Cooperating to Resist: Society and State during China’s COVID Lockdowns

50 Pages Posted: 22 Sep 2023 Last revised: 11 Apr 2024

See all articles by Shitong Qiao

Shitong Qiao

The University of Hong Kong - Faculty of Law; Duke University School of Law

Date Written: September 18, 2023


China’s lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic was widely considered a stark demonstration of the unconstrained power of an authoritarian state. Yet this power may not be as limitless as it appears. This article, the result of extensive fieldwork encompassing over ninety interviews and on-site visits to Chinese cities, primarily focusing on Shanghai and Wuhan, where the most significant lockdowns occurred, delves into the intricacies of the Chinese party-state’s response to the pandemic. It offers a unique perspective on the constraints that societal forces impose on the party-state’s exercise of power and, in doing so, challenges conventional wisdom. While the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) touted its COVID-19 response as a testament to the robustness of its institutions, critics pointed to the widespread infringement of individual rights and the suffering endured during China’s pandemic lockdowns. However, one aspect has been largely overlooked: the role of society itself. This study uncovers the hitherto unexamined role of society in monitoring and resisting the party-state’s encroachments on individual rights during the pandemic, a phenomenon I term “cooperating to resist.” My research reveals the state’s inherent limitations in enforcing neighborhood lockdowns and providing essential services to locked-down communities. Crucially, I demonstrate that the cooperation of citizens, particularly homeowners, was indispensable to the state’s ability to maintain its COVID-19 control measures. Yet, this cooperation was not without its implications. When homeowners, who had been willing partners of the government, invoked legal narratives to voice their concerns, the government found itself compelled to respond. This interdependence between the government and homeowners unveils a dynamic where dependence begets power, challenging the prevailing narrative of China’s “strong state, weak society.” It also offers fresh insights into the dynamics of power and legality in authoritarian regimes and casts new light on the relationship between property rights and sovereignty. In an authoritarian regime, property law emerges as a sanctuary of resistance for citizens. In essence, this study not only redefines the state-society relationship in authoritarian contexts but also has far-reaching implications for our understanding of emergency governance. As we navigate a changing world, it reminds us that even in the face of seemingly unassailable state power, the interplay between society and the state can usher in a new paradigm of cooperation and resistance.

Keywords: Authoritarianism; civil society; property rights; neighborhood governance; emergency power; homeownership; state capacity; legal mobilization; democracy; legibility; weapons of the weak; rightful resistance; China

JEL Classification: K11; K42; P14; P25; P37; P48

Suggested Citation

Qiao, Shitong and Qiao, Shitong, Cooperating to Resist: Society and State during China’s COVID Lockdowns (September 18, 2023). Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, Forthcoming, Duke Law School Public Law & Legal Theory Series No. 2023-59, Available at SSRN: or

Shitong Qiao (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )


The University of Hong Kong - Faculty of Law ( email )

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Hong Kong, Hong Kong

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