It is your first dawn in China: at seven there is a knock on the door of your room, you jump out of bed, stick your head out, a person covered from head to toe in a white plastic suit sticks a stick down your throat until you it gags, it’s your fourth PCR in four days (the journey begins in the country of origin two days before travel), but there is still a carousel of nucleic acid tests; you close the door and try to fall asleep when suddenly your mobile vibrates: through WeChat, the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp, the people who take care of you and at the same time guard this hotel in which you have to remain isolated for 10 days have sent you a message. You activate the translator of the application, which is not very precise: “Very important notice”, says the text. “There are positive cases on this flight, all staff members must begin the transfer of positive cases [sic]. No one can leave the room, can’t leave the door, must wear a mask to eat [sic]! If someone comes, call the police.”
The time difference with Europe, where you come from, accentuates the feeling of unreality. Now an alarm sounds and you remember that you set it to take your temperature and fill in the online form on time, a task that you have to complete twice a day, according to the eight-page manual that you found on the desk and that you have also translated; on your page 2, point 3, it says, for example: “During the isolation period, the door of the room cannot be opened, except to collect items and throw garbage (wear an N95 mask when opening the door). Each door is equipped with a magnetic door alarm system, and there is 24-hour monitoring and infrared human detectors in the corridor. If someone is found randomly leaving the room, please report it to the police and recalculate the isolation period.”
You are in Tianjin, a port city neighboring Beijing, where some planes are diverted to the capital. The hotel has been assigned to you indefinitely. You arrived at dusk on a bus escorted by police from the airport. Among the confusion of travelers and suitcases at the entrance, you discovered decorations with a festive air. It read: “Happy New Year 2020,” as if time had frozen.
Landing in China from Europe in August 2022 means crossing a space-time dimension that suddenly returns one to the initial square of the pandemic, but with Chinese characteristics. The People’s Republic is one of the few countries (and the only one of the great powers) that maintains a harsh “zero covid” policy. While the European Union and the United States have chosen to live with the virus, here the battle is still alive and is being fought in a titanic way. “Perseverance is victory,” said Chinese President Xi Jinping. And the different visions have opened a gap between the Asian giant and much of the planet, one more symptom of the new era of deglobalization.
The arrival from abroad is the first line of the front. Since the beginning of 2020, China grants few visas and no one can enter the country without observing a 10-day quarantine in a hotel (in some cases, the last three are allowed at home, but with cameras at the door). Air traffic is at a minimum. International routes have been jibarized. Ticket prices are astronomical (a tourist seat from the EU exceeds 2,000 euros, one way). And getting on a plane is reminiscent of a lottery: flights are canceled if positive cases are detected on previous journeys, which happens frequently.
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The air journey indicates that one is at the door to another way of understanding the virus: the entire crew is completely covered by a white jumpsuit, head, hands and feet included, as well as goggles and a protective screen. They walk around with a pistol thermometer. The food is offered in hermetic bags. Every time someone enters the bathroom, they immediately go to clean it.
Upon landing in China, the airport is desolate, people with PPE (personal protective equipment) are seen spraying disinfectant, a Starbucks is closed like an archaeological remains, people are spoken to remotely through screens to reduce contact, they ask for abundant QR codes —the aseptic bureaucracy of this time— and 10 minutes after setting foot on the ground you are already moving through a corridor enveloped in a mist of disinfectant until you reach a booth where you open your mouth for your first PCR.
The massive lockdowns decreed this spring in huge cities like Shanghai, lasting more than two months, have contributed to the disconnection. Between January and May this year, international flight ticket sales plummeted in China, to 97% below 2019 levels, according to the International Air Transport Association. Before the summer, Beijing announced the relaxation of restrictions and the reopening of air routes. But on any given day, July 26, there were only 94 international flights between China and the rest of the world, down from 2,883 on the same day in 2019, according to Bloomberg.
Stampede of foreigners
Faced with the situation, many resident foreigners have chosen to undertake the return journey. The figures of the stampede are significant. Spaniards settled in China have gone from about 10,000 10 months ago to about 6,000 today, an exodus of 40%, according to data handled by the Spanish Embassy in the country. The big question is why Beijing persists in the task of tending to zero cases. The consequences are severe in a year in which the Chinese government estimates economic growth at around 5.5%, the lowest since 1990 (if the fateful 2020 is excluded), although there are already analysts who narrow the forecasts to 3% .
