Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus Podcast.
Just as the world was coming to grips with the seriousness of COVID-19 and countries were locking down, parts of China were getting over the worst of the pandemic, and life was ‘kind of’ returning to normal.
This was the case when I recorded this interview with Mauricio ‘Momo’ Estrella, an Ecuadorian digital designer based in Shanghai with his wife and young son. In fact, Momo tells me that, now, life is very much back to normal there.
In this chat, he’s going to explain how a city of more than 24 million people handled the outbreak and what that experience was like. We also discuss how he adjusted culturally to life in China when he first made the move a decade ago. And we chat about the country’s social credit scoring system; Momo explains why it’s not as creepy as that episode of Black Mirror makes the concept out to be!
What were the measures that China put in force for Shanghai, and what measures are still in place now for you?
Momo: So, I think one key difference, for a bit more context, is that the urban planning in large cities in China is pretty well executed. So the city grid actually can be divided into literally a grid. For example, if they lockdown a specific area of the city, say four blocks, what’s very interesting is that, within those four blocks, you will have access to everything you need.
There will be enough banks; there will be enough supermarkets; there will be enough government assistance or community buildings. There will be everything. So they can literally lock down a small part of China, and that city will have an autonomy. It doesn’t necessarily rely on the rest of the city infrastructure.
So that’s true for a lot of large cities in China. So what has happened is that some of the measures that were in place, they are only possible in China, because people have a strong sense of responsibility.
And the short version is that people do what they’re told to do, and people don’t do what they’re told they shouldn’t do. So, overnight, people almost organise themselves, because there are new regulations, down to the district level.
For example, in the extreme periods that we had in Shanghai, only one person was allowed to leave the compound every two days to, for example, go to supermarkets and to buy groceries.
Some other compounds were a bit less strict. It was not per se a government mandate, so it was up to the community management on each compound or each district to self-regulate. ‘How do you want to take care of your small grid?’
So, some of the measures were like that; you could only get out every two days. It was forbidden to be outside in public spaces without wearing a mask. And now, obviously, I understand this whole thing around masks, that masks are only helpful for your sake and whatnot.
But an important aspect in China as well was – because of the population density and because a lot of carriers actually did not experience any symptoms – it was very hard to tell in large clusters of infection who actually had the virus and who didn’t. So I think the fact that everybody was wearing masks in a way did help the situation.
So other measures in place, for example, were that you would get your temperature checked everywhere you walked into. So big fancy buildings would have these cameras that had facial recognition, and they would track your temperature, and then they would register you immediately.
Some other places would have a manual check, where they would take your temperature on your wrist or your forehead, and then they’d write down your name. And then you’d need to leave your phone number. It was a very manual process and slowed down a lot of things.
So, for example, I had to go to the bank. I had to go through two temperature controls, and I had to be in a holding area, before they actually let me go right inside the bank, so I could go in front of the window and get some paperwork done.
It was a bad time, as because of my taxes (everybody has to do taxes at different points of the year), I also had to go to the tax office, and it was the same thing there. I had about four different temperature controls at different stages. A lot of that was manual.
And then, slowly, that started to be digitised. Another advantage that China has is that the digital infrastructure is very, very developed.
So now, for example, with the collaboration between the different mobile service providers, there is a universal QR code that is assigned to each person. And this QR code is generated automatically.
Basically, it uses triangulation of your signal. Your operators know what laws there are in the city grid, and if there’s a focus of infection, for example, in a district, they are able to tell people that they’re in an area that has been affected.
And then your QR code, for example, instead of being green, which gives you a free pass around the city, will be yellow, which says that you must self-quarantine for two weeks until the QR code turns green. And then there’s a red QR code, which means you should immediately go and get checked; you should get tested as a potential carrier of the virus.
So those were the measures that evolved very quickly, over the period of just probably a week or two. It went from locking the city, so that nobody could get in and nobody could get out, to zooming into the compounds, so nobody could get out of the compounds.
It got to the point where even your food deliveries, your grocery deliveries, were just left at the entrance, at the gate, of the compound. You had to go and pick them up yourself. It was a bit extreme at the beginning, but people very quickly got used to it.
