Taipei and Wuhan: Urban Neighbourhood Governance and the Coronavirus Pandemic
From Wuhan at the height of the lockdown local writer Wang Fang wrote the following:
Large numbers of public servants have been sent to help out local communities on a grassroots level … Each person is assigned to oversee a group of families in order to help the government understand their current health condition and what they might be lacking in their daily lives right now in terms of supplies and other items (Fang Fang, 2020: February 13).
My brother told me that his neighborhood established its own group to purchase food and vegetables … The bags are delivered to an open courtyard area in the neighborhood and people pick them up one by one, according to their assigned number; that way no one has to have direct contact with anyone else … All you need is to get 20 people on board to form a group and they will deliver (Fang Fang, 2020: February 5).
These extracts describe how the Chinese response to the coronavirus pandemic in cities has relied on neighbourhood governance and community action. Commentary comparing national approaches tends to focus on the differences between regime types or cultures. The liberal Chinese intellectual Xu Jilin sets the Chinese state’s ability to mobilise vast resources and a culture of obedience against the British state’s relaxed governmental response and the Anglo-Saxon suspicion of state intervention (Xu Jilin, 2020). Such comparisons obscure other scales of analysis, and cities are particularly good sites for comparison. They show how the Asian model of neighbourhood governance, with its roots in China, has been beneficial for public health and what lessons could be drawn for UK cities.
In Chinese cities thousands of residents’ committees (RCs) and over a million residents’ small groups manage groups of around 6,000 and 300 residents, respectively, while in Taiwan there are 1,700 neighbourhood wardens and around 35,000 block captains responsible for similar numbers of people. Assisted by volunteers, RCs and neighbourhood wardens are the lowest level of urban governance, disseminating information, organising public health and welfare programmes, assisting with household registration, and administering local security. They also work with and for their communities. They organise voluntary and recreational activities, listen to complaints from local residents, and intervene in small-scale disputes (Read, 2012: 54, 57, 63–68). Locals may grumble at times but invariably they are supportive, since as Fang Fang notes, “there are usually only two or three degrees of separation between your average person and local government officials, so how can we refuse to help them?” (2020: February 9).
The course of the pandemic has been different in China and Taiwan, but the neighbourhood response has been very similar. The government in Taiwan acted quickly. By early February, there was electronic monitoring of quarantined individuals, community surveillance to isolate those with any symptoms of Covid-19, and masks and hand sanitiser had been distributed to schools and kindergartens (Wang et al., 2020). Neighbourhood wardens reminded people to wash their hands, wear masks, and report symptoms, and assisted public health officials with risk assessments for public gatherings (Urban Daily News, March 5, 2020). One neighbourhood warden, Fang Heshen, went further still. When he was first elected to the post twenty years ago, there were several cases of elderly people dying alone in their homes. In response Fang created a food bank to deliver food to the elderly, those on low incomes, and other vulnerable groups, and this became a way of checking on their health. With the outbreak of the coronavirus, the Taipei City government stopped subsidies for this service, arguing that it encouraged people to gather in small groups to eat. Fang enlisted volunteers to provide food boxes and medicines for over 300 people, a service he extended to those in quarantine after returning from China. Some agreed to pay for the food when they were able to get out to a bank, and others simply handed over NT$500 for all their needs, an indication of the high level of trust on both sides. This regular contact also allowed Fang to quickly gather information on residents’ travel and contact history (Xie Mengying, 2020).
Fortunately, there are few cases of Covid-19 in Taipei. Not so in Wuhan, where, as in cities across China, the historical embeddedness of RCs in the community has allowed them to mobilise hundreds of thousands of volunteers (Lincoln, 2020). From Chengdu, author Peter Hessler (2020) described how at the entrance to his compound the RC had established a Communist Party Service Team for Home Quarantine, composed of seven members, who managed 38 volunteers to look after nearly 6,000 people. Regular visits to each household identified the compound’s only case, a man who had recently returned from Hubei. In Wuhan, RCs were also involved in data collection, as local cadres worked with volunteers to “go door-to-door to dozens, hundreds, in some cases even a thousand households to conduct surveys and collect information, all the while running the risk of getting infected themselves” (Fang Fang, 2020: February 24). Within residential compounds RCs also worked closely with volunteers on food supply. New Wechat groups placed bulk food orders. Wang Xiao, the owner of a local supermarket in Wuhan, worked with 300 staff of ten RCs to deliver food to residents. In another part of the city, RC staff member Tian Miaomiao and her colleagues visited households to explain the operation of the Wechat groups and assist those without mobile phones. RC staff then delivered food directly to residents’ doors. Other RCs did not have the capacity to organise bulk food delivery. Chen Ling, a leader of one of the Wechat groups, worked in a supermarket, and was able to fulfil people’s orders by going directly to suppliers (Daily Economic News, February 20, 2020). The system was not without its problems though, as there were often crowds of people at compound pick-up points, and items arrived at different times, meaning someone would have to go down several times a day, often late into the evening. People were also ordering non-essential items, such as whole cases of beer, and this placed pressure on the volunteers (Fang Fang, 2020: February 22, March 4).
In Taipei, Wuhan, and other cities across Asia, regular interaction between neighbourhood officials and local communities has created bonds of trust that support effective bottom-up responses to the pandemic. It is important not to forget how, in China especially, neighbourhood government is part of an authoritarian state, although even here that does not preclude community participation in local affairs. Here in the UK, the steps that councils have taken to provide support for the most vulnerable have highlighted the need to devolve power to the local level. This is perhaps most necessary in contact tracing, as the centrally managed system set up by the government may lack the knowledge to manage small disease outbreaks in communities living in different circumstances across the country (Local Government Chronicle, May 19, 2020). Here in Leicester, ideas have been sought from the people to help the city recover from the pandemic (Leicester Mercury, June 3, 2020). The experience of Wuhan and Taipei suggests that an increase in state capacity at the neighbourhood level combined with the rich tapestry of civil society and community activism could bring about long-term positive change for the city.
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