Public Spaces in China and Hong Kong During the Coronavirus Pandemic: An Analysis by Pengfei Li, University of Hong Kong

Public Spaces in China and Hong Kong During the Coronavirus Pandemic: An Analysis by Pengfei Li, University of Hong Kong

“Public space” or gong gong kongjian (公共空間) in China means official and shared space. That is, the “public” in public space—“gong gong” in gong gong kongjian in Chinese—is made of two different characters and thereby has two distinct connotations simultaneously: official or government-owned (公) and shared (共) . In most parts of Chinese history, including various dynasties in imperial China and Mao’s China, official or government-owned was the essential feature of public spaces in China (Genovese & Li, 2017).

The coronavirus outbreak started from Wuhan, a metropolis in central China, in December 2019 or probably earlier, highlights and reinforces the official feature of public spaces in China unsurprisingly. But in the case of Hong Kong, the shared, civil feature of public spaces remains relatively intact.

Public Spaces in Mainland China During the Pandemic

Wuhan, a municipality of 11 million people and the capital city of Hubei province, was quarantined from January 23, 2020. Two days later, the whole province of Hubei, with about 60 million residents, stopped all intra and inter-provincial public transit operations. The lockdown of Hubei was radical. Almost every single grid, urban and rural, in the province, a territory about the size of the state of Washington or North Dakota, was closed, monitored, and quarantined in an extremely hierarchical way: grid managers, who are often communist party members, blocked non grid residents from entering the grid and monitored grid residents’ intra-grid activities simultaneously.

Grid and the grid system in China deserve a bit contextual explanation. In Setha Low’s 2003 book, Behind the Gates: Life, Security, and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America, she estimates that about 16 million Americans, or 5.9% of the total population, lived in gated communities in the United States as of the early 2000s, while the majority of Americans live in open and unguarded neighborhoods. The Chinese case is the exact opposite, 1) over 90% urbanites live in urban and suburban gated communities; and 2) most rural communities are not walled or gated but can easily be isolated, as each village in rural China “naturally” forms a fortress unit led by the most basic unit of China’s centralized and hierarchical governance system, i.e., the Villagers’ Committee, a legacy organization of the people’s commune and a grassroots party and administrative organization.

The grid system has been further advocated and elevated into a “grid governance system” since 2013, when the convention of the third Plenary Session of the 18th CCP Central Committee took place in Beijing. The core of the “grid governance system” is breaking communities, both urban and rural, into rigid grids, with local grids being closely monitored and surveilled by “grid managers” who are almost always Communist Party members and paid by the state. The size of grid varies, ranging from a territory with only two high-rise buildings to an entire rural village or a gated community with about 10,000 residents. The grid governance system is a further capillary penetration of the party into China’s existing rigid, pyramid governance system: the village/the urban community, street office/township, urban district/county, municipality, province, and ultimately the CCP Central Committee in the center of Beijing.

Gated communities and public spaces are often the two ends of the spatial spectrum, both ideologically and materially. How can they be connected during the coronavirus pandemic? The fact is, the abundance of gated communities in China logically reflects the lack of public spaces. In a city- and nation-wide epidemic turning into a global pandemic, we see exactly how the role of gated communities erodes the functions of public spaces. Both the re-positioning and re-fortifying of gated communities and the lack of public lives in China during the coronavirus pandemic take place within the institutional setting of the grid system of governance mentioned above.

Grids in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and a few other cities, with confirmed or suspected cases reported, quickly followed up and implemented grid quarantine as strict as Hubei did. The scale of quarantine in China was certainly unprecedented in human history, covering almost 600 million people in late February and in early March, 2020. Observing public spaces and public behaviors in China during the coronavirus pandemic, if one conducted fieldwork in and looked at the conventional public venues, such as squares, plazas, parks, streets, etc., is about observing how officials, as well as the subordinate personnel of officials, arranged and organized urban life in official or government-owned spaces in Chinese cities. The scene in cities and villages in China under quarantine is strikingly similar to that of a seventeenth century European town under quarantine described by Foucault: only syndics, intendants, the magistrates or mayor, i.e., officials in an European town, were supposed to move and appear in public spaces in the quarantined town (1975, p. 195).

Fortunately, China’s draconian measures of massive quarantine are working, at least from the official numbers and people’s social media posts (we simply cannot rely on China’s official media reports to observe and understand China, which is a common-sense even to Chinese who live inside China). Most city-wide quarantines have been withdrawn gradually from late March, and only grid- or community-based quarantines still hold in a few cities, especially in Wuhan. Hubei people are allowed to travel outside of Hubei province from March 25, 2020, after two months of collective quarantine, but they need to satisfy a list of highly restrictive requirements: 1) they have a home elsewhere and the grid or community, in which their home is located, must issue a document to permit their return to their home; 2) they have a job elsewhere and their work unit can provide a document to grant their return to work; 3) they need to have an electronic “health code” generated from China’s two giant IT companies—Tencent, a publicly listed company in Hong Kong, and Alibaba, a publicly listed and traded company in New York and Hong Kong—to show the e-record of their whereabouts in the last fourteen days.

