The Drivers Wuhan Counts On

I’m Jordan Schneider, Beijing-based host of the ChinaEconTalk Podcast. In this newsletter, I translate and analyze articles from Chinese media about tech, business, and political economy.

I’m opting for a tipping model to support my work which you can sign up for on Substack or Patreon. The money will go toward compensating ChinaEconTalk contributors who represent the next generation of China analysts.

If you were forwarded this email, please subscribe here

First off I want to highlight Tsinghua Law Professor Xu Zhangrun’s recent essay, ‘When Fury Overcomes Fear.’ It provides a deep moral critique of the governance failures which led to the current handling of coronavirus.

For a selection of Geremie Barmé’s translation:

Tyranny in a New Era of Political License

Tyranny ultimately corrupts governance as a whole and undermines the technocratic system that has taken decades to build. There has been a system-wide collapse of professional ethics and commitment.

There was a time, not too long ago, when moral imperatives found fellowship with systemic self-interest in a manner that led to a vast corps of competent technocrats taking the stage. Over time, they formed a highly capable coterie of specialists and administrators even though, as anyone would readily admit, it produced managerial arrangements that were far from ideal. After all, the new technocracy was one riven by its limitations and beset by serious problems of every kind. Nonetheless, one of the reasons that China’s technocratic class evolved and managed to work at all was that by combining administrative competence with a system that allowed for personal advancement on the basis of an individual’s practical achievements in government, countless young men and women from impoverished backgrounds were lured into pursuing educational self-improvement…

Unfortunately, as a result of the endless political purges of recent years [carried out in the name of an “anti-corruption campaign”] and along with the revival of “Red Culture,” the people in the system who have now been promoted are in-house Party hacks who slavishly obey orders…The One Who Must Be Obeyed who talks about the importance of transmitting “red genes” through the reliable Party body politic, the man with the ultimate decision-making power and sign-off authority, has created an environment in which the system as a whole has fallen into desuetude. What remains is a widespread sense of hopelessness.

The bureaucratic and governance system of China we see now is one that values the mediocre, the dilatory and the timid. The mess they have made in Hubei Province, and the grotesque posturing of the incompetents involved has highlighted a universal problem.

Despite all the talk one hears about “modern governance,” the reality is that the administrative apparatus is increasingly mired in what can only be termed inoperability. It is an affliction whose symptoms I encapsulate in the expressions “organizational discombobulation” and “systemic impotence.”

Don’t you see that although everyone looks to The One for the nod of approval, The One himself is clueless and has no substantive understanding of rulership and governance, despite his undeniable talent for playing power politics. The price for his overarching egotism is now being paid by the whole nation.

The entire essay is a brave and incisive statement by one of the mainland’s sharpest dissidents. If you have any Chinese ability whatsoever, I’d really encourage you to give the original a try. He writes in beautiful, flowing, forceful and righteous Mandarin. Perhaps Ta Nehisi Coates most nears Zhangrun’s register in English today.

脚下的这片大地啊,你深情而寡恩,少福却多难。你一点点耗尽我们的耐心,你一寸寸斫丧我们的尊严。我不知道该诅咒你,还是必须礼赞你,但我知道,我分明痛切地知道,一提起你,我就止不住泪溢双眼,心揪得痛。是啊,是啊,如诗人所咏,“我不要温和地走进那个良夜,老年应当在日暮时燃烧咆哮;怒斥,怒斥那光明的消逝。”因而,书生无用,一声长叹,只能执笔为剑,讨公道,求正义。置此大疫,睹此乱象,愿我同胞,十四万万兄弟姐妹,我们这些永远无法逃离这片大地的亿万生民,人人向不义咆哮,个个为正义将生命怒燃,刺破夜瘴迎接黎明,齐齐用力、用心、用命,拥抱那终将降临这片大地的自由的太阳!


The 2019 novel coronavirus exposed the fragility of various Chinese institutions. Local government and Wuhan hospitals have found themselves overwhelmed and unable to rise to the occasion.

Private logistics firms, on the other hand, have proven themselves essential. In a state of lockdown, the state has largely turned to the private sector to provide life’s necessities for those under order to stay inside. 

A team effort, this article published by GQ Reports profiles the experience and sacrifice of those individuals delivering food, opening their hotels to medical staff people. It describes at a human level the heroism and trauma of those caught in Wuhan. I translated this article with Vijaya Lakshmi Iyengar in full. It first appeared on Technode.com.

