Shanghai’s Food Shortages Spur Voluntarism and Cynicism

Locals are ensuring their own supply after prominent government failures.

By , an author, reporter, and translator.
A girl carries vegetables in Shanghai
A girl carries vegetables in Shanghai
A girl carries a bunch of vegetables in a residential area in Shanghai on April 12. Getty Images

Last month, in an article published by Xinhua News, multiple botanists in Shanghai made an emergency announcement, calling on Shanghai residents not to dig up and consume wild vegetables, tree roots, and bamboo shoots grown in apartment complexes lest they accidentally poison themselves. This was a realistic fear; some residents, desperate for food, had already reportedly fallen sick after consuming wild vegetables growing in the shared areas of their apartment complexes. It was eerily reminiscent of the desperate times of the Great Leap Forward, a period when China saw mass famine from 1959-1961, when the bark was stripped from trees by starving people.

It’s been around five weeks since COVID-19 lockdowns started in Shanghai, and people are increasingly hungry. Social media has been flooded with accounts of desperation and tragedy. An April 7 Weibo post pleading for help for a woman who was six months pregnant and only had two days of food left has been shared more than 50,000 times. Actor Li Liqun said in a streamed video that he had no extra food left at home and could only eat one meal a day. He added that before the lockdown, he spent less than 100 yuan (about $15) a day on food, but now even 2,000 yuan couldn’t buy enough food for a day—if it was available at all.

On April 12, a letter began to circulate online in which residents from the Second Village of East China Normal University pleaded for help. The letter, which was later verified by China Newsweek, said that since their lockdown began on April 1, the community had only received one supply delivery, and many elderly people living alone in the community lacked food and water. There are thousands of similar stories. The popular video “Voices of April” collected audio accounts of the suffering, briefly flaring up on Chinese web platforms before being deleted by censors.

Last month, in an article published by Xinhua News, multiple botanists in Shanghai made an emergency announcement, calling on Shanghai residents not to dig up and consume wild vegetables, tree roots, and bamboo shoots grown in apartment complexes lest they accidentally poison themselves. This was a realistic fear; some residents, desperate for food, had already reportedly fallen sick after consuming wild vegetables growing in the shared areas of their apartment complexes. It was eerily reminiscent of the desperate times of the Great Leap Forward, a period when China saw mass famine from 1959-1961, when the bark was stripped from trees by starving people.

It’s been around five weeks since COVID-19 lockdowns started in Shanghai, and people are increasingly hungry. Social media has been flooded with accounts of desperation and tragedy. An April 7 Weibo post pleading for help for a woman who was six months pregnant and only had two days of food left has been shared more than 50,000 times. Actor Li Liqun said in a streamed video that he had no extra food left at home and could only eat one meal a day. He added that before the lockdown, he spent less than 100 yuan (about $15) a day on food, but now even 2,000 yuan couldn’t buy enough food for a day—if it was available at all.

On April 12, a letter began to circulate online in which residents from the Second Village of East China Normal University pleaded for help. The letter, which was later verified by China Newsweek, said that since their lockdown began on April 1, the community had only received one supply delivery, and many elderly people living alone in the community lacked food and water. There are thousands of similar stories. The popular video “Voices of April” collected audio accounts of the suffering, briefly flaring up on Chinese web platforms before being deleted by censors.

Ironically, given how harsh the lockdowns are now, the start of the problem was patchwork lockdowns that accumulated problems rather than solved them. China has adopted a strict zero-tolerance policy since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, but Shanghai has always been at the front line of a looser and less strict “precise prevention” strategy.

Even in mid-March this year, there were still self-congratulatory articles praising this strategy and celebrating how the “no lockdown, no stop” techniques minimized the impact of the pandemic on economic and social development, and demonstrated Shanghai’s soft power. When a few COVID-19 cases were identified in January, and it was discovered that three cases were employees working at a boba shop, Shanghai performed a limited lockdown of the shop alone. This stood in contrast to the extreme reactions to positive cases that have become normal across the country, such as the lockdown of Xian a few weeks earlier. Netizens joked about this boba shop being the smallest “pandemic risk area” of the whole country.

Zhang Wenhong, an infectious disease expert who is part of Shanghai’s COVID-19 response team, mentioned on social media in July 2021 the concept of “coexisting with the virus.” This March 14, Zhang published an op-ed in Caixin saying that since the virus had become much less deadly, the public could be less afraid, and arguing that despite the importance of a zero-tolerance policy toward COVID-19, “it doesn’t mean we would still use the lockdown and mass-testing policy for the long run.” A well-intentioned policy proved unable to cope with the speed and spread of the virus’s omicron variant.

Some areas of Shanghai entered community lockdown in early March after COVID-19 outbreaks. However, on March 22, Shanghai police accused netizens who said Shanghai would enter into a full lockdown of “spreading rumors,” this case is reportedly under investigation by the Shanghai police. Many Shanghai residents were confident that the Shanghai government would not implement a citywide lockdown, and they missed the opportunity to stock up on food and supplies.

