Bartering and group buying in China's lockdowns : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money Shanghai is enduring a strict COVID lockdown that has left many without many basic necessities, including food. So ordinary people have banded together to build their own group-buying and barter economy.

Shanghai's lockdown economy

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As Beijing residents line up this week for mass COVID testing, they're looking nervously at cities like Shanghai that are in lockdown for their fifth week. With not enough elderly people vaccinated, the Chinese government wants to just completely stamp out COVID. And when you're trying to eliminate the omicron variant, that means severe lockdowns.


That kind of lockdown includes a lot of what we would call essential workers in the U.S., and it's led to completely disrupted distribution of food and medicine. Some people have even died from being unable to access medical services like dialysis. And more generally across the city, there's real hunger. Supermarkets are closed down. Supplies are low. And even food delivery has all but shut down.

KELLY WANG: That was mind-blowing.

WONG: Kelly Wang is a 29-year-old television producer in Shanghai.

WANG: I was just really, really surprised that, in the 21st century, in a city - like, an international city like Shanghai that's normally compared with Paris or New York - and then I actually cannot find food.

WOODS: So in response to this lack of food, Kelly has found herself as a volunteer logistician overnight. In apartment compounds all across the city, there are everyday people like Kelly who have taken matters into their own hands and who are creating new mini economies to get groceries to cupboards.


WONG: And I'm Wailin Wong. Today on the show - the lockdown economy with Chinese characteristics. How people in apartment compounds all over Shanghai are using group buying and old-fashioned barter to help feed 25 million people as the usual distribution channels clog up.


WOODS: Kelly.

WANG: Hello.

WOODS: How are you?

WANG: I'm good. How are you?

WOODS: Kelly Wang lives in a 30-unit apartment compound in Shanghai. She lives with her cat, Tangka.

WANG: She's not interested.

WOODS: And Kelly says that in early April, she was prepared for what she thought was going to be a short, sharp lockdown.

WANG: The first week was kind of fun because, you know, you can kind of avoid your boss. You don't have to see them, and you're just kind of working from home.

WONG: Kelly had about a week's worth of groceries - milk, eggs, a bunch of vegetables, supplemented with some KFC deliveries early on. But around one week in, as the government extended the lockdown, Kelly started to find it nearly impossible to find any food delivery service.

WANG: There was nobody on the street except for emergency workers. There was absolutely no one. But then there was just nothing that you could order.

WOODS: When Shanghai went into full lockdown at the start of April, the authorities gave only about 10,000 permits for delivery drivers. And in a city of 25 million, that is one delivery driver servicing, like, the number of people in a large high school every single day. In other words, good luck getting any food delivered.

WONG: So Kelly started looking through the social media app WeChat, seeing how her friends were getting groceries, and she stumbled upon a post by a manager of a hotpot restaurant she used to go to.

WANG: I saw him posting these photos of vegetables, like, all in a pack for a certain price. And then he said, you know, if you guys need them, you know, you can contact me.

WONG: These were big packs - like, bulk restaurant-sized boxes of vegetables - minimum order around $500 U.S.

WOODS: Now, group buying is nothing new in China. People have banded together to bulk buy for years. And it's even been institutionalized in apps like Pinduoduo, which you can kind of think of as a Chinese equivalent of Groupon meets Costco, where you can buy anything from music speakers to fresh produce. Now, this all said, Kelly had never group purchased anything before.

WANG: Absolutely not. I have never done any of that before the pandemic, ever.

WONG: But now Kelly was considering becoming a group leader, meaning she would potentially order food on behalf of her entire apartment compound of around 100 people. So she messages the apartment compound's WeChat group chat.

WANG: And then I told them, I have a supplier here.

WOODS: I know a guy.


WANG: Pretty much.

WOODS: He's got a box of mystery vegetables.

WANG: Exactly. It sounded very shady at first - like, very, very shady.

WONG: Was she meeting this guy, like, in the garage of her apartment compound?

WOODS: Yeah.