On the ninth day of the city’s lockdown, food delivery workers, taxi drivers, express delivery workers, and volunteers maintain Wuhan’s lifeblood

Liu Chuchu, Ouyang Shilei, Zhang Jiajing, Luo Fangdan, Ge Shurun, Chen Rubing

GQ Reports, Feb. 3, 2020

At the request of interviewees, some of the names in this article are pseudonyms.

The people who move supplies

Since the city was sealed off, Wuhan has been like a movie playing on mute. Most delivery companies have stopped operation, and a large number of goods from other regions are languishing in warehouses. A small number of Tmall Express, emergency medical services, and Shun Feng delivery workers [Tmall is an ecommerce platform and Shun Feng is a delivery service] are still active. Sometimes one delivery worker has to deliver to two different districts, thus the mountains of accumulated goods are slow to be disseminated from the warehouses.

On Jan. 26, a volunteer named Zhang Che called Xiao Wang, a deliveryman, to help him find a box of surgical masks from Cangzhou, Hebei that had arrived four days prior. Zhang Che promised to give Xiao Wang a bag of face masks in exchange for helping him find the package.

(Image credit: GQ Reports)

Upon receiving the face masks, Zhang immediately rushed to the hospital. As an individual volunteer, the amount of supplies he is able to get his hands on is limited. From Jan. 25 to 26, he only found 200 sets of protective clothing, 100 masks, and 100 goggles. The limited supply must be divided for a hospital with more than five different departments. No matter how much they get, doctors and hospital staff are very grateful. Each additional item is a lifesaver.

Almost all of the shops in the formerly bustling streets have closed. In the supermarket, most vegetables are gone. Only one convenience store in Wuhan’s main shopping street is open. The doorframe is filled with instant hot pot kits, instant noodles, and other easy-to-cook foods. Many blue-helmeted delivery drivers were at the door, waiting to grab a meal [Translator’s note: Blue helmets are the uniform of delivery service Eleme]. A number of people are not brave enough, or even able, to go out. They rely completely on the delivery workers shuttling throughout the city. 

Since becoming a delivery driver, this is the first time deliveryman Wu Bang has been asked by a customer to be added on WeChat. Every few days the customer sent Wu a list of dishes and daily necessities, paying him RMB 20 (about $2.87) for the errands. Wu walks slowly, with a crutch, because of a previous knee fracture. On Jan. 28, Wu Bang spends two hours in the Zhongbai supermarket to buy all the goods the customer needs. That night after returning home Wu Bang is so tired he “couldn’t even keep his eyes open”.  

While the city is sealed off, Wu’s errand-running fee does not change. The money he earns in a day is no more than normal. However, different platforms have different policies. According to a report by inSight, a young delivery rider said that delivery fees have risen by at least RMB 12 since Jan. 21. He calculated that he could earn RMB 3,000 to 5,000 in three days. However, many delivery drivers are still afraid to go out, and when the delivery workers who do continue working receive an order to a hospital, few are willing to accept it.

When delivery worker Liu Gang delivered abalone rice to Wuhan University’s Zhongnan hospital, he was surprised at how lonely the hospital was. Remembering a Weibo post stating that New Year’s dinner in the hospital was only instant noodles, Liu decided to make more deliveries to the hospital. Liu felt that to those still working during the lockdown, the motivation to help people others outweighs fear of infection. On Jan. 29, Liu photographed a sanitation worker in orange overalls he encounters on the road, a traffic policeman in a fluorescent green vest under an overpass, a rider eating a meal on the side of the road in a yellow hazmat suit, and a pharmacy still open. “They are superheroes,” he says. 

Wuhan

A hotel from the ‘Wuhan hotel support group’ (Image credit: Zhi Zhu Hou Mian Bao)

Express delivery within the city is still running. Li Zaigui, a delivery worker with Dada Zhongbao [a crowdsourcing-based delivery company] has been working around the clock for the last few days.  Of the original nine delivery workers at his site, three returned home for the New Year holiday, but none of the remaining workers left because of the outbreak. On the third or fourth day of the city being sealed, several unscheduled local colleagues felt bored staying at home and also came out to run deliveries.

Currently, Li delivers goods for JD, daily necessities such as masks, rice, noodles, oil, instant noodles, and mineral water. The platform specifically asked the delivery workers to not come in contact with customers when delivering goods, but instead to let the customers come down and pick them up themselves or place the goods in delivery cabinets. 

