BEIJING (AP) — On a balmy Sunday evening, residents of an upscale Shanghai resort took to the streets to protest lockdown restrictions imposed by their community. The next morning they were free to go.
The triumphant story quickly spread to chat groups across China’s city this week, prompting a question in the minds of those who remained locked in: Shouldn’t we do the same?
By the end of the week, other groups of residents had clashed with the management of their compounds, and some had won at least a partial release.
Although it is unclear how widespread they are, incidents reflect the frustration that has built up after more than seven weeks of confinementeven as the number of daily new cases fell to a few hundred in a city of 25 million people.
They also recall the power of the Chinatown committees that the ruling Communist Party relies on to spread propaganda messages, enforce its decisions and even settle personal disputes. These committees and the residential committees under them have become the target of complaints, particularly after some in Shanghai and other cities refused to allow residents out even after official restrictions were eased..
More than 21 million people in Shanghai are now in “precautionary zones”, the least restrictive category. In theory, they are free to go out. In practice, the decision rests with their residential committees, resulting in a kaleidoscope of arbitrary rules.
Some are allowed out, but only for a few hours with a specially issued pass for one day or certain days of the week. Some places only allow one person per household to leave. Others forbid people to leave at all.
“We’ve already been given at least three different dates for reopening, and none of them were real,” said Weronika Truszczynska, a graduate student from Poland who has posted vlogs of her experience.
“The residential committee told us that you can wait a week, we will probably reopen on June 1,” she said. “No one believed it.”
More than a dozen residents of his compound, many under umbrellas on a rainy day, clashed with their managers on Tuesday, two days after Sunday night’s escape from the upscale Huixianju compound.
Residents, who were mostly Chinese, demanded to be allowed to leave without time limits or restrictions on the number of people per household. After demands were not met, some returned to protest for a second day. This time, four policemen stood guard.
On Thursday afternoon, community representatives knocked on every resident’s door with a new policy: write their name and apartment number on a list, take a temperature, scan a barcode – and they were free to leave.
“We had the opportunity to come out just because we had the courage to protest,” Truszczynska said of her fellow citizens.
Shanghai’s lockdown has also drawn resistance from people taken into quarantine and workers required to sleep at their workplaces. Videos on social media showed what were said to be workers at a factory operated by Taiwan’s Quanta Computer Inc. trying to force their way out of the facility in early May.
The party’s tough anti-virus campaign has been aided by an urban environment in which hundreds of millions of people in China live in gated apartment complexes or walled neighborhoods that can be easily locked down.
The first line for enforcement are neighborhood committees who are responsible for tracking every resident in every urban household nationwide and enforcing public health and sanitation rules.
Many tend to err on the side of application, mindful of the example of public servants being fired or criticized for failing in their duties to prevent the pandemic.
The importance of neighborhood committees declined in the 1990s when the Communist Party eased restrictions on the movement of citizens, but they saw a resurgence in a continued tightening of societal controls under President Xi Jinping.
The Huixianju incident prompted others to speak out. In a series of videos circulating this week, about two dozen people march towards the Western Nanjing Road police station, chanting “Obey the law, give me back my life.”
Residents of a compound in Jing’an district have seen the doors of neighboring compounds open over the past month, but theirs have remained closed. On Wednesday, about two dozen gathered at the door, calling to speak to a representative.
“I want to understand what the neighborhood leaders are planning? a woman asks in a video of the incident. Another woman intervenes: “Are you making progress? A third resident remarks that they should be free now, as the resort has been case-free for some time. “Didn’t they say on TV that things were opening up? We saw it on TV,” says an older man.
The next day, the community issued day passes – residents were allowed out for two hours on Friday, with no word on what would happen after that.
Shanghai authorities have declared a June target for life to return to normal. But some people don’t wait, pushing the boundaries little by little.
On Thursday evening, more than a dozen young people gathered for a street concert in the same neighborhood where Sunday’s protest took place. The video for the latest song, “Tomorrow will be better”, has been widely shared on social media.
A police car parked nearby with its red and blue lights flashing and its headlights on. As the last song came to an end, an officer wearing a face shield walked up to the group and said, “OK, you’ve had enough fun. It’s time to go home. The crowd dispersed.
Associated Press researcher Si Chen in Shanghai and writer Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.