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At mercy of zealous residential committees, Shanghai's locked-down vent frustration

By David Stanway and Brenda Goh
FILE PHOTO: The closed entrance of a residential area is pictured during lockdown amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Shanghai, China, May 5, 2022. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

Last week, Elizabeth Liu and her husband were excited about the prospect of leaving their Shanghai residential compound for the first time in over a month. All but one building in the compound had just been reclassified as low risk after 14 days of no COVID cases.

"My husband put on the hazmat suit and went to pick up our groceries from the supermarket because our building was technically a precautionary zone, she said. "According to law, we should be able to go out."

FILE PHOTO: A resident looks outside through a barrier of a residential area during lockdown, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Shanghai, China, May 3, 2022. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

But after he returned, the couple received a visit from a member of their compound's residential committee and two policemen who told them to stay home.

"Listen to the neighbourhood committee because they know best," Liu quoted one of the policemen as saying.

Known in Chinese as "juweihui", residential committees - comprised of volunteers who receive a daily stipend - have gone into overdrive during the pandemic, helping authorities conduct mass testing, delivering food to people in need and helping to enforce draconian lockdown measures.

But as Shanghai's controls drag into a sixth week, many of the city's juweihui are now targets of public discontent, with residents accusing them of excessive caution and overstepping with arbitrary, heavy-handed measures.

Current Shanghai guidelines say residents can leave their "area" if that area has been classified as "precautionary" but do not define area.

The rules also say residents should only go out for "appropriate activity" but precisely what they are allowed to do depends on the latitude of the juweihui. Although Shanghai government data shows more than 70% of the city's residents are now in precautionary areas, in practice many people have not been allowed beyond their compound's gates.

Residents also complain that the committees are reluctant to disclose exactly what is permitted and often change rules on a whim.

"The juweihui has lots of power in interpreting citywide policies, so I've seen lots of unevenness on the ground," said Yifei Li, sociologist and assistant professor at NYU-Shanghai, who has spent the last month under lockdown.

"But what frustrates me most is when they keep changing their rules about what's allowed and what's not," he said. "That just adds so much unpredictability to what already is a precarious situation."

Asked by Reuters about the uneven enforcement of rules by the juweihui, the Shanghai government declined to comment. It said, however, in an April 12 post on its Wechat social media account that each district had the authority to implement tougher restrictions according to circumstances.

CHAPERONED TO SHOPS

For their part, residential committee members have also been pushed to their limits by the lockdown. Some committee directors have even been removed from their positions after being named by the Shanghai government for failing to take responsibility for COVID prevention.

"It has been very difficult," said a juweihui volunteer in a large compound in central Shanghai who declined to be identified. "We also didn't expect the lockdown to last this long."

Residential committees are tasked with mediating between the people and their district government - a role enshrined in law in 1989 as the ruling Communist Party sought to extend its reach after widespread unrest.

While the law defines them as "autonomous", it says the committees are responsible for implementing state policy and issuing state propaganda. The law also stipulates they "must not make orders by force" - a clause that some residents argue means they have no legal authority to confine people in their homes.

In the meantime, frustration grows.

At one compound in central Shanghai, residents told Reuters that a committee volunteer said she was unable to grant them permission to leave their apartments, even though they had been COVID-free throughout the outbreak.

Another group living in the Pudong district in Shanghai's east was allowed to visit a supermarket across the road but was escorted by their residential committee chief and led home 45 minutes later, a move one resident mockingly described as a "school trip".

The juweihui "clearly think that they're doing us a great service by limiting our freedom," said NYU-Shanghai's Li.

(Reporting by David Stanway, Brenda Goh, Zoey Zhang, Andrew Galbraith and Engen Tham; Additional reporting by Martin Pollard in Beijing; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)

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Dive Deeper:
Beijing denies lockdown rumours as Shanghai hunts elusive COVID
Beijing denied it was heading for lockdown as panic buying gripped the capital on Thursday, while Shanghai combed the city…
Shanghai aims to defeat COVID over next week as Beijing hunkers down
Locked-down Shanghai aims to ringfence its COVID outbreak over the next week, officials said on Friday, while residents in China's…
Half of Shanghai achieves 'zero COVID'; city presses on with 'unsustainable' fight
China hit back on Wednesday against what it called "irresponsible" comments by the head of the World Health Organization, who…
Tesla stutters under tighter Shanghai lockdown; Beijing keeps hunting COVID
Tesla operated its Shanghai plant well below capacity on Tuesday, showing the problems factories face trying to ramp up output…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Shanghai reaffirms ruthlessly enforced ‘zero-Covid’ policy that WHO says is not sustainable
Shanghai officials have said half the city had achieved "zero-Covid" status, but uncompromising restrictions had to remain in place under…
Covid in China: Beijing works from home, Shanghai aims to defeat virus by May
China has firmly rejected criticism of its uncompromising ‘Zero Covid’ policy, saying saving lives is worth the huge short-term costs…
Get all your news in one place