Residents Barter to Survive Under China’s COVID-19 Rules

By Nicole Hao
Nicole Hao
Nicole Hao
Nicole Hao is a Washington-based reporter focused on China-related topics. Before joining the Epoch Media Group in July 2009, she worked as a global product manager for a railway business in Paris, France.
January 4, 2022Updated: January 4, 2022

Residents in western China’s Xi’an city have started to barter with neighbors for food to survive. The 13 million residents have been in lockdown since Dec. 23, and food supply has become a critical issue for them.

Xi’an residents, who are lacking in food and can’t leave home due to the lockdown, have found a solution to obtain rice, vegetables, and meat from their neighbors who live in the same building. A box of cigarettes can be exchanged for a cabbage or a used iPhone 13 mini plus an old tablet traded for a bag of rice, according to Radio Free Asia.

Some parents, worried about their children’s nutrition, exchange what they had for foods they need. “We only have potatoes at home. My child has only eaten potatoes [with us] for days. Last night, I bartered three potatoes for a bowl of greens with my neighbor to feed my child,” A mother in Xi’an posted on a social media platform. She asked where she can buy food.

“It’s hard to buy food in Xi’an. Residents barter for food. This is a phenomenon that hasn’t been seen in China in the past 50 years,” China web portal NetEase reported on Jan. 1, but removed it from its website later. The report can be read in Chinese on the web cache.

Epoch Times Photo
Tourists walk on the city wall as heavy smog engulfs  Xi’an, China on Dec. 18, 2013. (Getty Images)

Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi Province, which has the largest population in northwestern China. The city announced its first COVID-19 patient of this latest outbreak on Dec. 9, 2021.

To curb the outbreak, the municipal government announced a lockdown on Dec. 23, which allowed one member of each household to go out and shop once every two days. Other members must remain at home. Grocery stores were allowed to operate at that time.

On Dec. 26, the city government tightened the lockdown and didn’t allow anybody to leave home except to take a COVID-19 test. The students living on school campuses weren’t allowed to leave their dormitories.

Since then, Xi’an residents have had trouble obtaining food. “Hard to obtain food in Xi’an” were some of the most common words that Chinese people searched online.

The Chinese state-run media 21st Century Business Herald (21CBH) reported on Dec. 30 that trucks had brought 180 bags of food to a residential compound in Xi’an for 180 families on Dec. 29. The food included potatoes, cabbages, tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach, clementines, and pork. The food was supplied by the city government for free, and the government prepared the same thing for all residents in Xi’an.

Soon after, Chinese netizens pointed out that the residential compound is a government campus where the government officials and their families live, but ordinary Xi’an residents hadn’t been given any food.

Hours later, the 21CBH removed the report from its website.

Two Xi’an residents told The Epoch Times on Jan. 3 that they received their first bag of vegetables that the government supplied on Dec. 31, 2021 and Jan. 1 respectively. But the food wasn’t free and was priced rather high.

“I received my food bag on the morning of Dec. 31. It contained celery, cabbage, radish, potatoes, and Shanghai bok choy,” an old man surnamed Zhang said in the phone interview. Zhang refused to state the cost, only mentioning that it was expensive. He said that he felt appreciated because he finally obtained food after being hungry for several days.

Another Xi’an resident Wang Qin said that she received her first food bag on Jan. 1, which included cabbage, radish, cucumber, onion, and zucchini. “There’s no meat or tofu (protein products). This will feed our family for three to four days,” Wang said.

Wang added that she heard some residents couldn’t receive food because their residential compounds were sealed up after one or more residents were diagnosed with COVID-19.

Radio Free China reported on Jan. 3 that food prices in Xi’an were about ten times what they were before the lockdown, and residents have a hard time buying food even when they are willing to pay extra for it.