An Insider’s Perspective in Shanghai China During COVID-19

Oscar Fuchs is an entrepreneur and podcast host from The United Kingdom but resides in Shanghai, China.

Oscar Fuchs is an entrepreneur and podcast host from The United Kingdom but resides in Shanghai, China. When discussing COVID-19 with Oscar Fuchs, Ryan Morfin asks questions concerning the social and economic impacts upon Shanghai, China in order to gain a better understanding of what may be in store for the United States. Mr. Fuchs emphasizes that the virus began sweeping the population during the Chinese New Year which has been proven to be the largest migration of people in the world. The people were discouraged from returning to their homes after the outbreak, which severely limited Chinese production.

Once citizens were finally permitted to return to their homes, Shanghai, as well as other regions of China, prioritized public safety over personal privacy. The Chinese government implemented a phone application that tracks potential and confirmed patients. Fuchs believes this was an appropriate move. Shanghai is now gradually returning to its pre-COVID state by re-opening businesses with protective restrictions, and they plan to continue the gradual easing of restrictions due to their firm belief that a second wave will not come.

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Ryan Morfin:                    Welcome to NON-BETA ALPHA, I’m Ryan Morfin. On today’s show, we have Oscar Fuchs who’s calling in from Shanghai, China. Oscar is a entrepreneur who’s recently sold his business and has been in Asia for almost 16 years as an expert in Asia and modern China. He currently has a podcast called A Mosaic of China and goes around discovering stories of ex-pats around China and the Chinese civilian population, learning their stories to tell a better and clearer story about China. Today he’s going to tell us of what China was like during the COVID crisis and how it’s recovering and what we have to look for here to in the US. This is NON-BETA ALPHA.

                                           Oscar, welcome to the show. Thank you for coming on.

Oscar Fuchs:                    Thanks so much, Ryan. Nice to meet you.

Ryan Morfin:                    Great to meet you. Well, I appreciate you being willing to chat with us a bit. I know you guys have been ahead of us the last few weeks, a few months, actually going through the COVID pandemic and wanted to pick your brain about what’s going on in China and Shanghai in particular and how you guys are dealing with it. I’d love to hear any perspectives you can share.

Oscar Fuchs:                    Yeah, it’s a weird experience being on this side of the pandemic. There are, of course, advantages me being able to say that, and there are disadvantages of having lived through that experience.

                                           Yeah, I mean, where to even begin. The story was that it hit China really at a very interesting time because it hit in Chinese New Year, which we call the Spring Festival here. The thing that that was important about that is most Chinese people have traveled at that point. The Chinese New Year holiday symbolizes the biggest mass migration in the globe every year. So people were either on holiday or they had gone to visit their parents in their home towns in the countryside when the music stopped, basically, and people were forced to stay where they were.

                                           My situation was I had booked a holiday many months before, over the Chinese New Year, and I was skiing in Hokkaido in Japan. The news was trickling out just before we left, but it really hit when we were actually in Japan. That was when we had the weird situation in terms of what do we do? We had the choice to either stay out of the country and basically live a life in exile from our homes, our jobs, our houses, our pets, or we could return to China, which at that point it was the big unknown, like why would you return to China at a time like that? In the end, we decided to return to China, even though as a UK citizen, it was actually on the same day that my government was saying that anyone who was a British citizen in China should leave.

Ryan Morfin:                    Wow.

Oscar Fuchs:                    It was very, very difficult choice, and I’m sure my story is one of many, many stories where people were either side of that decision-making process.

Ryan Morfin:                    So when you got back to China, was the local population in a bit of denial or skeptical of how serious the government was taking this or were they appreciative, and they complied quickly?

Oscar Fuchs:                    That’s a very big question. In terms of the way that the society in China works, it’s quite different to the rest of the world and, of course, in many regards, it’s much the same. But to answer that particular question, no, people don’t tend to have that attitude towards the government. They tend to be quite compliant, and they’ve gone through an awful lot. If you are in your sixties living in China, you’ve been through some historical upheavals. In general, people here are used to deprivation, at least not necessarily this generation, but the previous generation, for sure. We’re in a period now of staggering growth and wealth, but people haven’t forgotten how to manage these desperate situations. So no, there was no panic from my perspective.

                                           Now, I should mention that my perspective was based on Shanghai and we are very far from Wuhan. China is a country, but in many regards it’s a continent. It’s a huge place with 1.4 billion people with a sizable country, which doesn’t really have the same level of integration that even the States has from state to state. In terms of my experience, it was dealt with with a lot of stoicism, I must say. It was a very brutal period in terms of how the crackdown came so suddenly. In many regards, that’s the same experience that people around the world, but it was taken with a kind of workman like mentality where people just followed the rules and got on with it, which was actually very impressive to come into that situation.

