Post-Quarantine Urbanism of China: It’s All About Human Conditions

April 7 2020, one day before the official lockdown lift on Wuhan, China, people were counting down towards midnight as if there was another exclusive New Year’s Eve. The night was brightened up by a light show to pay tribute to the key workers with the headline ‘City of Heroes’ projected through LED; At the same time, BBC News was live-streaming the update about the UK prime minister’s health condition — one day after Boris Johnson was taken to the intensive care. Millions of live comments from all over the world were stacked up to pray for Boris for a speedy recovery, followed by the second popular trend — ‘It’s the time to blame on China’.

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Light show to celebrate Wuhan’s lockdown release (sourced from Twoeggz Media)

Yes, we will be zooming into the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, national measures and the post-quarantine image of China. However, there is almost no way to leave the global dynamics and international sentiments untouched when the COVID-19 Geo-visualisation started to make full use of the world map.

Governance Testing in the Pandemic Lab: Centralization for Victory?

Urban researcher Bratton (2020) from UCSD described the COVID-19 pandemic as the largest comparative experiment to examine different governance systems with the virus being “the control variable”. Simply looking at the output data from its virus battle, China has presented an effective centralized governance model which achieved an 0 local infection on March 19 — around only one month after it hit the daily infection peak of 14,108 on Feb 12.

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COVID-19 data of China (graph sourced from World Data Meter)

Let’s take a look at the national input of this Chinese model. For suppression to prevent the virus from spreading around, the strict lockdown was placed over the whole Hubei province (Wuhan is the capital city) right before the Chinese Lunar New Year, which is the most important time of the year for family reunion. The lockdown was not just a soft slogan with the ‘#StayAtHome’ hashtag buzzing on social media but rather common law enforced by the governmental measures — public transports were fully shutdown; train stations and airports were closed for any outbound journey; community workers and building managers were closely monitoring the health dynamics of their local residents for any susceptive case.

Suppression is only for prevention, the virus was ultimately a fast-forward exam to score the healthcare and infrastructure power within a sharp time frame. Having struggled for the first 2 weeks, Wuhan witnessed the most overwhelming stories both for its healthcare workers and the patients, physically and mentally. The over-stretched capacity got boosted with country-wise resource reallocation — state-owned manufacturing companies ranging from garment producers to carmakers were plugged into the medical equipment and mask production line; 20,000 core medical workers and practical epidemiologists flew to Wuhan from all over the country; 2 new large-scale quarantine hospitals were built within 12 days with a 2,600-bed capacity. The data of actions was saving the data of infection under the united governmental control. However, there is never a victory data dashboard as people are not forgetting the anger towards the initial local government cover-up and the tears for Doctor WenLiang Li, who once blew the whistle but didn’t manage to save himself.

Traced Mobility during the Post-Quarantine: Self-Disclosure for Freedom?

Besides the macro-management of the governmental order, China’s success of its swift quarantine measures was also backed by the heavy consumption of personal geo-location data. Yes, personal data — the term western media is most excited about in its crusade against China government, but the post-quarantine reality is making the line between confidential privacy and necessary disclosure become blurring than ever.

Although the lock-down has been gradually lifted across all the cities in China now, normal life has not yet returned to normal. First launched in Hangzhou in early Feb, developed by its local government and the leading tech company Alibaba, the Health Code app serves as a safety proof for daily mobility. Applied voluntarily through the online platform, it will first issue the user a colored status (green, yellow or red) based on a self-reported health questionnaire. The status will then get updated dynamically based on the user’s ongoing activities traced through mobile GPS. While acquiring the digital health code is not compulsory for the citizens, a green color code is required for accessing public transport, traveling across cities as well as entering the most public sphere (supermarket, shopping mall, office building, etc.).

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Health code capture (green: safe, free to travel; yellow: pending for longer self-monitoring; red: dangerous, may have recent physical contact with the virus carrier)

With its great adoption rate, tangible convenience and verified security (or at least perceived security), the Health Code apps have been deployed across all the cities in China with an accumulated 900 million users by mid-March. Meanwhile, public concern is also rising around the potential leakage or misuse of this tremendous amount of human data, behind which are the persona sketches of individual’s daily routine, family network and social exposure. Although the major tech companies like Alibaba and Tencent declared no extra consumer data were shared to the government and all the in-app location tracing were subject to the user consent, the doubts about the potential abused surveillance were not eliminated, especially for the younger Chinese generation who are more sensitive about privacy (Yang et, al., 2020). The dilemma between the data security and self-disclosure for pandemic caring is always there. however, when the majority in China are comprising for the former in the pandemic, it starts to become a common choice to follow.