Every day, Li receives a mask from JD. Sometimes it is an N95 mask [Note: an N95 mask is one that blocks at least 95% of very small test particles], sometimes it is a surgical mask. This is considered very good in the industry. In fact, many of these service workers who are carrying people their life necessities and medical supplies have very little protection of their own. Lin Chen, a video blogger who has been shooting outside for several days, said that most delivery drivers on streets were not wearing masks. Wu Bang, mentioned above, wears a face mask and changes it daily, but doesn’t disinfect his clothes when he gets home even though he often delivers to the hospital.

Some lack access to and screening for the latest outbreak information. On the fourth day of Wuhan’s lockdown, volunteer Zhang Che added a RMB 10 tip to get a driver to accept his request for a rideshare. When he got in the taxi, he found that the driver was wearing no mask but a scarf looped twice around her face. He quickly gave her the mask in his bag. Seeing him so nervous, the driver asked, “Is the current situation dangerous? I heard two hundred people were infected?”

The dark cloud of inadequate supplies hangs over everyone in the city. Every time Zhang went to the hospital to give doctors and nurses supplies, he communicated with the doctors for a very short time, left physical space between them, and repeated one agreement over and over—an agreement he had made with more than 30 doctors: “We will come out to eat together after we are well!” No one dares to think about whether those agreements can be fulfilled. Among Zhang ‘s doctor friends, there have been a lot of people infected.

The people who help spontaneously

“The medical staff are fighting for their lives and I want to help them with logistics as much as possible,” said hotel volunteer Wang Hongyun.

When they began to seal off Wuhan’s, so did the battle of logistics to support frontline medical staff. On the second day of the new year, when the city was closed, the hotel industry in Wuhan organized the “Wuhan Medical Hotel Support Group” to provide free accommodation for medical staff.

Wang Huan is one of the leaders in the group, working as the hotel’s “clinical inspector.” In recent days, she felt more and more frustrated. At the same time, bills are piling up, disinfection and protection materials are increasingly scarce, and there is a service personnel shortage. Businesses wanted to help medical workers struggling to get home in the event of a traffic shutdown, but only for a few days. They hoped that a government or charity would take over after that.

Wuhan

Early in the morning, blogger Zhi Zhu Hou Mian Bao drives a doctor to work. (Image credit: GQ Reports)

It turns out that civilian-originated support will last longer than anticipated. More and more medical staff are checking into these hotels.

Wang Hongyun is the only hotel staff staying at the Aisikai Fine Hotel in Wuchang district. Now employees can’t be found even for three times the pay. He simultaneously serves as receptionist, cleaner, store manager, and manager. Every day, he disinfects public areas every three hours. The rooms are furnished and the sheets are changed by the medical staff themselves—as is the case at most of the hotels in the cluster.

This raises the question: How to disinfect? Lack of sufficient protective equipment for cleaning has become the most serious problem that these hotels face. Wang only wears a mask. He doesn’t have professional disinfection required isolation clothing, isolation shoes, or spray instrument, not to mention an ultraviolet lamp, or an air sterilizer. The medical staff sent him two pairs of disposable gloves, which he still refuses to use.

How the frontline medical staff travel has also become one of the most concerned issues. Zhou Xianwang, the mayor of Wuhan, said the government initially tried to provide three to five taxis for each community to pick up medical workers, but this effort failed.

Currently, some medical workers have solved the commuting problem by staying in hotels near the hospital, while others drive themselves to work. The rest of the medical workers mainly solve the commuting problem through a volunteer team organized by Didi Express and a private volunteer fleet.

After the city sealed-off, Wuhan-based vlog blogger Zhi Zhu Hou Mian Bao joined the volunteer group. He also recorded an instructional video about getting out of a car which describes disinfection processes.

The people who protect their jobs

After the lockdown, the number of people going out dropped. For the Wuhan police, the people calling 110 [Note: This is the police emergency number] also dropped. On Jan. 27, the Wuhan public security bureau received 165 calls to the 110 number, down 67.8% from normal. 

“There’s no one who wants to start with those trivial issues.” Wang Xing, a Hankou police officer said that in the past the police often had to solve fights that broke out due to trifles. But under the epidemic, there are fewer thieves. On the second day of sealing off, Hankou had zero police alerts. Even accidental deaths are declining, as there are no traffic accidents that used to happen daily.

Wuhan

(Image credit: GQ Reports)

The police are still on duty. As the epidemic situation took a downward turn, the police took on the responsibility of picking up and dropping off patients. 

There are still many problems to be solved in the community. Chronically ill and the elderly are worried about how to go to the doctor on time and how to buy food and supplies. At present, the voluntary fleet of municipal taxis does some of the supporting work for such situations. Yu Huahui, a taxi driver, is one of those who has volunteered to join the 6,000 taxis in the community scheme. 