Ryan Morfin:                    The food supply chain, was it up and robust or were there runs on the supermarkets for things like we’re finding comical that are out of stock, toilet paper and hand sanitizer? Was it much the same as we’re seeing here in the States, or was there a more orderly process of getting supplied for the shutdown?

Oscar Fuchs:                    Well, here, there were elements of the two. What I said at the beginning that there was advantages of being at the beginning, the advantage was we didn’t have really a period of that weird rolling, longterm panic that did lead to those strange behaviors elsewhere. It’s not a west versus east thing because there were runs on toilet paper in places like Hong Kong and Japan too. So it’s certainly not to do with the west versus the east. So no, basically not. The caveat was that there were shortages in things like face masks, and you’re right, hand sanitizer was pretty hard to come by.

                                           Those were the two things I think were a little bit tough, especially with face masks, because there were some places in China where it became illegal to leave your house without face masks, even to do the emergency shopping at the local grocery. So you couldn’t leave the house. The face mask really was a symbol of your freedom or not. Of course you can improvise and you can put scarves around your face, but face masks was really what society here required from you. Which again is an interesting cultural talking point because it’s something here which people are used to seeing, but if you see it in the States or in parts of Europe, it looks a lot scarier. I can definitely see why that wasn’t taken up so much in the west as it is [inaudible 00:07:28] here in China.

Ryan Morfin:                    I know that there’s a lot of advanced technologies that are put out into the, we’ll call it the street real estate for tracking phones. It seems that China really implemented their CCTV network and facial recognition and their are 5G network to track not only people who are sick, but also the spread of the virus. Is that very prominently and probably displayed, or was it something that you guys are just used to seeing and it’s just another part of daily life?

Oscar Fuchs:                    Yeah, that’s a very good point. It is part of daily life. In general, you can see how different societies are handling this based on a very simple spectrum where you’ve got on the one side public safety and the other side personal privacy. Of course, every country, every society lies somewhere on that spectrum. China definitely leans more towards public safety at the expense of personal privacy, for sure. That’s something which we’re used to living in here. Of course, there were elements where in the States it’s the same when it comes to privacy, it’s getting harder to keep it very private life.

                                           The tracking devices is an epidemiologists dream, of course. It’s a privacy advocates nightmare. The interesting app that came out relatively recently here in Shanghai, it’s not across the whole of China, but in Shanghai, there’s an app which you pretty much have to download. It’s not mandatory, but it’s increasingly difficult to enter certain buildings without showing this app, which gives you a color. It gives you a green, amber, or red color when you log into this app. If it’s green, you can enter the building.

                                           If it’s amber or red, you have to contact a health official. What it’s doing there is it’s tracking… Well, perhaps it knows that you are already a COVID-19 patient and you shouldn’t be out of hospital, and that’s probably when it’s a red. But it could say an amber, it could be that it knows that you have just returned from overseas and you should be in a two-week quarantine period and you shouldn’t be out, or it has tracked you to a metro car where somebody later in that metro car was tested for the virus. It can track you back to that same metro car, and that’s why out of nowhere, you might suddenly find that you are an amber, which hasn’t happened to me, I’ve only had greens. But that piece of technology there is such a good example of like, wow, it really helps a slightly more closed society like China handle this kind of outbreak, but it gives you the heebie-jeebies knowing exactly what it’s tracking on your phone in doing so.

Ryan Morfin:                    Well, I’ll give you a story. Here in the US, we’ve been very upset about all the millennials going on to the beaches during spring break in March in their college holiday. There’s a technology, it’s actually public, that they basically were able to track everybody who was on the beach by their cell phone signals and fast forward, where those people ended up after they left the beach on any given day. And so they can track where that spread is going to be, and they can predict that. That’s all from public cell phone data from cell phone towers that is transmitted from everybody’s phone. I think as much as people here in the States are worried about privacy concerns, I think there’s a lot that they don’t understand they’ve already been giving up. But how has the job market changed or how was the unemployment handled in China by companies and by the government and what policies that they put in place to protect workers and keep the economy from sinking under?

Oscar Fuchs:                    Well, that’s partly the reason why I mentioned the thing about Chinese New Year, because everyone was displaced. We’re talking about really the majority of people were stuck in their hometowns with their families and were not able to even return to the factories that they worked in or their offices in the big cities. In a way, that was convenient because the government’s line basically was to extend the Chinese New Year holiday, and that’s basically what it was. Production went way down. Of course, there were some big exceptions when it comes to factories producing face masks and other equipment that were very quickly retooled in a way that I wish the States and Europe would also jump to. But the retooling effort was incredible to see here, and they weren’t able to do that in a way that is really impossible in other countries where you haven’t got such a top-down control.