WONG: It's like, the eagle flies at midnight. Like, I'll be reading the newspaper in the corner.

WOODS: Yeah, exactly. He's got a trench coat just full of celery and carrots inside.

WONG: (Laughter) And, you know, for Kelly, she was maybe in the right to feel kind of concerned 'cause there's been a lot of scams going around. But she calls the guy up, and he seems legit enough.

WOODS: And so Kelly and a small group of volunteers dress from toe to head in white protective jumpsuits. They go door to door in the apartment compound. They ask residents what kind of food they want, thinking they could collect all these needs into big orders, like mystery vegetable orders for the hotpot guy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

WONG: One of the residents asks for dry tofu. Kelly says that's now a luxury.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

WOODS: They tally up their orders on the notepads, hoping that they can reach the $500 minimum.

WANG: Actually, it did not succeed.


WANG: It did not work out. We just really didn't have enough people.

WOODS: OK. So your first attempt fails. You're feeling hungry. Your stomach is starting to rumble.

WANG: (Laughter) At first, we were just asking people, what do you need? We don't tell them that we need to meet how many orders before they can deliver to us. And then so we got smart. We said, OK, now we need to meet at least 30 before they can deliver it to us.

WONG: So Kelly writes a clearer message on WeChat. She says, I'm ordering eggs. We need at least this many orders to make it work. If you're with us, put down your name here. They put the message on the loudspeaker and go door to door, too. This time, it works.

WANG: We must have had at least over a thousand eggs just sitting in our compound's entrance.

WOODS: Kelly sits at the entrance as residents come down to pick up their eggs. She has a QR code on their phone for them to pay her, and they're thankful. Kelly remembers what one woman in particular told her.

WANG: She said, you're this, like, little angel on earth for kind of, like, saving her life.

WOODS: That's very nice.

WANG: No, it felt good. It definitely felt good to be doing this, even though not for monetary gains or anything, right?

WONG: Kelly repeats the process, this time with milk. And around this time, Kelly gets some good news. The government is going to start providing rations. Kelly gets some nice food - shrimp dumplings, cucumber, even some chicken that her cat Tangka loves.

WOODS: But the citywide rollout of government rations was a mess overall. Kelly says she has friends who, close to a month into lockdown, still haven't received any food from the government. Also, some people received rotting produce or even counterfeit brands, and there were certain products that some people really wanted that weren't included in government rations - things like fruit, milk, cigarettes and alcohol.

WANG: They put a lot of things like soy sauce and vinegar or spices, right? People didn't really need that. They didn't know what people wanted the most.

WONG: So Kelly set up a spreadsheet for her apartment compound. On the first column list, what you have and maybe what you want in return. It's barter. I'll give you this for that.

WANG: A lot of people are asking for, like, Coca-Cola because apparently it's really, really hard to get Coke these days.

WOODS: People have been joking that bottles of Coke are the new currency in Shanghai, which is kind of emblematic of just how much usual economic life has collapsed under lockdown. But these measures - the group buying and the bartering system - these have helped bring back a sense of normalcy, at least to people's kitchen cupboards. These grassroots trading systems have helped meet people's needs and wants, and they've shown how communities can care for each other when the government fails.

WONG: Kelly's still in her apartment with her cat, now with her second job as a supply chain expert.

WOODS: What's the food you're most looking forward to after this is all over?

WANG: I think, really, a pumpkin. I really want a pumpkin.

WOODS: That's an interesting choice.

WANG: And probably fried chicken, too.

WOODS: If I'm honest (laughter).

WANG: Yes, if I'm honest.


WOODS: The show is produced by Nicky Ouellet with engineering from James Willetts. Corey Bridges fact-checked the show. Viet Le is our senior producer, and Kate Concannon edits the show. Thanks very much to Alwin Saw (ph) and Emily Feng for help on this episode. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.


WANG: I might put that on my resume that I was once a group leader in Shanghai during the pandemic, so you should hire me (laughter).

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