In response to 'From Chain Reaction to Grid Reaction'.

Published 13 March 2020 / By Tianlong You

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In his recent blog, From Chain Reaction to Grid Reaction: Mobilities and Restrictions during SARS and Coronavirus, Dr Xiang argues that hyper mobility that has become prevalent in Chinese society induced the government to introduce “grid governance” to manage the population, which method enabled “grid reaction” in the event of the coronavirus outbreak, which in turn created deep disruptions. However, I question the connections in this reasoning.

First, it is hard to conclude that "grid reaction induced unintended movements that may further spread the virus". I would argue that flight is a natural instinct of mankind. Famines, earthquakes, floods, and other disasters in any society all lead to similar flights. In fact Dr Xiang himself acknowledged this. As we see, Italians fled to the south from Milan before the lockdown, and  Americans are fleeing to the countryside from big cities as I am writing this response. This is not necessarily related to “grid management”.

Furthermore, grid management can hardly be attributed to hyper-mobility. Grid management is not new in China at all. In pre-modern times, it was described as the baojia system,  a community-based civil control method dating to 346 B.C. In the original design, every ten households constitute a jia, and every ten jia constitute a bao. The baojia system, which resembles the present-day grid management in many ways, has been renewed over and over again throughout  Chinese history. In essence, this system, baojia or grid, is a mobility-control tool.

However, I find the two concepts of “chain reaction” and “grid reaction” can be powerful tools if we introduce the concept of social capital into the discussion.

During the 2003 SARS outbreak, migrant workers fled Beijing, and brought the virus to their hometowns and thereby worsening the epidemic. However, in doing so, they also managed to survive SARS by using their own meagre resources by leaving places where medical resources were  overwhelmed. The downside of this movement is that they brought the epidemic to new places and created additional work for the bureaucrats and medics  there. The lesson that local governments learned from 2003 seems to be that they must break the "chains" in order to prevent the "chain reaction". They therefore evoked grid-style control to immobilize everyone.

In 2020 we witness a competition between government-centered "grid" management and people-centered social "network" strategy. The former constrains the latter. People who are dis-embedded from their social networks and deprived of social capital, thus becoming atom-like actors, lose their incomes and cannot effectively use social capital to protect themselves or their loved ones. Though poorer people can be resilient in surviving disasters, grid reactions curtail their ability to mobilize any form of capital and thus significantly increases their risks.

If there is a lesson for bureaucrats to learn from this pandemic, I fear it it might be that they will consider even more digital surveillance tools, such as health QR code, scouting UAVs, and facemask recognition technologies. After all, a grid reaction is not only to stop the virus, but can also to maximize stability, or even just a deceptive feeling of stability.

We are talking about “saving lives”. But in the rush to save lives, human beings are  regulated, disciplined, and sacrificed, rather than being served, enabled, and liberated. The more high-tech the system becomes, the worse outcomes it generates.


Tianlong You is a PhD candidate in Justice Studies; Arizona State University, USA