                                           The thing about the government support, I’m not entirely sure. The beauty of being in a place like China and being a foreigner is that you can choose when to engage with the news and when to actually let it wash over you and bury your head in the sand, which for me was a coping mechanism. I, in those situations, just dealt with my own situation and don’t really think about the macro so much. Because that was the luxury, I guess, that I had and others certainly do not have that luxury. But what I can say about the government is that they weren’t such big handouts and they don’t have such a robust system of, it’s so ironic saying, but of socialists care. This is communist China we’re talking about. But they don’t really have much of a public safety net.

                                           Culturally speaking, the interesting point to note is that people in China generally are good savers. So even if you aren’t on a very basic income, people generally don’t overspend. And they generally, no matter how small their income, they will save 10, 15% every month. Most people, thereby, have a comfort blanket, have this little nest egg for times just like this, that there’s very little overextension of credit lines and such that we see in the west. That’s a huge sweeping generalization. I’m sure there were people who were in terrible economic hardship and still are, but that’s just a general observation about one of the differences here.

Ryan Morfin:                    Would you say that life is back to normal in Shanghai and most of China today?

Oscar Fuchs:                    Not really. The way that this thing ends is not the same as it begins. It began very abruptly and suddenly, and like, “Whoa, what the hell?” Life was so different just yesterday and suddenly it changes. The way we’re coming out of it is more of a trickle. We sort of were trickling out of our houses. We sort of were on social media. The equivalent here is called WeChat. We don’t have the same social media platforms. But we started to see on WeChat that certain restaurants were open, certain bars you could go to. Of course, they changed the seating layout so that even though these restaurants were open, you were still very far from the next person. They had social distancing within restaurants and bars, and then slowly those restaurants became less and less rigid with those rules.

                                           Of course, it’s all government controlled. As a citizen, you don’t really know unless you’re in that particular business how the rules are changing over the course of days and weeks. Where we are now in Shanghai is certain restaurants, shops, I would say the main things like malls, they’re all open with the caveat that people are still all wearing masks. And there is, of course, that app, which it isn’t used everywhere. I walked into a couple of malls just this weekend and they did not require the app. They just took a temperature test. But then the certain things like theaters, theme parks, even some parks are still closed. I think there was an effort to open some of the cinemas, which I don’t know what you’d call… movie theaters in the States. But that, I think, lasted a couple of days and then they were closed again. So there was a bit of a stop start.

                                           That is the situation in Shanghai. Actually, Shanghai has about 16 municipalities within the city and each of those areas has their own rules. So I’m just talking about maybe one area of one city. China is not one monolithic place, as you know, and the situation in Shanghai is very different maybe in Chengdu or in Beijing, and it’s certainly different to Wuhan. Maybe the best correlation to what’s happening outside of China is actually Wuhan. Shanghai was so well protected with the way that they were able to close down the whole province of Hubei, which is where Wuhan is, that actually this is where maybe looking at Shanghai has some benefit. But also it can be a bit misleading because we were never in the situation, I would say, that you now see in places like London and New York, in Northern Italy, in Spain, in most hotspots around the world.

                                           It’s a very tricky thing right now, being in Shanghai. We have that luxury of seeing this, but at the same time, just to give you my personal perspective, I personally find it much harder from a mental standpoint now where I can’t distract myself in the same way that I did when I was actively battling against the outbreak. Now that we are coming out of the outbreak, it’s very difficult because the news is just about how this is taking over the world. It’s very tricky to keep yourself on a mental even keel, and that really is half of the battle. There is, of course, social distancing and keeping yourself healthy, but keeping yourself happy and positive is definitely half of the battle.

Ryan Morfin:                    How long were you guys, I guess, locked up in quarantine or stuck in the house?

Oscar Fuchs:                    The worst part of it was probably two or three weeks, which was basically when I first came back from Japan. A lot of that is not in forced quarantine, it’s self-isolation. There are different rules for different people. People who now were returning to China are on a much stricter self-quarantine. That is before, of course, they closed the borders, which they just did the other day. I have a friend who is a teacher here. He came back a week ago, and because he was going to be close to children when the schools do finally re-open, his quarantine was much stricter. He actually had an alarm on his door, which was installed by the police, and if he wanted to open his front door, he has to inform his building supervisor first and give the reasons why. And I think he is limited to a certain number of door openings every day.