Carlie: So, it sounds like your compounds, or your mini cities, still continued to function. You mentioned being able to go to the tax office, whereas here in France it’s really only essential shops, the pharmacies, the doctor’s, the supermarkets … So there weren’t forced closures of every business in China?
Momo: Well, there were some businesses that were affected, of course. So, the FMB industry, for example, took the biggest hit. So most restaurants were closed. And those who remained operating, they were allowed only to do deliveries, right?
So they were not allowed to welcome guests in the premises. They were only allowed to prepare takeouts or use the delivery systems that we have. A lot of businesses shut down, a lot of entertainment places. Everywhere that would have allowed people to gather, for example, was shut down immediately.
I would say, now, the city is back to normal. If I’m honest, everything is back to 70% day-to-day normal lives. But a few weeks ago, it did really feel empty. The streets were completely empty. There were very few cars.
A city of 24 million people … That’s a bit scary, looking out of the window … Everybody outside had these expressions of concern and worry, and many of the things that we’re seeing in other countries are things that we did here: regulations that they’re putting in place to [make people stay indoors and not leave their place], and the queuing system, for example, and the rationing system for certain things that people are hoarding. A lot of that didn’t really happen here in Shanghai, for some reason.
Carlie: Yes, I was going to ask. What do you make of all of the toilet paper shortages in the UK and New Zealand and Australia? Did you have trouble finding toilet paper?
Momo: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know what’s up with that. To be honest, I think nobody did that here, really, because there was a super strict self-regulated distribution/responsibility. I don’t know what to call it, but there was a distribution of roles across the city.
So, the moment the government says, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ suddenly, down the chain, you have a hundred people who know exactly what their function is. So, for example, the government wanted to prevent people from hoarding masks.
So, to do that, every pharmacy in the city – and there are thousands of pharmacies in the city, and they have a supply of 3000 masks per day – they were only allowed to sell four to five masks per family.
And the way they would be doing that is, they would once again reach out, for example, to the compounds. For example, the compound where I live has 15 buildings and each building has around 33 floors. Each floor has three families. So, there’s a massive amount of families.
And the management of these compounds had to invite people from the compound to register. So, if I wanted masks, I needed to go register. I needed to leave my phone number. I needed to sign a declaration to say, ‘I have a wife; I have a son; there’s a family of three people that I need masks for.’
And it would tell me when I would be expected to drop into a specific pharmacy, at a specific address, to get my masks. So, it was effortless, if I’m honest, but that meant that there was a huge effort behind it to prevent hoarding, or to prevent people from panicking and buying everything that they could.
Obviously, a lot of people ended up doing that anyway. You can buy a lot of things online, and people were buying boxes and boxes of everything they could. But none of it was as evident as what you’ve seen in other countries, especially because China relies a lot on online shopping and deliveries.
So, it’s very unusual for people to go to the supermarket, if I’m honest. It’s not that nobody goes – there’s a lot of people that go to supermarkets – but the majority don’t go. And the majority of young people probably don’t really understand why they would go to a supermarket.
So, it’s not that hoarding didn’t happen here; it’s just that you didn’t see it, because it just happened through deliveries.
Carlie: So, you mentioned before that life is now about 70% back to normal for you in Shanghai. What restrictions and coronavirus measures are still in place? What is almost back to normal looking like?
Momo: There are still a few measures that have stayed in place. Like, you still need to wear a mask indoors and in public spaces. Outdoors, there’s actually advice now that you don’t necessarily need to wear a mask. As long as you wear the surgical masks, the material masks, it’s okay. The government is encouraging people to not wear N95 masks anymore, because those are being reserved for medical professionals.
All the regulations that are slowly changing … Public transportation, for example: before there was a limitation on how many people could be in each wagon in the subways. Now, it’s back to normal.
Restaurants are opening, even though they also have a cap – they have a limit on how many tenants or how many people they can host. Most people are still working from home, and because of the digital infrastructure of China, it hasn’t really been too much of a problem to open your laptop and work remotely from home.