By April 1, however, the entire city was in lockdown—and remains so. Lockdowns in China are comprehensive and harsh; most people have barely been able to leave their homes or their apartment compounds, though restrictions have slightly eased. Many Shanghainese have been trapped indoors with only the food they had available when the lockdown began. Household conditions in a crowded megacity also made stocking up difficult. “I was reluctant to stock up on food,” said 27-year-old Pan, who asked for only her second name to be used and who rarely cooks at home. She lives in a very tiny apartment and, like many Chinese, only owns a minifridge without a freezer and a single coil for cooking. She believed that the government would arrange food deliveries during the lockdown, as had happened during other periods of lockdown earlier in the pandemic, and purchasing food wouldn’t become a problem. After hearing a lot of friends’ suggestions, she purchased some eggs, yogurt, instant noodles, and two bags of chips, which turned out to be all she had to eat for eight days. On April 7, a volunteer finally found her some vegetables, after going to many grocery stores.

Xiang, who also asked for only her second name to be used, thought her small household had enough food, since she went grocery shopping on March 30 and had enough food for at least 10 days. But when we talked in mid-April, there was still no sign of a reopening or any chance to shop. She had stayed up for two nights trying, without success, to purchase food on various apps. She showed me a highly circulated “Shanghai Grocery Shopping Guideline,” it which suggested shoppers should “Join the Hema app at 6:55 a.m., keep updating; join the Dingdong app at 6 a.m., might succeed in the first 30 minutes; check the Meituan app at midnight,” listing a series of popular delivery apps that normally run out of food within only a few minutes of opening.

A friend who asked to stay anonymous told me that she had to cook food that had expired one or two months ago, “and I cook them with very little oil, because I am low on that as well.” Her apartment complex entered community lockdown in March 17, though in the early days, since most of the city was still open, she was able to purchase groceries and restaurant food through delivery apps—but it gets harder and harder each day. She has been forced onto a tight diet and had already lost 5 or 6 pounds.

Local resident Yang Zhenquan blamed the food shortages on the local government’s lack of planning. He read on news and social media platforms that many other provinces and cities had transported a large amount of food and supplies to Shanghai, but that delivering the food to local residents had remained a problem. His apartment complex entered lockdown in early March, and a limited number of community officers and volunteers were responsible for arranging mass COVID-19 tests, delivering food and packages from door to door, and handling all the emergencies such as arranging ambulances for sick neighbors. He received some food from the community management team in the first few days of the lockdown, but soon enough, he and neighbors realized that they had to find ways to purchase food on their own.

While grocery purchase apps such as Meituan and Hema were unable to fulfill most of their orders, Yang and his neighbors managed to find individual food suppliers. They would purchase in bulk, and food suppliers would deliver food to the entrance of the apartment complex. “We had to purchase at least purchase 50 bags of groceries for them to deliver, it is about twice as expensive as before, but it’s still affordable,” he said.

According to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, there are only about 11,000 delivery workers in Shanghai, not enough to fulfill the demands of all 26 million Shanghai residents. Mao Fang, vice president of Meituan, acknowledged that sorting and distribution capabilities were insufficient, and Mao said the company would arrange workers based in other cities to come to Shanghai to support operations there.

Community workers, the most grassroots level of Chinese government, have been left exhausted as well. Chinese urban life is divided up by apartment complexes, walled areas that have become a key tool of lockdown, as their entrances and exits can be easily controlled. In Shanghai, a lot of apartment complexes have multiple buildings, each with hundreds of residents. Each also has one or more residents’ committees, which both provide services and monitor locals. According to a widely circulated WeChat article, volunteers in some Shanghai compounds have taken over the work assigned to community officers, often with more success in securing food.

Some Shanghai residents who were fortunate enough to receive food deliveries found out that many food items provided by the government were expired. According to another popular WeChat article, some community workers sent out notices to residents to warm them not eat some expired food items. The Shanghai government admitted this problem existed at a press conference.

For the last two years, the Chinese government has boasted of its success in fighting the pandemic—which won it genuine credit with the public. A lot of that is evaporating, both in Shanghai and elsewhere. On Zhihu, a Chinese question-and-answer site, dozens of respondents to the question “How do you comment on the writer Fang Fang?” reflected on the dissident journalist Fang Fang, who was widely attacked by nationalists online due to her controversial but vivid Wuhan lockdown diaries. Some people wrote that there was no author like Fang Fang to document Shanghai lockdown stories.

On the social media site Weibo, government-sponsored anti-U.S. hashtags like “the United States has the largest human rights deficit in the world” were subverted by anti-Chinese Communist Party comments by posters. To no one’s surprise, such criticisms were quickly deleted.

Tracy Wen Liu is an investigative reporter, author, and translator who focuses on the U.S.-China relationship.

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