                                           Again, very, very strict controls, which sound very brutal, but give the rest of the population some peace of mind, quite honestly, in this situation. But yes, to answer your question, for me personally, it was a two-week period, which was the worst. But even then, probably similar to your situations, we could still walk down the street to my local grocery and pick up supplies and come back. That was my one 10-minute outing per day, to walk down the road, pick up groceries, and come back.

Ryan Morfin:                    We’re on the social life standpoint in China, what were people doing to go out? We started to see, believe it or not, happy hours where everyone calls in on a Zoom chat line, people go into speed dating websites. Where there anything novel that you came across across China that made the news or people were discussing?

Oscar Fuchs:                    Very similar things, very similar things. Some heartwarming things like you saw in Italy where people also tend to live quite close together, and then people were their balconies singing to each other. That kind of thing we saw in China. Most people live in big cities, which are very tightly packed and lots of people shouting together in unity. But as you know, as I keep coming back to… There are these general phenomena, but it does come down to each individual and what their comfort levels are. I see three different categories. I see people who are living alone, people who are in couples, and people who are in couples with children. And those are the three different situations where I think people’s coping mechanisms were a little bit different.

                                           Again, this is universal around the world, but if you are living alone, you have to just make sure that you are reaching out in the way that you described, and in a way that you’re comfortable with. Everyone has different levels that they take energy from other people. So yeah, people generally were meeting up like that online. If you’re in a couple, actually, I think, that was my situation, and looking at my friends who were in those other situations, I feel that I was a bit lucky because you can get on with your life with your partner quite comfortably and bounce off each other in a way that is quite comfortable. You add kids to that degree, and then the kids can start to introduce a little bit more stress into your life and a little bit more distraction. So those, I think, were the three different situations we see in China and, of course, the rest of the world.

Ryan Morfin:                    And so it seems to me that… or we’ve been seeing, at least, from the footage here and some of the economic data that people are now getting back into the swing of economic output and going to work every day. And so you think the pendulum swung, and now it’s just kind of a waning and maybe wait and see if there’s a second wave?

                                           I don’t think the second wave is what people are talking about, but I think they are just looking at the pendulum swinging only in one direction at this point. Because they haven’t done-

Oscar Fuchs:                    Got it.

Ryan Morfin:                    … anything rash. When I said about people were stuck in their hometowns, about two or three weeks ago, people could leave their hometowns and start coming back to the cities, which is mainly where they’re based. And then the government watched that for a period to see if that movement of people spiked the outbreaks. When it did not, then they relinquished it a little bit further and further. That’s what I mean by the trickling, they don’t just open everything because that would be ridiculous, and that’s why you’re seeing some countries have this second wave. They have been very smart in just making it slowly, slowly, and just looking at numbers each time and then slowly just releasing the valves more and more.

                                           I mean, Hubei, where Wuhan is based, Hubei is still on lockdown. Again, that’s why it’s different in certain places. We are hearing talk of Wuhan coming out of lockdown and they are, but the borders are still not open. So even now that there is an element of normality coming back, they are doing it in a very step-by-step way, which is very impressive.

                                           Well, Oscar, I’d like to thank you for joining us today. And for your thoughts about what’s been going on and giving us a glimpse into what it might look like here in the US in the weeks and potentially months ahead. I hope you and your family stay safe and healthy in Shanghai.

Oscar Fuchs:                    Absolutely. Thank you so much, Ryan. Like I say, keep yourself healthy, but keep yourself happy. It’s just as important. This is a really good media that you’re putting together. Even though I’m saying that, listen to this of course, but at the same time actively reduce how much news you take in, I would say. The key to happiness, I think, is to have two periods in the day where you are engaging with the news, one in the morning, one in the evening, and for the rest of the time, occupy your mind with your family, with creative pursuits, with reaching out to friends as you’ve been talking about, and the things that just make you happy. If it means breaking rules about drinking gin before 12 o’clock or having a slice of cake, then now is the time to overindulge just a little bit.

Ryan Morfin:                    Well, appreciate it, Oscar, thanks so much for your time, and we’ll look forward to staying in touch. Have a great one.

Oscar Fuchs:                    You too.

Ryan Morfin:                    Thanks for listening to NON-BETA ALPHA. Before we go, don’t forget to subscribe and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or our YouTube channel. On our next episode, we’ll feature folks calling in from Italy to tell us how it’s going on the ground there and what they’re doing to stay positive during this COVID crisis. This is NON-BETA ALPHA, and now you know.

                                           (singing)

 

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