Shanghai Letter: ‘We had to take responsibility for our own welfare because we couldn’t depend on the authorities’

Lockdown is over, but a spirit of self-reliance and disenchantment with authority continues

The biting wind swept down the Bund and its grand, colonial office buildings and banking halls, whipping around the corner at the Fairmont Peace Hotel and along Nanjing East Road until it tore in through the doors of the Shanghai New World Daimaru department store. It was so cold that a young man in black working at the Lancôme counter broke into a little run around it as he hugged himself to stay warm.

Spiral escalators carried streams of shoppers upwards through six floors of fashion, luxury goods and household appliances, while on the pedestrian street outside whistles shrieked as police marshalled the crowds into a two-way system. Fathers carried small children in their arms as we waited at a crossroads, while a row of police officers in green greatcoats marched in step, turning sharply on command to form a line across the road blocking the traffic.

Like the rest of the country, Shanghai has been on holiday since Chinese New Year on Sunday, although everyone will work an extra two days on Saturday and Sunday to make up for part of the break. In the meantime the city is full of people spending money, and there are queues outside every other restaurant in the popular districts.

If the Chinese economy is to make a strong recovery after three years of zero-Covid, Shanghai will play a crucial role as the country’s financial and commercial hub. Mayor Gong Zheng has promised help for small businesses hit by the pandemic as the city hopes that a consumer-led recovery will produce GDP growth of 5.5 per cent in 2023.


“Local companies are the cells of the Shanghai economy, and they lay the foundation for economic growth,” Gong said earlier this month. “We are studying a series of policies to address the problems that local small firms now face, including difficulties in securing orders, accessing capital and managing raw material costs.”

Gong has plans to make the city greener, opening 120 new parks this year and aiming for a total of 2,000 by 2035, and he has promised to renovate old neighbourhoods. In the French Concession this week I visited a typical house with multiple flats that had a shared kitchen on the ground floor and shared bathrooms on each landing.

Gong has promised to renovate all such old communities in downtown Shanghai within two years as part of a 10-year plan. The city also wants to make it easier for people with sought-after skills to move to the city from elsewhere in China and from abroad.

Shanghai’s authorities came in for fierce criticism last year when a four-day lockdown announced at the end of March went on for two months. Most people in Chinese cities shop every day for fresh vegetables and other perishables, and eating out and ordering in are cheap and convenient so few had larders or freezers stocked with food.

As supply chains broke down and delivery services were suspended, residents formed groups to order food together as others survived on instant noodles.

“I had to work out how to make sure my parents were taken care of as well as taking care of myself and making sure my friends were all right. We learned that we had to take responsibility for our own welfare because we couldn’t depend on the authorities,” one Shanghai resident told me.

She said that spirit of self-reliance and disenchantment with authority survived within the city after the lockdown ended last summer and may have fed into the protests against China’s zero-Covid policy at the end of November. A police van is still stationed on the corner of Wulumuqi Road and Anfu Road where the protest continued for two days and saw clashes between police and demonstrators.

It started as a vigil to honour 10 people who died in a fire in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi after lockdown measures delayed firefighters. But it turned into a broader protest against the zero-Covid policy and the government itself, with some demonstrators briefly chanting slogans against Xi Jinping and the Communist Party.

Some demonstrators arrested during the protests were held in police custody for a number of hours and released after they signed a declaration that they breached coronavirus restrictions. But some have faced much harsher treatment, according to Human Rights Watch, which on Thursday named two people who were arrested after the Shanghai protests whose whereabouts are unknown.

The streets around the site of the protests were bustling on Thursday, with smartly dressed young professionals filling the cafes. But last year’s lockdown and the aftermath of the protests have left some Shanghainese feeling uneasy.

One told me he was optimistic about the economic recovery and Shanghai’s future as a global city but much less so about more space for debate and dissent. “On that side I don’t see anything changing here for a very long time,” he said.