In China, as most people live in the post-quarantine stage nowadays, inter-city travel and inter-province travel enter a new normal. Different from the abnormal situation under quarantine in which only officials could move in official, public spaces, ordinary people can go out of their grid and gated community, visiting public spaces, such as plazas, squares, parks, streets, etc., in a new normal manner in which they are constantly stopped by for body temperature checks at the entrance of various public spaces, as well as at the entrance of their own gated community once they return home. Moreover, the electronic “health code” or the “e-health code” is frequently checked as well, though not as omnipresent as body temperature checks. With the help of the “e-health code”, the state knows the traces of all of its moving subjects electronically in the new normal situation. The transition from an abnormal, quarantine-style surveillance state/regime to the new normal, electronic surveillance state/regime is smooth and natural, without questioning or contests, let alone protests.

Public spaces in Hong Kong During the Pandemic

Public spaces in Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China and a former colony of the United Kingdom for more than 150 years until 1997, are quintessentially Chinese. To a large extent, one can argue that public spaces in Hong Kong are culturally more Chinese, in terms of urban form and urban lifestyle, than public spaces in any contemporary mainland metropolises such as Beijing, Shanghai, or Shenzhen, as narrow but busy streets, vivid and colorful storefronts, and a variety of public, civil behaviors ranging from artistic exhibitions to simply social gatherings are still abundant in Hong Kong. Those were some of the key elements of public spaces in imperial China, reflecting the shared aspect, rather than the official feature of public spaces of the remote past.

Public spaces and public behaviors in Hong Kong, unlike those in China and elsewhere in the world, first in Europe and then in the United States, have not witnessed a radical change during this coronavirus pandemic, except in one manner that most people wear masks on the streets and on public transit. Streets in Central, Wan Chai, Causeway Bay, the hectic, high-density CBD areas in Hong Kong island, as well as streets in the Kowloon CBD, still have people walking, socializing, and/or simply window shopping. Though tourists, both from mainland China and from overseas, are harder to be observed and found on Hong Kong streets, locals do not really shun public spaces and public gatherings, despite their reduced presence in public spaces. Interestingly, multiple protests still carried on in the last three months, as a continuation of the half-year-long social movement starting from June, 2019 that almost led to another Cold War.

The relative intactness of public spaces in Hong Kong is due to a variety of factors. In early January, 2020, public health experts in Hong Kong already alerted the public and the Hong Kong authorities that an unknown virus was spreading in Wuhan. The term “Wuhan pneumonia” was perhaps first used by Hong Kong media and is still used in Hong Kong to name the global pandemic which is way beyond “Wuhan pneumonia.” Subsequently, the SAR government closed a few border checkpoint stations between mainland China and Hong Kong, blocked Hubei residents from entering Hong Kong, and implemented forced quarantine order for people traveling from mainland China in early February. From the public’s side, due to the fact and the still vivid collective memory of the 2003 SARS pandemic, in which Hong Kong was severely hit, the public got anxious and even panic about the 2019-2020 coronavirus epidemic even before Wuhan was quarantined. In late January and early February, local Hong Kong people were queuing at pharmacy stores to buy masks, and some of them even started a waiting line from the mid night. The extreme alertness of local Hongkongers, together with their voluntary social distancing and reduced social gatherings, might have mitigated the spread of the coronavirus in this rather fragile island and peninsula metropolis, thereby rendering the publicness and civilness of Hong Kong public spaces relatively intact.

Another interesting phenomenon in early February was that “foreigners” (Hong Kong people still call non-Chinese- or non-East-Asian-looking people foreigners or gweilo, a reverse discrimination becoming a cute, post-colonial slang, though those “foreign” people who may hold a Hong Kong ID or passport), especially Westerners, were the tiny minority of people in Hong Kong public spaces who did not wear masks. Local media reporters even made a few widely watched TV programs and videos asking those “foreigners” their reasons of not wearing masks. Using “wearing masks” to identify and separate the “other” in public spaces soon became irrelevant. As the epidemic got more serious in mainland China from late February and early March, interestingly, even “foreigners” in Hong Kong started to wear masks in public spaces. This collective, social norm of wearing masks in public spaces constitutes another factor that might explain the relative intactness of public spaces in Hong Kong, in term of the cultural pattern of daily lives on the one hand, and the relatively slower spread of coronavirus in Hong Kong in terms of public health on the other hand.

The relative intactness of public spaces during the coronavirus pandemic is not unique to Hong Kong. Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan (Japan is perhaps the most mysterious case among the East Asian societies during this pandemic, as it took the least stringent anti-epidemic measures so far) also have their public spaces functioning normally. Moving from the spatial realm to the socio-political realm, these five East Asian societies have been able to maintain the balance between life-as-usual and strict anti-epidemic measures, between the publicness of civil society and the privacy of individual life, and between economic development and people’s life. Not coincidentally, all those societies are the so-called “Asian tigers” who meticulously balance the relationship of a strong state and a free market, of authoritative rules and democratic practices, and by the same token, of power and freedom. Perhaps, how to maintain a balanced public and private life, will be one of the core lessons that we can learn from the 2019-2020 coronavirus pandemic.


Foucault, M. (1975). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.

Genovese, P. V., & Li, P. (2017). The identity of Chinese public space from ancient times to contemporary society: The sociology of public behaviors. The Journal of the Scientific Society, Ludovico Quaroni L’ADC UNESCO Series #2, 87-125.

Low, S. (2003). Behind the gates: Life, security, and the pursuit of happiness in fortress America. New York and London: Routledge.

March 28, 2020


Pengfei Li, Ph.D.

Department of Urban Planning & Design

The University of Hong Kong


“The identity of Chinese public space from ancient times to contemporary society: The sociology of public behaviours in Chinese cities”

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