Planet Money: The Planet Money Indicator: NPR




As Beijing residents line up for mass COVID testing this week, they are looking nervously at cities like Shanghai which are in lockdown for their fifth week. With an insufficient number of elderly vaccinated, the Chinese government simply wants to completely eradicate COVID. And when you try to weed out the omicron variant, that means severe lockouts.


This type of lockdown includes a large portion of what we would call essential workers in the United States, and it has resulted in a completely disrupted distribution of food and medicine. Some people have even died because they did not have access to medical services such as dialysis. And more generally throughout the city, there is real hunger. Supermarkets are closed. Supplies are low. And even food delivery has all but stopped.

KELLY WANG: It was mind blowing.

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

WANG: I was really, really surprised that in the 21st century, in a city – like an international city like Shanghai which is normally compared to Paris or New York – I couldn’t find food.

WOODS: So in response to this lack of food, Kelly ended up as a volunteer logistician overnight. In apartment complexes across the city, there are everyday people like Kelly who have taken matters into their own hands and are creating new mini-economies for grocery shopping in closets.

This is THE PLANET MONEY INDICATOR. I am Darian Woods.

WONG: And I’m Wailin Wong. Today on the show – the containment economy with Chinese characteristics. How residents of Shanghai’s apartment complexes are using old-fashioned group buying and bartering to help feed 25 million people as usual distribution channels clog up.


WOOD: Kelly.

Wang: Hello.

WOOD: How are you?

WANG: I’m fine. How are you?

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

WANG: She’s not interested.

WOODS: And Kelly says in early April she was prepared for what she thought was a short, harsh 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 just work from home.

WONG: Kelly had about a week’s worth of groceries — milk, eggs, a bunch of veggies, supplemented with KFC deliveries at the start. But about a week later, as the government extended the lockdown, Kelly began finding it nearly impossible to find a food delivery service.

WANG: There was no one on the street except the rescuers. There was absolutely no one there. But then there was simply nothing you could order.

WOODS: When Shanghai went into full lockdown in early April, authorities only granted about 10,000 permits to delivery drivers. And in a city of 25 million people, he’s a delivery driver serving, like, the number of people in a large high school every day. In other words, good luck with any food delivery.

WONG: So Kelly started looking through the social media app WeChat, seeing how her friends were getting groceries, and she came across a message from a manager of a hotpot restaurant where she used to to go.

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

WONG: They were big packs – like restaurant-sized bulk vegetable boxes – minimum order around US$500

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

WANG: Absolutely not. I never did any of this before the pandemic, ever.

WONG: But now Kelly was considering becoming a party leader, which means she could potentially order food on behalf of her entire apartment of around 100 people. So she sends a message to the apartment’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 has a box of mysterious vegetables.

WANG: Exactly. It seemed very dodgy at first – like, very, very dodgy.

WONG: Did she meet this guy, for example, in the garage of her apartment?

WOOD: Yeah.

WONG: It’s like the eagle is flying at midnight. Like, I’m going to read the newspaper in the corner.

WOODS: Yes, exactly. It has a trench coat full of celery and carrots inside.

WONG: (Laughs) And, you know, for Kelly, maybe she was right to feel a little worried because there were a lot of scams. But she calls the guy, and he sounds pretty legit.

WOODS: And so Kelly and a small group of volunteers dress head-to-toe in white protective suits. They go door to door within the confines of the apartment. They ask residents what kind of food they want, thinking they could cram all those needs into big orders, like mystery vegetable orders for the hot pot guy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (non-English language spoken).

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

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (non-English language spoken).

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

WANG: Actually, it didn’t work.


WANG: It didn’t work. We just didn’t have enough people.

WOOD: Alright. Your first attempt fails. You are hungry. Your stomach begins to rumble.

WANG: (Laughs) At first, we just asked people, what do you need? We don’t tell them that we have to meet the number of orders before they can deliver to us. And then we got smart. We said, OK, now we have to meet at least 30 before they can deliver it to us.

WONG: So Kelly writes a clearer message on WeChat. She says, I order eggs. We need at least this number of commands for this to work. If you are with us, enter your name here. They put the message on the loudspeaker and also go door to door. This time it works.

WANG: We must have had at least over a thousand eggs at the entrance to our enclosure.

WOODS: Kelly sits in the doorway as the residents come downstairs to collect their eggs. She has a QR code on their phone for them to pay her, and they are grateful. Kelly remembers what one woman in particular told her.

WANG: She said, you’re that kind of little angel on earth to kind of save her life.

WOODS: That’s very nice.

WANG: No, it felt good. It felt really good to do that, even if it wasn’t for monetary gain or anything, didn’t it?

WONG: Kelly repeats the process, this time with milk. And at this time, Kelly receives good news. The government will start providing rations. Kelly gets good food – shrimp dumplings, cucumber and even chicken which her cat Tangka loves.

WOODS: But the citywide deployment of government rations was a mess overall. Kelly says she has friends who, nearly a month into the lockdown, have still not received food from the government. Also, some people were given rotten products or even counterfeit brands, and there were some 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 most.

WONG: So Kelly created a spreadsheet for her apartment. In 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 ask for Coke because apparently it’s really hard to get Coke these days.

WOODS: People joke that Coke bottles are the new currency in Shanghai, which is kind of emblematic of the collapse of business as usual under lockdown. But these measures – the group buying and barter system – have helped bring back a sense of normalcy, at least in people’s kitchen cupboards. These local business systems have helped meet people’s needs and wants, and they have shown how communities can care for each other when government fails.

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

WOODS: What food are you most looking forward to after it’s all over?

WANG: I’m really thinking of a pumpkin. I really want a pumpkin.

WOODS: It’s an interesting choice.

WANG: And probably fried chicken too.

WOODS: If I’m honest (laughs).

WANG: Yes, if I’m honest.


WOODS: The show is produced by Nicky Ouellet with engineering by James Willetts. Corey Bridges checked the show. Viet Le is our lead producer and Kate Concannon is editing the show. Many thanks to Alwin Saw (ph) and Emily Feng for their help on this episode. THE INDICATOR is an NPR production.


WANG: I could put that on my resume that I used to be a group leader in Shanghai during the pandemic, so you should hire me (laughs).

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