“The Chinese government has decided to control the virus to an extent that no big country has,” says Suerie Moon, co-director of the Center for Global Health at the Institute for International and Development Studies in Geneva. “From a purely health point of view, this approach has been very successful, if you don’t take into account other social or economic costs, which are enormous and increasing. Is it worth it?” she muses. “It is clear that for those who make the decisions the answer is yes.”
Since 2020, China has added 6.4 million cases of covid and 24,836 deaths, as reported by the authorities to the WHO (figures that some virologists question). It is one of the States with the lowest rate of deaths and infections on the planet (only Spain doubles the cases and more than quadruples the deaths; the US exceeds one million deaths). And more than 3.5 billion vaccines have been administered. Even so, it continues to cling to the tactic of massive testing and closure to a minimum: these days there have been chaotic scenes in the city of Chengdu, in the interior of the country, when the authorities announced that they were proceeding to isolate its 21 million inhabitants .
In March, shortly before the lock was tightened on Shanghai, President Xi defined the strategy at a conference of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party, the highest commanding body: “We must always adhere to the supremacy of the people and life , adhere to scientific, precise and dynamic cleaning, and stop the spread of covid outbreaks as soon as possible.”
In practice: it’s your eleventh sunrise in China when you’re finally released from the hotel, you walk down gloomy plastic-coated corridors, the air blows cold, other people emerge from the doors dragging suitcases as if waking up from hibernation, you’re handed a file of papers with the results of seven PCR tests (you have already added 10 in 13 days), you get into a vehicle and on the way to Beijing you go through a police checkpoint on the highway, which claims the file, scrutinizes it and finally gives the go-ahead .
You enter Beijing only to discover the second line of defense: healthcare apps, tools that guide almost every act of life, and which some critics view with concern for their control potential. Only those who show the green color on their mobile after scanning a QR are authorized to enter shops, restaurants or use public transport. To obtain the safe-conduct, a negative PCR is required in the last 72 hours (or less, for places like hospitals), so testing has become daily. In the streets of the city, small kiosks have proliferated like mushrooms where citizens come orderly, open their mouths, leave their sample, and continue with their lives for another three days. It is the first thing one has to do upon arrival: the essential requirement to feel like a citizen again.
Wang Xiangwei’s truncated vacation
Wang Xiangwei, a veteran political journalist based in Beijing, has considerable anger. “I firmly believe that the measures should be adapted to reality,” he claims over the phone. Wang wrote a harsh column this week in the Hong Kong daily China South Morning Post (of which he was director a few years ago) questioning the “extreme measures to suppress covid” and denouncing “how fragmented and chaotic the country’s bureaucratic command structure continues to be.”
He had just suffered in his flesh the severe health policies on the island of Hainan, where he went to spend the holidays with his family. It was the first time she had taken a break outside of Beijing since the start of the pandemic. He was only able to enjoy a few days: shortly after, cases began to rise in the area and the authorities decreed confinements, leaving thousands of people unable to leave, wandering between hotels and doing one PCR after another, waiting for the health application of the phone would turn green. He took 23 days to return to Beijing.
Wang concedes that the usual argument of the authorities of the People’s Republic, that they have done an “excellent job” in containing the covid, was valid in 2020 and 2021. Not anymore. “The virus has changed: it has become more contagious, but it has lost strength.” Beijing, on the other hand, has not changed. There has been a progressive relaxation of the measures, such as the recent announcement by the authorities that visas for foreign students are being granted again. But the journalist does not expect a significant transformation before the “change of the political cycle”, after the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, the great five-year event in which President Xi Jinping is expected to extend his mandate until 2027.
In his column, Wang also charges against the “worrying” use of health apps as a tool of social control, the use of which could go beyond the pandemic. “I find it hard to believe that Chinese officials would relinquish these powers,” she says over the phone. In his column, he highlighted how the authorities in Henan province “tampered” with these applications in June by “issuing false red codes” to contain citizen protests related to a banking crisis.
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