The Coke Standard: Inside Shanghai’s Lockdown Barter Economy

Shanghai’s residents have turned to swapping supplies under lockdown—but is Coca-Cola really the most in-demand item?

“[Shanghai has] reached the age of bartering,” announced a bespectacled woman in a video on streaming platform Bilibili from April 10, swathed in a head towel and rubbing her shoulder, apparently in a state of complete exhaustion. “Money is now useless.”

Shanghai‘s extended lockdown, first announced for five days in parts of the city on March 28, left supply chains crippled by unexpected road closures and residents unprepared for the prolonged stays at home, as many had only bought food enough to last for one week. Inconsistencies in government-organized food deliveries, as well as a continued shortage of non-essential “luxuries,” means that locked down residents have turned to bartering: swapping whatever they have for whatever they need with their neighbors.

This grassroots bargaining economy, with countless variations across the city’s archipelago of closed compounds, has led to some novel market trends reflected in memes that circulated social media in the first weeks of lockdown. On April 8, in a post that has since gone viral, the Weibo account Jijin Jiaozhu listed food as if they were stocks: Vegetables were tanking as “some people are tired of eating them,” while vices like wine and cigarettes were a bullish market on the up. Bizarrely, Coca-Cola was dubbed the reserve currency that “can be exchanged for anything.”

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author Alex Colville

Alex Colville is the former culture editor at The World of Chinese. Blown to China by the tides of curiosity, then marooned here by the squalls of Covid, Alex used to write for 1843, The Economist, and the Spectator from the confines of a cold London flat. When he’s not writing for TWOC, he can be found researching his bi-weekly column for SupChina from the confines of his freezing Beijing hutong.

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