Working in China in the COVID-19 Era

China managed to maintain some economic activity during the lockdown, but at what cost and under what conditions?

Public Books and the French magazine La Vie des Idées have partnered to exchange a series of essays about the COVID-19 pandemic. Today’s essay was originally published in LVdI on May 11, 2020, and in its English-language mirror website, Books and Ideas, on May 25, 2020.

China shut down its factories, offices, shops, and transport systems in late January 2020 in order to stop the spread of COVID-19; as a result, its population was strictly confined to their homes for weeks on end.1 However (as has been the case in other countries that have implemented a lockdown), not everything came to a standstill. In Wuhan, where the pandemic began, 12 percent of the working population continued to work throughout the lockdown. Nationwide, 10 percent of employees were still working at the end of January during the Chinese New Year; 36 percent returned to work in February and 28 percent in March.2

But at what cost was this proportion of the country’s economic activity maintained, and under what conditions? Who had to keep working? And how were they persuaded, or compelled, to do so? These are the questions that this essay—focusing on those who remained at work during the weeks of confinement—seeks to answer.3

Examining the conditions under which some people continued to work offers a better understanding of how the Chinese economy will resume and could herald what lies ahead for many other countries. This is all the more crucial in China given that employment is a major issue for the regime, which is legitimized by social stability.


Bringing Invisible Professionals to the Fore

In China, as has been the case elsewhere, the workers mobilized during the pandemic have been those who tend to be almost invisible under normal circumstances. This is particularly true of women in low-level jobs, who were celebrated on March 8, when the People’s Daily published a series of photos on its Weibo account, accompanied by the following text:

She is a police officer, keeping the country safe. She is a cleaner who is still going to work. She is a nurse sent to Wuhan on New Year’s Eve. She is the architect responsible for building a hospital. … They are on the front line in the fight against the pandemic; they carry huge responsibilities on their shoulders. Today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let’s send them a message of tribute!4

As of March 29, this message had been seen over 30 million times and attracted over 20,000 comments from internet users. The corresponding post was one of the focal points of efforts to boost the visibility and recognition of workers during the COVID-19 era.

Health-care workers—also known as “the angels in white” (白衣天使), a term that was widely used during the SARS crisis of 2003—find themselves on the front line in the fight against the pandemic. Wuhan was well equipped with health-care professionals; however, reinforcements were sent in from all over the country. Nursing staff were asked to work on a voluntary basis; so numerous were the volunteers that some Party members were disappointed not to have been chosen.5

Two-thirds of the staff sent were women, and although their faces were concealed by goggles and masks and their bodies by protective clothing, the press celebrated their “beauty” (美), in an attempt to glorify the sacrifice of their social roles as wives and mothers. Even so, the recognition of female health workers involves them sacrificing their femininity, as a photo of a medical team from Gansu province suggests, showing 14 women with shaved heads and only one man, still with his hair.6

Despite noting their physical beauty, the press did not report on their skills, or on the conditions under which they collaborated with the Wuhan teams. However, as a token of appreciation, when the female health workers started leaving the province (as of March 17), various celebrations were organized in the public sphere—including parades, local police escorts, and the presentation of souvenirs—a great tradition in countries with authoritarian governments.

This rhetoric of sacrifice used to celebrate the female health workers is reminiscent of soldier Lei Feng (雷锋), the selfless hero—fabricated in 1962—who was believed to have spent the entirety of his short life helping others. There is also a clear Maoist reference, with the photos of women published on March 8 accompanied by a hashtag that translates as “they are holding up half the sky in this battle against the pandemic.” This hashtag references the famous Maoist slogan “women can hold up half the sky” (妇女能顶半边天). What differs is that today’s heroic women no longer physically resemble the earlier “iron women” (铁姑娘), who were the model workers of the 1950s. Social norms in the Mao era meant desexualization, whereas today, it is the sacrificing of femininity that is celebrated.


Increased Social Control

One Maoist Chinese institution that played a leading role in fighting the pandemic was the residents’ committee (居委会), responsible for ensuring that members of the population were properly confined to their homes.7 Residents’ committees were first introduced in 1949, but their role has been strengthened since the reforms of the 1980s. Today, their tasks include those previously assigned to working units (which have been discontinued) dealing with matters such as neighborhood security, the distribution of welfare benefits, and family planning. That these tasks were shifted into the realm of the residents’ committees means that the population was no longer monitored in the workplace, but rather in the home.

The committees’ employees were originally often retirees. But as a result of the rise in the number of tasks for which they are responsible, the institution has taken on a more professional dimension over time, especially by recruiting young social workers.