There are so many industries that have actually done better, even during this time, such as logistics or delivery companies. The entire country has relied a lot of them. So those services have improved a lot. And there are a lot of new versions of applications and services that have improved drastically over the last few weeks, because they have had to step up their service quality and whatnot.
So, overall it’s looking pretty positive, if I’m honest. I think there’s obviously a big risk of reinfection. So that’s why there are very strict controls now when people come from outside.
So there are people that need eight to nine hours just to leave the airport, because you need to go through a lot of checks and potentially be quarantined in a government facility, which essentially just means a Chinese hotel, or your apartment, depending on where you come from. So yeah, it’s going back to normal, but there’s still a very strict filter.
Carlie: It’s really good to see that the country at the epicentre of this is slowly getting back to normal.
Momo: Yeah. I mean, it feels good on one side, because I live here. I think working from home for almost two months … My kid is not able to go to day care, so he misses his friends. So it’s physically and psychologically exhausting to be locked in at home for this long. So I feel relieved in a way that things are going back to normal here.
Carlie: Momo, you’re originally from Ecuador. What brought you to China?
Momo: So, I have a design studio in Ecuador, and I was very lucky to work with EF Education First in a couple of projects. And then at some point they flew me to Shanghai, because they had a big product development team here.
Originally, I was supposed to be here for two months. But we liked each other, I guess. I love the city. I fell in love with the company as well, and they offered me a full-time job, and it made sense for me. I was excited to take that risk, in a way, and just move to the other side of the world. I haven’t left Shanghai for about 10 years now.
Carlie: So, being in Shanghai for a decade, I’m sure a lot of the local culture has just become quite normal for you. But what cultural norms in China did you have to adjust to and get used to?
Momo: I think, particularly in my case … I come from a very expressive culture. In South America, and particularly in smaller places like Ecuador, there’s a strong sense of community. There’s a strong sense of personnel.
So you express your feelings, whether that is through your actions, your words, the things that you say, the things that you write, or the things that you give. So, there’s a lot of emotion. It’s not that it’s the opposite here, but it feels different. People are a bit more reserved. People can be less emotional in that aspect.
So the biggest difference and the biggest struggle that I had was not being able to feel at ease at times in small groups of people and communities here. But the more time I’m here, the more I realise that there is respect; there is care; there is consideration between people. Simply the way it’s expressed is very different.
At a language level, you slowly get to understand that how the language is structured also dictates the way people express themselves, emotionally speaking.
I guess the biggest advantage that I found when I moved here was that suddenly I could not understand anything. You know, back home, you are surrounded by the conversations and music and billboards and noise and radio and commentary and everything. Right? And there’s no escape from that.
It’s everything, in a way. It’s stimulus that keeps getting inside your head. And when I moved here, suddenly it was just like white noise. I couldn’t understand anything, and it isolates you a little bit at the beginning, which was kind of strange. It’s a place where you’re surrounded by millions of people and you experience this very unusual, very comfortable, isolation.
And that helps many people. It’s not for everybody, but it helped me. Maybe it made me a bit more reflective and made me pay more attention to things. I was absorbing my environment through different clues, no longer language signals, right? But I was observing and appreciating maybe beauty, or confusion, or different layers of things in a different way. And it becomes very enjoyable.
Over time it fades out, as you begin to understand the language a bit more and set up roots here. That relationship changes a bit. But it’s still a fascinating place.
Carlie: Do you think it helped you as a designer?
Momo: I would say so, yeah. I found Shanghai very stimulating for creative work. Obviously, there’s the contrast. I come from the mountains in South America, and suddenly I’m surrounded by hundreds of buildings with neon lights and everything looks from the future. So obviously, it’s very stimulating. I think the part that I enjoy the most for my creative career here is that most designers are inspired by problems.
Most designers are inspired by chaos. We want to explore what potential ways there are out of a problem or a challenge. And problems often have no boundaries, and design has no boundaries.
So, I think China provides you a lot of input in that regard. So there are a lot of systemic challenges. There are even a lot of surface level challenges. So, from an aesthetic point of view, if you’re a designer that is into branding or space design, China will be able to provide you a lot of inspiration, with beautiful examples.
