Coronavirus Series Part 1: A Government’s Response to an Epidemic

For the past months, the world has been caught up in the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. Originating in China, recent developments brought the attention to other Asian and Western countries. But let’s take a look back to see where it all began. In our Hutong School 3-part series, we give a comprehensive overview of the epidemic and how it influences life and work in China on different scales. Today is part 1: the government.

It started with a few news stories at the beginning of January, reports on 武汉肺炎 ‘Wuhan Pneumonia’ caused by a so-called 冠状病毒 ‘Coronavirus’. By the time Chinese New Year was upon us and news began to break of infections reaching other countries, it became clear that this was going to have impact on a large scale. On 20th January, CCTV reported that China’s leader Xi Jinping said the outbreak must be taken seriously and every measure taken to contain it. And he meant it.

Sweeping Measures

On 23rd January, Chinese authorities closed off Wuhan, a city of 11 million people and an important logistical hub. In China’s top-down government, this meant sweeping measures took place in a matter of hours. Following the 2 am announcement, at 10 am on the same day, trains, planes, ferries and all public transport were suspended immediately. People scrambled to leave the city or arrive just at the last moment. By the evening of the same day, it was announced that the lockdown would expand to include nearby cities like Huanggang, Ezhou and Zhijiang. In total, about 50 million people would end up being involuntarily quarantined.

This lockdown is the largest in human history and goes further than just restricting transportation. Masks became obligatory when going outside, for-hire vehicles and taxis became unavailable. Special permission is needed to now leave this area.

Although communication and transparency were limited in the beginning, through these measures the government put in all its effort to further contain the virus. The Chinese New Year holiday, a rare weeklong holiday for many Chinese workers, was extended until 10th February.

In Wuhan, 2 hospitals were built within a couple of weeks to create thousands of extra beds. The heavy demand of surgical and N95 masks was met by increased production abroad and many donations. China’s Ministry of Finance allocated 1 billion RMB to officials in Hubei to fight the virus.

Local Impact

Besides the measures taken by the national government focused on Hubei Province, other cities and provinces throughout China actively took their own steps. Even though cities like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou are not on lockdown, many stores and restaurants remain closed or only available for takeaway orders. Travel groups are restricted, and people can’t even take a stroll through parks or other spots, which are now closed off to discourage people from gathering. 

Taking Shanghai as a specific example, control was tightened after the official holidays ended on 10th February. It’s impressive to see how systematically the guidelines from the local government were followed. Over the course of one weekend, desks and tents were set up at compounds where returning residents were required to register. Food orders and packages also needed to be dropped off and picked up at these entrances to minimize person to person contact. With the new surge of incoming people, masks were rationed, and instructions given to all residents on how to secure some. Residents were called by committees and volunteers to ask if they had recently been to Hubei province, where Wuhan is situated, or even out of the city. A table with an overview of each building was pasted on the wall.

This is already a high level of control for a city like Shanghai where infections have been relatively limited. Other heavier afflicted areas, however, have gone even further. Wenzhou in Zhejiang province became another hotspot for the virus, so the local government issued heavy restrictions, short of locking down the city. Only one person per household is allowed to go out once every two days for grocery shopping. Despite being a production hub, many workers still needed to stay at home until 17 February.

Discipline on a Grand Scale

What’s very clear through this whole process, is that China’s political system creates a unique environment. On the one hand, the top-down system that makes promotions for local officials based on performances of their own areas tends to increase bureaucracy and slow down communication. On the other hand, they are very quick and efficient to make sure rules are implemented correctly.

That’s why it’s no wonder you can see the same instructions and slogans everywhere. In Shanghai, the message is the same everywhere: 返(fǎn)沪(hù)人(rén)员(yuán),必(bì)须(xū)登(dēng)记(jì),everyone who’s returning to Shanghai needs to register. Red banners with various slogans have shown up around the city, many striking a military tone. One of the more memorable is 生命重于泰山,疫情就是命令,防空就是责任,Life is more important than mount Tai (one of China’s greatest mountains). The epidemic is just a command. Protection is our responsibility.


These banners and the emphasis on moral aspects have their roots in Confucianism, which teaches that everyone has a role to play in society. Amongst the different relationships mentioned by Confucius, one is officials versus the state. In other words, all officials have a responsibility to uphold values for their country and its people, and in order to do so they need to take appropriate action.

Given that everyone needs to stay in, one Luoyang official thought it appropriate to motivate his residents in another way. This banner reads 疫情时期在家呆,二孩政策一放开,造个二孩也能为国作贡献,During the epidemic period everyone is staying at home. The two-child policy is now in place. Making a second child is a good way of making a contribution to the country.

It’s clear that the actions taken by the Chinese government to try and prevent the spread of the epidemic are far-reaching. Such actions have influenced every aspect of life in the country during this ‘Special Period’. Follow our blog to find out how the measures have affected companies and individuals.

Stay tuned for part 2 and 3 of our Coronavirus Series. If you’re looking to take your mind off of all the chaos in the world and looking forward to the end of the lockdown, check out our articles on How China does Nightlife Differently here or Dating in China 101 here.

Posted in Chinese Culture
7 Apr 2020

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