Preserved Egg roams Shanghai’s empty streets with a megaphone strapped to its back. The robot dog is about the size of a terrier and barks orders to residents: stay inside, wash your hands, check your temperature.
On some nights, when city officials have ordered mandatory midnight Covid testing, Preserved Egg – the name is reference to the famous Chinese dish – marches down apartment corridors, rousing inhabitants and calling them downstairs for throat swabs.
Shanghai is a few weeks into a strict lockdown President Xi Jinping introduced as part of a zero-Covid policy. Lockdown in this city of 25mn people has cut the normal city din and let the sounds of surveillance drones buzzing overhead cut through.
Wang Yushuo, a young employee at Chinese drone company DJI, controls the dog remotely as a volunteer for his community’s residents’ committee, a “self-governing grassroots organisation”. He says the dog makes three or four patrols a day depending on battery life. “It’s very efficient,” he says. “The virus is everywhere outside. We’re trying to avoid any close contact.”
Not everyone is so enthusiastic. In central Shanghai, 33-year-old Pei started keeping the curtains drawn in her sixth-floor flat after spotting a drone as she smoked on her balcony. “It was fluttering nearby so I waved at it,” she says. “It paused for a second, then flew away.”
Shanghai is among the most heavily surveilled cities in the world, but with cameras pointed at empty streets, drones and robots offer authorities a closer view of citizens’ homes. The Communist party is pushing for more spending on such tools.
Full Lockdown in Shanghai, this is how they broadcast announcements.
— Jay in Shanghai 🇨🇳 (@JayinShanghai) March 29, 2022
At times the machines are quite helpful. At a few college campuses and makeshift quarantine camps, self-driving carts and robots ferry food to people stuck in their rooms. In Kangcheng, an apartment complex hailed by government officials as a model of pandemic preparation, Chinese tech giant Meituan’s driverless carts deliver food.
The lockdown was imposed with little warning, making food a concern for millions. Most markets are closed and those that remain open have trouble accessing supplies as the city is partly quarantined from the rest of China. Residents swipe on delivery apps to try to snatch new food as soon as it becomes available. Some even set their alarms for 6am to start shopping when stores update their stock of fruit and vegetables. Some young engineers are even writing code to automate the process. One programmer trapped in northern Shanghai wrote a program to monitor Meituan’s app on two phones and a computer 24 hours a day. “We’ve been locked in for half a month and this is all they’ve given us,” he says, showing a shopping bag provided by the city which contains seven potatoes, seven onions, four tomatoes, three radishes, a cabbage and a piece of meat. “We have six people here. This little bit of food, it’s not close to enough.”
It’s becoming obvious drones can be used in other ways. A day after a small protest broke out over food in the suburb of Jiuting, a police drone flew in to admonish residents. Shen, a migrant worker who lives in the area, was woken from a nap by its loud robotic voice. “Don’t stir up trouble or gather illegally, or you’ll be handled according to the law,” he says it blared as it hovered overhead. “The pandemic is out of control, food prices are out of control… now here comes a drone to educate us on the law?”
Ryan McMorrow is the FT’s China technology reporter. Gloria Li is south China researcher for the FT. Additional reporting by Xueqiao Wang
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