It also worth noting that the geo-location-based tracking for COVID-19 has expanded worldwide — UK government has coordinated with NHS (National Health System) to work on developing a contact tracking app for identifying the potential virus carriers; Apple just released a mobility data trends tool to help local government screening the residents’ travel for policymaking. While the GDPR is widely applied on the internet in Europe, the data protection challenge is not exclusive for China. ‘Self-disclosure to travel across the public sphere with verified security’ versus ‘moving around freely in a shared space with the unknown danger’, which one sounds closer to the freedom we long for?

‘Medium is the message’: How quarantine reshapes the entertainment

Self-disclosure is not always a compromise, it can also be an active sharing if we look at the story of the quarantine/post-quarantine entertainment. During the national lockdown, video live-streaming has become the most common way of domestic entertainment, with a daily increase of 200 users in the Chinese TicTok ‘DouYin’. People are streaming for home cooking, indoor workout, or even just for some grocery shopping commute. You don’t need to be a popular Youtuber to share the well-produced footage, all the short clips are lightly positioned as a life dairy. This naturally reminds me of Marshall McLuhan’s famous note ‘medium is the message’. The content itself is not the main point of focus anymore, the form of live video delivers its own messages:

- Within the epic pandemic, everyone who witnesses the story become the story themselves, the sense of participatory is actually amplified by the shared panic and uncertainty

- When the physical distancing becomes inevitable, people turn to pursue the sense of co-presence (virtually sharing the same time and space) with strangers in the cyber world.

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User adoption increase rate during China’s quarantine — Video sharing platform DouYin ranks the top with an average daily increase rate of 76%(sourced from QuestMobile Research)

Another emerging social trend post-quarantine is the connection through ideas has surpassed the connection through hormones when it comes to stranger networking. Contrary to the assumption that the quarantine isolation will increase the demand of stranger network services like online dating, the usage of the major social/dating apps (e.g. MOMO, TanTan) actually droped dramatically during the lockdown. Comparatively, the community-based products (e.g. DouBan — Chinese Reddit, QQ group chat) are increasingly popular. Under the COVID 19 epic, people are more easily hooked by the synchronized view/debatable topic rather than the virtual romance, which is less likely to turn off-line efficiently as before. During the lonely window, the unpredictability of the ongoing life event actually weakens the power of hormones.

Post-quarantine Sentiment Game: It’s All About Information and Human Conditions

With the COVID-19 outbreak expanding worldwide from China, there is also something sentimental rising beyond the virus itself — Chinese restaurants in the western countries are suffering huge sells drop due to a general association between Chinese food and virus carriers; UC Berkeley was making an Instagram post (already deleted) to comfort their international students by saying it is frustrating but also normal to experience some xenophobia under the pandemic; ‘It’s all China’s fault’ became a frequently-seen comment during the streaming update of UK PM Borris Johnson’s health condition in Twitter. Meanwhile, the continuous daily death increase in Europe and North America kept triggering everyone’s nerve under the social-economic shock, which reinforced the negativity towards China’s people and culture, forgetting they were once the most desperate victims in the first place.

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A Chinese-Italian man protests coronavirus-related prejudice (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lULceASXv88)

However, the regional racism is not coming from nowhere. Interestingly, there is actually the subtle ‘internal regional racism’ between the post-quarantine Wuhan and the rest of China — a Weibo user described the sudden social distancing was received after her neighbor learned she had come back from hometown Wuhan, despite having self-isolated for 2 weeks already and confirmed to be healthy. Although the defence intensity is less aggressive because of the shared identity and empathy, the bare panic and uncertainty among the Chinese are rooted in a familiar way to the hostility towards China from the western world. The fear towards death and the concerns towards the beloved, it’s all about human conditions. Additionally, the lack of information or misinformation under the pandemic also escalates the negative stereotype. With different noises buzzing around such as the 5G-Virus Conspiracy, no one is giving enough access or patience to digest the effort and struggles of epidemic prevention behind the media’s catchy headline. Misunderstanding becomes the common fate of the swamped modern readers.


Shu. W

Shu. W
Shu has a mixed backgound of game development and human geography. Currently working with BlackRock London, and started/ended her standup comedy right before the pandemic. She is happy and sad that she doesn’t need to explain to her friends where her hometown [Wuhan] is anymore.

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