The night before, Yu told his family “If I don’t do this, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.” His wife and daughter finally showed their support and told him to take precautions.

Every day, the community committee investigates the purpose of travel, location and test results of its residents and informs the drivers. Before getting on the cars, temperatures are checked. Passengers with fevers cannot get on.

A portion of the vehicles go to the hospital, taking pregnant women for physical examinations, dialysis patients to get dialysis, and the elderly for physical examinations. The other portion goes to help old people who have no children to buy things for them. On a regular basis, community workers keep a list of the food and supplies they need and go out with drivers to do their shopping. Sometimes Yu Huahui and his colleagues have to run a few supermarkets and pharmacies to buy what residents need.

The taxi company provided only surgical masks and 84-brand disinfectant for the drivers, while Yu added gloves, disposable raincoats and plenty of Chinese medicine. Mr. Yu felt that the company should do more to keep drivers safe. He suggested to the company that he “can provide as many N95 professional masks as the company needs,” and tried to convince the leader that he “has at least a few hundred in stock that can be used by everyone for the time being.” But the leader ignored him.

The volunteer fleet organized by ride-hailing company Didi is fully equipped, and the yellow protective suits are dazzling. This makes Mr. Hu bitter. (Image credit: IPTV) 

The people who defend the city

Zhang Che decided to have a rest. While volunteering at hospitals to deliver supplies, he thought he had developed symptoms of PTSD. Sometimes when he closed his eyes, he saw thousands of hands looking for a mask, and he had only one bag.

The road used to transport supplies is blocked. Zhang ’s friends from Fuyang, Anhui Province sent more than 1,000 sets of protective clothing and some face masks over. In the middle of the night the car drove to Wuhan entrance gate, but wasn’t allowed to enter as the road was broken with a several meters wide deep hole, the goods could only be sent back to the factory. Zhang didn’t tell anyone close to him he was a volunteer and had to deal with his personal anxieties himself. 

This only made Zhang more anxious. A doctor friend at People’s Hospital has been diagnosed with a strong positive infection and is being quarantined. Another doctor friend decided to go back to work when he should have been quarantined because of a shortage of staff.

(Image credit: GQ Reports)

Zhang never expected to become a volunteer. On New Year’s Eve, he was chatting with a doctor friend who casually said the hospital did not have food for New Year’s Eve. Zhang went to send them food. On Jan. 24, at the height of the panic, huge crowds rushed to hospitals to be tested for infection. Zhang was in the hospital hall and saw all the elderly, some people close to the body, some people not wearing masks, some people wearing cloth masks. Zhang was about to make a detour to leave when a pair of hands seized him, a scarf wrapped around the mouth and nose of a middle-aged woman almost kneeling: “Please sell me the mask.” Then another pair of hands caught him. Soon, Zhang ’s bag of masks was finished.

People getting the masks were ecstatic, and Zhang’s heart clenched as he saw red-faced patients interspersed throughout the hospital. Before leaving, the doctor advised him not to deliver things. He nodded, turned, and drove back up the road, calling contacts to let them know he’d deliver things. 

“We want to live, too.” Said Zhou Qinghui, owner of the Yishang Garden Hotel. The cost of rent, water and electricity is about RMB 6,500 a day. “Our current situation cannot maintain long-term free service. It’s not clear how long we can last.” Zhou said. All the hotel staff in Wuhan that Wang Hongyun knew were not comfortable. “Most of the owners are not fully invested, and many of them are simultaneously paying off their loans while operating their stores. They are paying off that money each month.”

In the early morning of Jan. 29, the fifth day after its establishment, the “Wuhan 123 Rescue Convoy” published a “Letter to Drivers,” announcing that due to a shortage of protective resources such as protective clothing and masks, it would suspend order collection. In the past five days, the 123 aid convoy faced the risk of infection to pick up nearly 1,000 medical staff and deliver more than 100 supplies. 

On Jan. 30, Wuhan Union Hospital made a post on Weibo asking for help. “We defend Wuhan, we ask you to support us! We just got the news that we’re running out of supplies!” Seeing this message, Zhang decided not to rest and soon set out to find supplies.

(Image credit: GQ Reports)

They keep rushing around, they keep waiting, waiting for the Huoshen Shan and Leishen Shan hospitals to be built, waiting for the turning point in the epidemic, waiting for the lockdown of the city to end, waiting for the moment this city grows brightly and comes back to life. 

[Translator: As of Feb. 8, both of the hospitals mentioned above have been completed. Wuhan is still battling the epidemic.]

Loading more posts…