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Conceptualizing China’s spatial lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic: a neo-liberal society or a pre-liberal one?

Pengfei Li (The Graduate Center, City University of New York, New York, US)

Social Transformations in Chinese Societies

ISSN: 1871-2673

Article publication date: 30 June 2021

Issue publication date: 27 October 2021




The draconian measures to lock down communities and cities in China during the COVID-19 pandemic are unprecedented in human history. First the mega-city of Wuhan, then the province of Hubei, and eventually the whole nation of China, were shut down, surveilled and governed in a way that was identical to the 17th century plague-stricken European town re-portrayed and analyzed by Foucault. Instead of categorizing China’s COVID-19-triggered spatial and social governance as an ad hoc and hence abnormal disciplinary mechanism, this essay argues that the spatial lockdown and social control in China during the COVID-19 pandemic express the long existing and well-established governance model of China: that of a pre-liberal disciplinary society.


A disciplinary society using “the meticulous exercise of the right of the sword” with neither liberal values nor liberal practices, China’s swift re-configuration into a pre-liberal disciplined society during the COVID-19 pandemic invalidates a neo-liberal reading of the Chinese governance. Furthermore, the radical spatial and social control measures not only expose the fundamentally illiberal nature of the Chinese governance but also suggest its institutional dependence on its Leninist nomenklatura system.


With this institutional dependence, draconian spatial and social control measures are likely to be continuously carried on in China after the COVID-19 crisis, albeit in a less brutal manner.


It offers a conceptual and theoretical framework to understand China's socio-spatial governance.



The author thanks the two anonymous reviewers of the journal for their useful comments, especially the concern of the empirical foundation of this rather short conceptual paper. The usual disclaimer applies. The paper received no specific funding.


Li, P. (2021), "Conceptualizing China’s spatial lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic: a neo-liberal society or a pre-liberal one?", Social Transformations in Chinese Societies, Vol. 17 No. 2, pp. 101-108.



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