Locked down in Beijing, I watched China beat back the coronavirus

Source: By Gerry Shih, Washington Post • Posted: Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Chinese residents wear protective masks as they do a dance exercise in the street on March 15 in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)Chinese residents wear protective masks as they do a dance exercise in the street on March 15 in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

BEIJING — The grocery stores were brimming with shoppers and produce. Around the corner, a line was forming outside a stall selling pillowy white steamed buns.

The gray, brick-lined alleys of this old imperial capital, deserted several weeks ago, were congested again by newly licensed drivers struggling to park their outsize Audis.

I knew then: Beijing was slowly, unmistakably, returning to normal.

Six weeks earlier, I had watched China shut itself down as the coronavirus epidemic first exploded in Wuhan, and then spilled across the country and beyond. For my work, I traveled around China, down empty boulevards, through empty airports, in empty train cars. I saw China’s whole economic machinery, from the curbside noodle shops to sprawling tech campuses, clank to a halt as the government pulled out every stop to contain the virus’s spread.

To help the nationwide social-mapping effort — and, I suspect, feed the government’s ever-growing appetite for personal data — I begrudgingly gave my mobile number to government workers at every train station, checked in via smartphone app to enter office buildings and recited my passport number just to eat at a rare restaurant that remained open.

By mid-February, the clampdown tightened further.

Checkpoints were erected in a grid layout at every intersection in central Beijing. Residential neighborhoods were sealed after 10 p.m. Like all travelers arriving from out of town after a brief excursion, I was placed in quarantine at home for 14 days.

I emerged in recent days, precisely at a moment when life was returning to Chinese streets while much of the West seemed to be spiraling into panic and chaos. For countless others and me, the tilting scales raised the question: Are China’s strict measures a model for the rest of the world?

The truth is, I don’t know.

What I have seen is that success in containing the epidemic has not been exclusive to authoritarian systems; it has been used in democratic governments in Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea that also appear to be heading for quick recoveries.

What I also see is that China and the other successful Asian countries seem to have a public buy-in — a vast scale of grass-roots mobilization and coordination at the highest levels, which, for all its faults, happen to be the Communist Party’s strengths.

Meet your friendly neighborhood committee

As restrictions on mobility tightened last month, the lowest unit of the Chinese government that I never paid attention to — the neighborhood committees — suddenly loomed large in my life. The first day of my quarantine, workers brought me inside a district office swarming with 20- and 30-something volunteers to collect information about my identity, my travel history, my workplace.

Other volunteers were assigned shifts around the clock outside, where they braved the cold in government-issue jackets to take temperatures and check travel permits for any person who entered the street block.

The neighborhood office promised that if I served my 14 days without incident, I, too, would get one of those prized permits that would let me enter my own neighborhood, but no others.

After a brief negotiation with the volunteers, we agreed on quarantine terms: I could walk to my apartment compound entrance to meet delivery boys, but they couldn’t come in and I couldn’t go out. A beefy volunteer with a shaved head and camouflage pants was supposed to enforce the rules at my gate.

In China, the entire system tightens up and then relaxes in an unending cycle as high-level officials issue edicts that are gradually ignored before they are replaced by new edicts. Like ocean tides pulled by the party’s gravity, this pattern applies to everything: Internet censorship, anti-corruption, bank lending.

One evening, when neighborhood controls appeared to be at a low ebb, I was surprised to find at my door a delivery boy who managed to stroll into my totally unguarded compound to drop off dinner. Later, a friend snuck up to our seventh floor walk-up — totally unannounced, of course.

Your phone app wants to hear from you

Days later, as Beijing officials announced a new wave of containment measures, the system revved up again. Camo Pants was again patrolling the compound entrance; my phone was again bombarded with automated text messages reminding me to report my daily temperature to the city government app called “Beijing Hearts Helping Each Other” that I hadn’t bothered to open for days.

As the quarantine wore on, it became bizarre to see videos on Twitter of people in other countries brawling over toilet paper and clearing out supermarket shelves even as my daily patterns settled into familiar, almost frictionless grooves.

Multiple times a day, I punched orders into e-commerce apps such as Meituan and Taobao and then walked out to meet delivery boys who brought me bok choy and lotus root, Norwegian salmon and lamb chops.

I ordered computer accessories to work from home and plumbing gear after my kitchen flooded. Cross-country deliveries often arrived at my gate within 72 hours. Most other orders showed up within one — yes, even toilet paper.

At home, I watched reports roll in from the United States that seemed like an eerie replay of what my colleagues and I filed from China weeks earlier: New York State locking down a whole region — a miniature Hubei. Gaping inadequacies in U.S. testing kits — just like in China. Trump administration officials delaying their response to the epidemic and misleading the public about its threat — ditto China’s national health authorities. The president hoping to suppress infections numbers and keep them “where they are” — very likely what happened in Wuhan.

Meanwhile in China, the country was recovering, and its state media was ramping up to let the world know it. But the propaganda narrative, which bore the hallmarks of President Xi Jinping and his ideology czar, Wang Huning, went beyond touting the effectiveness of China’s response after its central government snapped into gear in late January. It argued that China’s recovery was proof that the party’s efficient, authoritarian leadership was not only suitable, but in fact a superior model of governance.

China sings its praises

All of it glossed over the fact that the outbreak may have been averted or greatly curbed if it had been tackled earlier, or if whistleblowers had not been silenced. The state media reports extolling the results of China’s quarantine policies and its enormous sacrifice, while true, never mentioned studies like the one led by the University of Southampton — and co-written by a researcher at the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control — that estimated that 95 percent of all cases could have been avoided if containment measures had begun three weeks earlier.

As Chinese officials became mired in a high-profile spat with the United States by sowing doubt and fringe theories about the origins of the virus on Twitter, it seemed to distract from a moment when the world should be learning from China’s undeniable achievement: how it brought the epidemic under control, at least after its costly early mistakes.

After my quarantine ended a few days ago, I met up with friends in Beijing restaurants that were slowly reopening. The tables had turned, we all agreed.

A British friend said he was terrified to fly home after health authorities proposed allowing a huge proportion of Britons to become infected to acquire “herd immunity.” A friend with family in New York worried that his mother couldn’t buy a plane ticket to flee back to China because prices were skyrocketing. A third friend said she was bringing masks from China for relatives in California, where they were sold out.

It all reminded me of one morning before my quarantine, when I encountered two neighborhood aunties stretching in the winter sun. Echoing standard state media lines, they marveled at how China was triumphing over the virus but less competent governments were slipping into chaos.

Chattering in the boisterous tones of northern Mandarin and Xi-era nationalism, the “dama” ladies sounded a bit insensitive, even off-putting.

In retrospect, they were also right.