(All photos taken from Weibo)
Following the public furore over transporting food in rubbish trucks in Wuhan, residents of neighbouring city Xiaogan (孝感) took to the streets in protest over exorbitantly-priced vegetables. Having endured a long period of lockdown, the unsteady supply of daily necessities has become the trigger point for intense public anger among Hubei residents.
On 12 March, hundreds of people (who should have been on home quarantine) gathered at a basketball court in Sea Mountain estate in Yingcheng, Xiaogan. This rare occurrence swiftly went viral on social media, with the image of the protest gaining approximately 40,000 reposts, and the term “Yingcheng Sea Mountain estate” rising to the top of the rankings of Weibo’s “most searched” topics.
A resident had been able to contact a farmer who could supply affordable groceries but was instead reported to the authorities by the estate’s supplier, and taken away by the police.
Late in the night of 12 March, the Xiaogan local government issued a statement about its management of this estate of about 8000 residents under lockdown. It said that daily necessities were collectively purchased and supplied by the estate, and it had “forbidden anyone from selling such items privately”. Despite its warnings, a resident had utilised his personal connections to supply groceries to the estate, and was charged by the police for unlicensed sales. The incident drew a crowd of roughly 100 that later dispersed after Yingcheng officials arrived at the scene.
However, this report was immediately refuted by netizens of the area. They claimed that the reason for the protest was due to the monopolisation of supplies, which resulted in residents having to pay for groceries at inflated prices that were “often rotten”. A resident had been able to contact a farmer who could supply affordable groceries but was instead reported to the authorities by the estate’s supplier, and taken away by the police. This greatly upset the residents who then gathered downstairs in protest against the incident. A netizen had also counted the number of people in the photograph and discovered that it amounted to over 300. This was far more than the 100 people that the authorities had claimed.
This protest was not the only case of a mass gathering among residents. According to videos and screenshots from WeChat, residents have also gathered in various residential areas of Yingcheng in quick succession on 12 March. Residents were found rallying in WeChat groups for the support of all residents to “have our mayor changed”. Some others screenshot the prices of groceries sold by the suppliers of Yingcheng, which showed that 1kg of garlic sprouts was priced at 30 RMB (approximated S$6), while 1kg of pork costs 80 RMB.
Wake-up call for Hubei officials
Many netizens from Wuhan have shown support to Xiaogan residents, as they also had a bad experience of having their groceries and essential items transported in rubbish trucks and ambulances on 11 March at Qingshan, Wuhan. They lamented, “This is how they treat us after we’ve been so considerate of the bigger picture. No one would put themselves at risk and gather together if they have not been oppressed for too long. Stop forcing the people of Hubei into an uprising!”
Professor Chen Bo of the Huazhong University of Science and Technology told Lianhe Zaobao in an interview that various cities in Hubei have already been locked down for over a month. Residents have been cooped up for a long time, and are thus emotionally vulnerable. Moreover, groceries are daily necessities of the residents. If the estate is unable to properly manage this aspect and even collude with suppliers to monopolise the supply of these necessities, residents would naturally be even more riled up than on normal days.
Over the past few days, the people were increasingly frustrated, reflecting that they not only needed the understanding and tolerance of the officials, but also a community management approach that is people-centered.
Prof Chen further analysed that local officials were given a wake-up call when angry residents shouted “It is all fake!” when Chinese Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan visited a residential estate on 5 March. He thinks that the local government will tackle the issue soon and suggests that the estate grant residents the freedom to choose their own suppliers. “Unless the situation is dire, they should not force residents into collective purchase, resulting in monopolisation of prices,” he explained.
Following late-night discussions on 12 March, Yingcheng’s local government decided to increase the number of suppliers in a bid to lower the prices of daily necessities through competition between suppliers. The government will also subsidise the suppliers to lower the cost of operations.
During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Wuhan on 10 March, he requested that Hubei officials “understand, tolerate, and forgive” the ways in which residents in hard-hit areas vented their frustrations as they have been locked down for a long time. Over the past few days, the people were increasingly frustrated, reflecting that they not only needed the understanding and tolerance of the officials, but a people-centred approach to community management.
Note (updated 20 April):
45-year-old Zeng Mouzhi has been charged with initiating the protests that occurred on 12 March. According to an official report released on 18 April, Zeng had rallied family and friends to protest the high prices for daily necessities during the lockdown, but her actions were actually done out of self-interest. She had wanted to seize the director position of the Sea Mountain estate committee and to be exempted from paying her property management fees.
The report added that her actions impeded the epidemic prevention and control efforts in this high-risk zone, endangering the lives of the over 8000 residents in this estate (of which 8 people were diagnosed with the coronavirus successively and 41 close contacts quarantined). The report further noted that after the protest on 12 March, Zeng once again mobilised people to gather on 25 March and was later called in for questioning by the police on 27 March. Investigations revealed that Zeng had been charged with a number of public order offenses dating back to 2016, including breaking into "lianghui" (两会, two sessions referring to the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference) meetings, refusing to pay her property management fees, and various counts of obstructing construction projects and disrupting social order. She was arrested by the police on 9 April, and charged by the prosecutor's office of the Yingcheng local government on 17 April.
The report concluded that since the protests on 12 March, local government officials have worked to improve their service standards, including regulating the flow of resources and stabilising food prices. At the same time, a working team has been set up to facilitate the re-election of the estate committee in accordance with law and regulations, in a bid to strengthen estate management.