But it will also present you with a lot of challenges and problems. So, it’s like a double-sided inspiration. I was like, ‘Wow, this is beautiful.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, is this terrible.’ So that accelerates your craft in a way. At least it accelerates how you understand design and the intent behind it, and it helps you understand what to do about it.
Carlie: Momo, we were talking about the COVID-19 measures before, and you were saying how they had triangulation technology to be able to map in certain districts where there was an outbreak and map and track people’s temperatures and where they were going.
A season of the TV show, Black Mirror, had everyone talking, because it’s set in a world where you can rate every person that you interact with, and this star rating type of system actually does exist in China. Is it as scary and creepy as it sounds?
Momo: That’s an interesting question. I think everything has the potential to be framed in a way that seems negative. So, from my perspective, and this is just maybe my own view on that … For example, I’ll walk you through a little glimpse of what happens when you use an electronic payment, when you pay electronically for something.
So, if I go to a supermarket, or if I go to a convenience store, and I buy something, and I pay with Alipay or with WeChat pay, an electronic payment, suddenly there’s a digital conversation that I’m not aware of. My phone is having a digital conversation with the POS, the point of sale.
So suddenly, there’s a lot of information being interchanged without my knowledge, the information of … There’s an access key; there’s a specific encryption; there’s a location base. So suddenly, my phone is making sure that this machine trying to extract money from my account is legit.
At the same time, this machine is trying to ensure that my phone is connected to a legit account and that I, the one holding the phone, am the actual owner of that account. So suddenly, you get things like your phone recognising your face and approving the transaction and the transaction checking the location.
Am I physically at this store? Is this POS receiver physically in the store? Can this transaction be approved? Is there historical data that this doesn’t seem surprising, that suddenly I’m buying something that I have never bought it before?
So, a lot of these things happen in a second, and then suddenly I can just buy a banana or buy a yogurt and then just walk out of the convenience store in seconds. The same thing happens all the time, right?
There are digital conversations that our devices are having everywhere we go, whenever we use our mobile devices to enter a subway station, to pay for a meal, to split the bill at a table, or to order food on the menu. There are digital footprints everywhere, right?
And that’s not a China thing. That happens everywhere. I spoke a couple of times about this idea of distributing responsibilities, the distribution of who does what: roles and responsibilities.
There’s a digital version of that, which relies a lot on understanding not only the social structure but also the physical structure around people: the contacts I have had, the people that I have met, and the places where I’ve been. Somehow these footprints aggregate, and these footprints become a number.
And this number essentially represents a certain digital credibility, or a digital trust key, of some sort. And what that means is that if my bank account is in order, if I pay my taxes, if I seem to be surrounded by a cluster of people that do the same, if I seem to be consistently buying things that are not intended for reselling, if I seem to be behaving well digitally speaking …
All these footprints will aggregate into a number, and when this number is high, this number will maybe grant me access to things like … Maybe I don’t need to pay a deposit in a hotel when I travel in China, or maybe I will get faster access to wealth management support on my bank, for example.
Obviously, you can see the side of utility and convenience, but as I told you earlier, it’s very easy to reframe anything in the world and make it sound like it’s a bad thing, like it’s a negative thing.
I think Black Mirror, for example, is an awesome TV show, and it relies a lot on reframing. Maybe certain things seem familiar enough to us, but it reframes them in a way that makes you question them. So it reframes things so that they’re no longer about convenience and access and possibilities but instead privacy, liberty, or something else.
So obviously those tensions create emotions and create reactions in people and whatnot. That’s not to say that it’s a system I agree with or I disagree with; it is simply a digital system that is there in place.
It’s not creepy. Nobody thinks it’s creepy. And to be honest, I’ve never met anybody that has been affected by the number that they have. I think I confirmed my number. I think my number is 680, which apparently is a good number. It’s not as high as other friends[‘ numbers]. I have friends that have a 700 or 800 number.
To be honest, a lot of that is just tied to the purchases. It’s tied to the quality of the things that they buy. It’s tied to the diversity of the products that they purchase. And a little bit, maybe, it’s to do with the social circles they move in and so on. But the fact that everything is hyper-connected here can be an advantage at times.