And so, in the context of the COVID-19 health crisis (just as was the case during the SARS outbreak of 2003), residents’ committees have been on the front line in implementing the lockdown, prevention, and control measures. They take the temperatures of those entering and exiting buildings, quarantine suspected cases, inform residents of new measures, disinfect public spaces and corridors, discourage residents from gathering, and shop for those families unable to leave their homes.

For example: Liu Xuqing, head of a residents’ committee in Dalian, keeps a close watch on just over 10,000 people with the help of his staff.8 Thanks to their knowledge of the field, these committees gather the information needed to adjust lockdown measures in real time and as close as possible to the source: the population itself.9


Building a Society that Values Care

By Kathryn Cai

And while these committees have full-time salaried staff, they are also reliant on volunteers (志愿者), given the magnitude of the work at hand.10 Volunteers are also being used to channel and register cars at motorway tollbooths; deliver donated protective gear, meals, and health-care workers to hospitals (especially following the closure of public transport in Wuhan); assist airport customs authorities in translating epidemiological information for foreign passengers; deliver distance-learning courses to children of health-care workers; register volunteers for vaccine clinical trials; and help farmers promote unsold produce by filming videos that are then posted online.

Outside the committees, volunteers (in some cases) have even replaced paid workers.11 This mobilization of volunteers within companies, described as “temporary workers on production lines” (生产线上的临时工), recalls other episodes during which this happened, such as the Great Leap Forward of 1958, when the emphasis was on “doubling production efforts” to “catch up with Great Britain.”


Everyday Heroes

Dressed in orange overalls and equipped with masks and gloves, cleaners are another category of workers who are being asked to go the extra mile. Based on a systematic grid that is structured by neighborhood, each administrative level (province, municipality, city, district, or village) organizes cleanup teams made up of the usual municipal teams, often reinforced by teams from other districts.

Large numbers of individuals have been called into action to clean. The Chongqing municipality, for example, deployed some 55,000 people as cleaners;12 Jiangxi province reported an additional 80,000 people; and the municipality of Wuhan claimed to have rallied some 23,000 individuals, all to take part in a “mass cleanup on day 1.”13

Sanitation work has involved sweeping, as well as washing down and disinfecting main and secondary roads, alleyways, dead ends, street furniture, buses, underground platforms, public toilets, and the like. Meanwhile, the number of daily refuse collections has been increased, and special attention is paid to collection points for used masks, as well as to the bins at hotels used for quarantine.

Cleanup operations have been described with military rhetoric recalling other battles that the Party has fought. The agents involved in the war against the pandemic have operated in squads, for example, the city is criss-crossed by a number of “lines of defense”14 made up of “workers on the front line against the enemy.”15 The entrances and exits of cities are strategic points, which these cleaners cum “soldiers” (战士) have defended in an old-fashioned war, in which “they used brooms as spears and shovels as shields to become anti-epidemic warriors.”16 In the framework of this relentless battle, inaccessible places have become a major issue in strategic cleanup plans, where “the enemy must be tirelessly hunted down, wherever it lurks,” to ensure that “the virus has no way out”;17 with this in mind, “cleaning is a painstaking task that requires the precision of a goldsmith.” In this race against the virus, emergencies can occur at any time, forcing cleaners to sleep at their workplaces.18

What is specific to China’s response to the pandemic is the regime’s use of the media and the simultaneous coexistence of both political and commercial logics.

And here too, reports and articles have paid tribute to cleaners by drawing on the Maoist rhetoric of self-sacrifice and devotion, combined with the figure of soldier Lei Feng. Those concerned sacrifice their personal lives for the common good, modest citizens becoming civilian heroes (平民英雄) or everyday heroes (平凡英雄), who continue their mission despite the pandemic, giving the city and its inhabitants peace of mind.

These people find themselves on the front line in the fight against the virus, working while the rest of the city sleeps, watching over its inhabitants and keeping them safe from danger. Cleaners are hard workers who get up very early (as early as 4:30 a.m.) and do not take any days off.19 Some work 10 hours a day. They have a real sense of responsibility. They devote themselves body and soul to the community, dealing with the danger themselves to give others peace of mind. When there is a shortage of masks, they go without, so that nursing staff can use what resources are available.20 And while they may fear for their own health, they continue to perform their duties, even going so far as to hide from their families the nature of their work and the danger of contamination they face.21 Their position on the social ladder in no way diminishes their devotion or sense of responsibility; quite the contrary, in fact, because even though this is not the case for all of them, “being a member of the Party begins with the smallest of gestures.”


Platform Workers “Serving the People”

The health crisis has accelerated the expansion of urban services involving platform workers, a sector that was already growing rapidly. Delivery has proven to be a vital activity during the lockdown.

