At the mercy of zealous residential committees, the frustration of Shanghai’s locked vents

SHANGHAI, May 12 (Reuters) – Elizabeth Liu and her husband were elated last week to leave their residential complex in Shanghai for the first time in more than a month. All but one of the buildings in the compound had just been reclassified as low risk after 14 days with no COVID cases.

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

But after returning, the couple were visited by a member of their compound’s residential committee and two police officers who told them to stay home.

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“Listen to the neighborhood committee because they know best,” Liu quoted one of the policemen.

Known in Chinese as “juweihui”, residential committees – staffed by volunteers who receive a daily allowance – have mushroomed during the pandemic, helping authorities conduct mass testing, delivering food to people in need and helping to enforce draconian containment measures.

But as Shanghai’s controls drag on into a sixth week, many of the city’s juweihui are now the target of public discontent, with residents accusing them of excessive caution and overstepping arbitrary and brutal measures.

Shanghai’s current guidelines say residents can leave their “zone” if that area has been classified as “precautionary”, but do not define the area.

The rules also state that residents should only go out for “appropriate activity”, but what they are allowed to do depends precisely on the latitude of the juweihui. Although data from the Shanghai government shows that more than 70% of the city’s residents are now in precautionary zones, in practice many people have not been allowed through the gates of their compound.

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

“The juweihui has a lot of power in interpreting city-wide policies, so I saw a lot of inequalities on the ground,” said Yifei Li, a sociologist and assistant professor at NYU-Shanghai, who has spent the last month under confinement.

“But what frustrates me the most is when they keep changing their rules about what’s allowed and what’s not,” he said. “It adds so much unpredictability to what is already a precarious situation.”

Asked by Reuters about the uneven enforcement of the rules by the juweihui, the Shanghai government declined to comment. He said, however, in an April 12 post on his Wechat social media account, that each district has the power to implement stricter restrictions depending on the circumstances.

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For their part, the members of the residential committees were also pushed to their limits by the confinement. Some committee directors have even been removed from their posts after being appointed by the Shanghai government for failing to take responsibility for COVID prevention.

“It was very difficult,” said a juweihui volunteer at a large complex 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 expand its reach after widespread unrest.

While the law defines them as “autonomous”, it states that the committees are responsible for implementing state policy and disseminating state propaganda. The law also says they “shall not order by force” – a clause which some locals say means they have no legal authority to confine people to their homes.

In the meantime, the frustration grows.

At a complex 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 epidemic.

Another group living in Pudong district in eastern Shanghai were allowed to visit a supermarket across the road, but were escorted by the head of their residential committee and taken home 45 minutes later, a gesture that one resident described as a “school trip”.

The juweihui “clearly think they are doing us a great service by limiting our freedom,” said NYU-Shanghai’s Li.

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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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