It can help people to stay safe or to feel safe. But I’m sure you can reframe it and also find a hundred reasons why it is a bad idea.
Carlie: So, if you have a bad number, you aren’t necessarily going to be penalised for that? It just means you don’t get advantages
Momo: In a way, yeah, as far as I know. I’m not too familiar with the system, because there’s very little attention that the system gets internally, because most people behave really well. So it’s exceptional to hear that there’s somebody who doesn’t have a high score in this credit system.
So, as far as I know, you’re not allowed … For example, if you have a bad score, you’re not allowed to leave the province where you live, because if you have a bad number, then that is because, for example, you owe money, you have a big dept, or you have broken the law.
Maybe you have done something bad at home, or you have obligations with your kids. [There’s a] a bunch of reasons. And then it’s not that you cannot ever leave, but it prevents people from just buying tickets online.
So, you actually have to go to the train station and do it in person, and then you probably will have to explain where are you going, why you are going there, why you are travelling alone, and all these things.
Carlie: And why you haven’t paid your debt.
Momo: Yeah, exactly. So, I think that’s the case that I read about many months ago. It was a hot topic, because it was near, because it was a scifi topic that was already happening. So that’s why everybody was looking at it. But, to be honest, right now it’s just a normal thing and nobody seems to be affected by it.
Carlie: Momo, in the West, China is often making the news for its questionable ethical behaviour. How do you feel living in a country where you may disagree with some of its practices? Is that conflicting for you, or does it make more sense when you live there?
Momo: I think if you find anybody in any country, not France or China, and you spend enough time with this person, you will get to understand their context in a slightly different way. I guess the context for where we live is always very different.
That’s not to say that I agree with everything that happens here or disagree with things that happen here. I think things get amplified a lot, and there is a certain convenience in telling certain types of stories.
Most of the time, stories have a second intent, right? So it’s always important to try and make sure that we don’t get too caught up in the headlines or the first few paragraphs. Look beyond that and try to understand who is behind the story.
Why is this person telling me this story? Why is this entity or this publication trying to tell me this? Try to really dig deeper. Because, to be honest, most of the time there is a secondary intent in sharing certain stories or happenings.
I have nothing other than gratitude and, in a way, this daunting appreciation for the technology that surrounds me and allows a lot of things. Obviously, that’s not to say that there’s not a dark side to it. But there’s a dark side to literally everything, everywhere.
Carlie: Finally, what’s your advice to expats that might be weighing up a move to China? Possibly not right now, when there are barely any planes flying there, but in the future. If people are looking at a move to China for an opportunity, what would be your best piece of advice?
Momo: So there are three things that I feel are very important to understand about China and especially the working culture. It’s very likely that people are planning to move to China because they want to work here.
So, in the working culture, understanding how information flows in Chinese companies and understanding how decisions are made is very important, because these things tend to be very different from in the West.
The second one is understanding that often priorities are given top down – the traditional management. So those two points give you an idea of what to expect. So if you are an expat that is on an assignment here, then it will be different. If you join a big local company, there’s going to be a massive culture shock. That’s not to say that it’s a terrible working environment; it’s just very different.
And lastly, my third piece of advice would be that people need to have a big dose of patience and open-mindedness, because this is a country that moves incredibly fast. This is a place where people have been raised into rapid ascent, and all of them have an incredibly competitive mindset, but at the same time they have this community driven behaviour, where they look after each other.
So, they are very competitive in clusters. They are very competitive in groups. And that creates great friendships at work. That creates great teams, and that creates great experiences at work. It’s not an easy place, but it’s a place that can help people have a wider appreciation for the diverse ways to innovate.
Carlie: That’s it for today. If you have any questions for Momo or want to share your own experience of life as a foreigner in China, head over to expatfocus.com, and follow the links to our China forum or Facebook group.
Be sure to check out our other episodes. Lately, we’ve been chatting to expats about their lockdown experiences in various countries, but you’ll find interviews on loads of other topics too. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and consider leaving us a review. And I’ll catch you next time.