But unlike health-care workers, residents’ committee employees, and cleaners, who are employed directly or indirectly by the state, platform workers are governed entirely by commercial logic.22 As a result of the crisis, 10s of thousands of unemployed individuals have become delivery drivers, from small-business owners who had to close their shops to employees who were laid off and those who previously worked on a casual basis. These rural workers in unstable jobs are the real workhorses in China’s urban growth. The press refers to such workers in terms of both their sense of sacrifice—using the sort of political logic we have already encountered—and the efficiency of the service they offer—representing the economic logic of the capitalist economy.23

On March 6, during a visit to a logistics center in Beijing, Li Keqiang paid tribute to the role that these workers have played, addressing the delivery drivers present as follows:

This epidemic has meant that many industries have been shut down, but you don’t get any rest. You are straight out on the streets every day, meeting the needs of thousands of households and businesses. Your deliveries are not only necessary for the people, but they are also truly heart-warming. You are out there facing the epidemic, and you are our everyday heroes.24

The mass distribution sector has also been recruiting en masse, with Hema, Suning, Carrefour, and Walmart all offering temporary contracts to help deal with the increase in their remote business. Distribution giants have also, at times, negotiated the loaning of staff, known in Chinese as “talent sharing” (人才共享) or “staff sharing” (共享员工),25 a practice that was relatively uncommon until now, with other companies in the catering and hospitality sectors that have been forced to halt work.

The health crisis has also boosted business for a different kind of service company, which offers ancestral worship honoring the deceased in the event of a death, given that the family will be unable to travel (代祭服务). These services were developed in the late 2000s and aimed at migrants living abroad, but demand failed to meet expectations.26 During the recent Ancestors’ Day on April 4, the Ministry of Civil Affairs and its provincial branches strongly encouraged the use of such services,27 and demand consequently grew significantly. Over 15,000 collective celebrations honoring various deceased individuals and some 419,000 individual celebrations were held in different provinces.28


Risks and Challenges of Working during an Epidemic

The issue of the intensification of work affects everyone. While replacement-ancestral-worship staff have been depicted in the many photos published, little is said of the overtime they work or the psychological suffering they endure. In Canton, for example, one such worker will bow before graves over 500 times in a single day;29 in Ha’erbin, two employees working as a pair will wipe headstones and perform the rites at 10 to 20 gravesides a day;30 elsewhere, one employee in charge of communicating with the relatives of the deceased works until 11 p.m. and has even received calls at 2 a.m. on occasion.31 Delivery and cleaning staff, of course, also face long working days.

During the crisis, active workers have also been exposed to psychological risks, and lockdown measures implemented by residents’ committees have not always been well received. A video has been released illustrating the sort of resistance encountered, with residents in various cities expressing their distrust, frustration, and even anger. In Taiyuan, for example, one man drove his car into the temporary outdoor office of the residents’ committee, while a man in Dalian has been depositing dog excrement there at night. Many weeks after lockdown measures were introduced, those working for residents’ committees are exhausted and in psychological danger.32 Liu Xuqing has even been having nightmares of residents shouting at her. The significance of the matter led to the central government publishing a “new work plan for psychological counseling” in mid-March.33

Matters relating to wages and pay conditions have been another major issue during the crisis, with the authorities taking the lead by outlining a series of recommendations. Shaanxi province, for example, requests that “wages be paid on time and overtime paid in accordance with employment law” and that “collective housing options such as dormitories be provided for agents drafted in from other areas.”34

The actual situation out in the field is still unclear. According to one professional site, delivery drivers have found themselves in a difficult position: those who usually work in now-deserted business districts have seen their income decrease by 50 percent or more, while those covering more residential areas, where families have been confined under lockdown measures, have seen an increase in their workload.35 Difficulties in getting to customers, longer waiting times, and increased competition thanks to the arrival of new employees, however, have had the opposite effect. Social stability today depends on companies complying with orders issued by the authorities and maintaining a decent income for employees.



The situation that has developed among Chinese workers in the COVID-19 era and the way they have been portrayed in the press reveals certain facts and strategies that are not unique to the People’s Republic. What is specific to China, however, is the regime’s use of the media and the simultaneous coexistence of both political and commercial logics. This is especially significant because the political logics recall certain other moments in China’s history since 1949 when the Communist Party has used mass mobilization to boost economic development, fight its political enemies, improve hygiene, and fight other epidemics.

With this in mind, Xi Jinping’s China still has institutions capable of supervising the population, including the Communist Party, the Federation of Trade Unions, the Communist Youth League, the Women’s Federation, and the residents’ committees. These social-control tools have helped by finding volunteers and helping companies to recruit replacement workers, and have praised one another’s efforts. The rhetoric of how the reality of employment is represented is also classic, portraying workers as being selfless and sacrificing their personal lives for the common good. At the same time, private employers have relied even more heavily than before on precarious platform workers who are paid by the job, have no protection in the event of an accident, and are generally not entitled to any social benefits. Chinese capitalism has left some workers, mainly migrants from rural areas, without protection, and this irregularity has certainly intensified.


