depends on Ali Baba (阿里巴巴Ālǐbābā), for example, or through facial recognition and internet control. As soon as people leave the house, they have to wear a mask. As soon as they enter somewhere, their temperature has to be taken. Wearing a mask is already fairly common practice in China, either because of pollution, as in Beijing, or because you are sick and want to avoid transmitting your illness. Public transport seems to work, but is almost empty. The mask and the thermometer are the two concrete objects of mobility control. In Wuhan, where there is no more public transport, it seems that bicycles, motorcycles, cars or taxis are used more.

The guards play a role of strategic importance in maintaining security between the inside and outside of the residence, which may house several thousand people. This is somewhat reminiscent of the practices of the « danwei » (单位), the unit of work and residence in China in the past. Crisis and security management has been embedded in the Chinese cultural model of social control by family, relatives or colleagues.

For shopping, some have taken advantage of the efficiency of online shopping already set up several years ago by Ali Baba or by other companies such as Shunfeng Express 顺风速运 (« favorable wind fast transport ») or Jingdong (京东JD.COM, capital of the East). It is likely that shortages were partly avoided thanks to the quality of the Chinese e-commerce network. This enabled most families to order vegetables, fruit, rice, ready-made meals and everyday items, some of which may have disappeared from supermarkets in some regions. The testimonies collected do not show any obvious shortage.

It was also possible to shop outdoors in a supermarket or in small shops, but limited to two or three times a week. Some of the shops were empty. At each entrance a guard takes the temperature of the customers. He himself is covered with a protective suit and a helmet with Plexiglas that prevents him from coming into contact with others.

The lockdown has led to a greater practice of cooking which, for some, had been partly abandoned in favor of the restaurant, which it is almost impossible to go to for the moment. This gives them the opportunity to invent new recipes. The lockdown can be associated with culinary creativity.

Some change their purchasing practices by agreeing to buy fruit and vegetables over the Internet without being able to touch or smell them, which represents a real revolution even today in the purchasing practices of a part of the Chinese population. Some will also start to order ready-made meals thanks to e-commerce. We are therefore witnessing the development of the use of platforms due to the increase in Internet ordering practices. In each residence, delivery men can bring orders two to three times a day. Then they are managed by the caretaker, who distributes them to the residents.

In most regions work almost came to a standstill. It resumed a little earlier for private companies and a little later for public companies. Universities have had an extra month’s holiday, which they will have to reclaim in August 2020. As a result, teleworking has developed strongly, especially in education. Teachers are preparing lessons on the Internet. For some of the teachers, giving lessons over the Internet is a new practice which is not self-evident. It is possible that in the months or years to come we will see a different relationship of the Chinese with telework and therefore perhaps its wider diffusion.

Children attend classes at home with the help of their parents thanks to their iPad, which can be used for homework as well as for playing video games, something which can be a concern for some parents. Some middle-class children are enrolled in private schools. During the lockdown these schools send educational videos every day to help parents play with their children. This is a small family revolution, because most often when both parents work, it is the grandparents who take care of the children. With the lockdown some of the parents create new relationships with their children. There are also groups organized around Wechat that allow them to earn points through learning activities. This corresponds to a kind of « social gamification », involving earning points, which is also found in daily shopping as well as for party members who have to answer questions about history or knowledge about China every day and thus earn points.

Sport has been able to maintain itself in the residences of the regions where coronavirus was not too far advanced, thanks to badminton, which does not require a lot of contact between the players and requires little space to be played, as well as basketball, for the same reasons. Some of the families developed sports practices at home and bought floor mats. For some Chinese families, indoor sport is a new practice.

In the area of leisure and games the effects were much more ambivalent. Most of the video game rooms have been closed – moreover, the Chinese government and families had been concerned by the degree of their use by many young people in China.

The most contentious prohibition, and this is an unexpected effect of the crisis, has been on mahjong (麻将). This is a traditional game played by four people. It was therefore banned to prevent the spread of the disease. This ban shocked some Chinese people, who felt that the government was going too far. On Chinese sites, for example, there is a video with four old people playing mahjong. A voice coming from an unknown direction tells them to stop playing. The astonished people look everywhere and don’t understand where this order comes from. In reality it comes from a drone, one which is not necessarily directed by the police, which orders them to leave their gaming tables. Immediately the four slightly frightened people return to their house. Another video shows police officers breaking a mahjong table. Another shows four people carrying a mahjong table on their shoulders in the street to shame them for being caught playing. An intercultural lesson that can be drawn from this is that what shocks the Chinese may seem unexpected to a French person. However, to make a comparison, it is a bit like forbidding the French to play Belote or Tarot to contain the epidemic.

Some of the young and not-so-young have only had to continue playing video games, especially online video games, such as those of the « MOBA » variety (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena). One of the most popular games is called Plague Inc, which is an apocalyptic simulation game. It seems to be the number one selling game in China since the development of the coronavirus epidemic. Another game is called 王者荣耀 wángzhě róngyào (Honor of Kings). It is said to have around 200 million registered players. The Chinese play a lot of card games. I do not know if this one is also online, but it is called 斗地主dòudìzhǔ: fighting the landlord – a name which speaks volumes.

 All television channels became free of charge during the containment period. Wechat (微信 Wēixìn: « micro-letter »), which is one of the most important means of communication between the Chinese, continued to operate at full capacity. Those directly affected by the crisis are small businesses, restaurants and some shops. It is possible that the crisis will reshuffle the cards of the domestic Chinese economy.

Sanitary lockdown has led to many small incremental changes in the daily lives of the Chinese. However, there seems to be a certain boredom, a certain weariness of being locked up and watching television or playing video games. This is perhaps one of the greatest paradoxical lessons that can be drawn from this experience. Of course, lockdown, which I take here as a metaphor for political protectionism, is an effective way of protecting oneself from the other, but in the end it can only be a temporary means, or else one will die of suffocation. The closing of borders, economic protectionism, can only last for a certain duration. Games, even video games, are not enough to satisfy the people.