Dependent Contractors

By Juli Qermezi Huang

What does the crisis have in store for the future of employment in China? The digitalization of the economy has certainly accelerated, to the benefit of the Chinese web giants, and the crisis has also revealed a number of invisible factors, as a result of which some professions should see their status improve. Some are also calling for more public funding for health care. In mid-March 2020, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, together with the National Bureau of Statistics and other administrations, published a revised version of the professional code. Delivery drivers are among the 16 new professions now included,36 which will have certain consequences in terms of the development of skills standards and vocational training. The development of staff-loaning schemes between companies has also been highlighted as one possible way to stabilize the labor market, though it is unclear whether such loans would depend on the agreement of the employees concerned.

China is facing immense challenges in terms of employment. And the crisis has only served to highlight that the country’s political logics, which seek to control society, coexist with market logics, which seek to serve the powerful interests specific to Chinese capitalism.


Translated from the French by Tiam Goudarzi, with the support of the CESSMA, Université de Paris. icon

  1. This text was produced as part of a research seminar on labor issues in China facilitated by Gilles Guiheux and held at Université de Paris.
  3. The estimated 200 million employees working from home were excluded from the survey. See
  5. In Fujian province, meanwhile, a nurse described the difficulties she encountered, crying, “I am a member of the Party, let me play my part!” Many nursing staff who were not yet members applied for membership before leaving for Hubei, using the phrase “join the Party in the firing line” (火线入党). Guangxi province consequently sent 962 nursing staff to Hubei, including 884 Party members, 474 of whom were new members, meaning that the Communist Party has also taken advantage of the health crisis to boost its membership.
  6. See
  10. As was the case during the Beijing Olympics (2008), the World Expo in Shanghai (2010), and the G20 Summit in Hangzhou (2016), the authorities have relied heavily on volunteers and volunteer-staff to help fight the pandemic. A platform (known as “Beijing volunteers,” 志愿北京) has been used to gather data relating to activity in the capital. As of April 1, 5,428 projects had been set up involving over 92,200 volunteers, who had put in an average of 62 hours per person since January 27. Among the volunteers registered on the platform, 24 percent are members of the Communist Party (four times more than among the population as a whole) and 16 percent are members of the Communist Youth League. Over half are over 45 years of age, and 57 percent are women. Although young people are less strongly represented than their elders, it is the under-30s who are the most celebrated by the press, as if to counter the stereotype of a generation of overly spoiled only children. The majority of volunteer activities are therefore undertaken on a neighborhood level, in collaboration with residents’ committee employees.
  11. In the village of Fuxi, in the coastal province of Zhejiang, the efforts of volunteers called in by the Hangzhou Communist Youth League allowed market gardeners to sell over 6,000 kg of fruit in the space of just three hours on March 5, the day on which the nation commemorates Lei Feng. Volunteers in urban areas were called upon to work in factories, with some in Shanghai producing masks and gowns for nursing staff. In the Songjiang district, meanwhile, a night team of 20 volunteers made up of foreign business executives, company directors, and students managed to produce 300,000 masks in just 12 hours, while young people in Pudong joined a company that manufactures protective clothing for nursing staff.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  22. Seventy-five million people, the overwhelming majority of them men, are believed to work for transport and delivery platforms, and a recent report (April 2020) claimed that Eleme’s 3 million delivery drivers, affectionately known as “little courier brothers” (快递小哥), were generally young (47 percent under the age of 30) and from rural backgrounds (80 percent). Over half of them (56 percent) were working at least one other job or studying at the same time—26 percent of them micro-entrepreneurs, 21 percent skilled workers, 11 percent taxi drivers, and 20 percent students. Julie Yujie Chen, “The Mirage and Politics of Participation in China’s Platform Economy,” Javnost: The Public, Journal of the European Institute for Communication and Culture, vol. 27, no. 2 (2020).
  23. In the southeast of the country, in the capital of Yunnan, meanwhile, “the weather in Kunming is getting warmer, it’s mild and sunny and it’s not hard to get out on the road.” One delivery worker explained that he was “very proud to allow customers to enjoy hot meals and ensure that they lead a normal life. … A lot of people think that the takeaway industry is very taxing and that you can’t stick to this job for too long, but I think it’s a very good job. I am very proud to be able to serve others” (为别人服务). This expression, which represents the Party’s core mission, is among the most famous in Communist China, calligraphed by Mao Zedong himself and reproduced time and again in the public sphere.
  32. Ye Ruolin, “Abused and Stressed, China’s Community Workers Seek Help,” Sixth Tone, March 10, 2020.
Featured-image photograph by Li Lin / Unsplash