One day early in February, I stepped out of my apartment building to find that a security guard had set up a desk and pitched a tent. He was, he told me, to take every resident’s temperature as we went in and out. It was easy to walk around his tent, so I ignored him. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. A few days later, newly assembled fences ensured that everyone had to pass by him. And a few days after that, he issued us all entry cards that we had to flash every time we walked through.
Restrictions of this type on daily life have been in place in Beijing for the past two months. Someone now takes my temperature not only when I enter my own apartment building but also when I enter every shop and restaurant, my office, and on certain commercial roads. Security guards check entry cards at every apartment building and hutong (narrow lane) entrance, making it difficult to invite in friends or guests. At first, people could congregate in bars and restaurants. Recent regulations made that more difficult, limiting the number of people allowed at a table and barring them from sitting face-to-face.
These restrictions remain in place as Beijing is gradually coming back to life. After a two-month lockdown that has been, in the words of one law professor, “astounding, unprecedented, and medieval,” the official number of new COVID-19 cases has diminished to almost zero.
As the flowers have started to bloom, the city is starting to look as it does every springtime. The improvement is not sudden. Instead, it’s been a week-by-week process of seeing a few more restaurants and stores operating again, traffic and public transportation usage steadily grow, and folks developing the confidence to go about daily life.
Two months ago, President Xi declared that the coronavirus outbreak would be met with a “people’s war.” The term was one of Mao’s core ideas, demanding mobilization of the whole population to smash an invading force through guerrilla maneuvers. The state subsequently launched a gargantuan effort to contain the virus. The country simultaneously pressed the initiative and acted like it was in a state of siege.
The state reshaped the city. A leading actor whom I last saw starring in an Audi ad turned up on a poster discouraging people from eating wild game. Underemployed men put on security-guard uniforms to receive temperature scanners as well as the authority to turn away people without entry cards from entering residential compounds. Bright-red big-character posters proclaiming the need to build a socialist society were replaced with ones urging people to wash hands and stay indoors. Retirees used to gossiping on street corners were tasked with yelling at people to put on masks. Beijing’s already considerable infrastructure of human surveillance and political education was ramped up by an order of magnitude.
The state switched on social distancing. There was no need for weeks of educating people about the need to stay at home — the 2003 SARS epidemic remained in living memory for most people. The authorities didn’t hesitate to shut down movie theaters and attractions like the Forbidden City in late January, a peak consumption period when the country celebrated Lunar New Year. People stayed home: I’ve heard friends say that they’ve not left their apartment for six weeks. Offices set quotas for how many people could be at work.
Mask wearing quickly became universal. In a public park, I furtively took off my mask when I saw no staff around. Speakers on a ranger’s car then came to life, blaring at me to put it back on. Today, most retail stores have a sign declaring that entry requires wearing a mask. Friends have told me that they now feel almost naked if they’re walking barefaced in public. It’s not an uncommon sight to see people wearing not just masks and gloves but also goggles.
The state enforced strict quarantines. Starting in late January, it severed many transportation links, preventing migrant workers from getting back home. (Today, there are still a few million of them who haven’t returned to the cities.) It required anyone who entered Beijing to self-quarantine for 14 days, enforced by the new residential security guards. Anyone who returned from outside the city might have a sticker posted on their apartment implicitly encouraging neighbors to check that they weren’t out and about. Friends and I decided to cancel a weekend skiing trip to the nearby site of the 2022 Winter Olympics for fear that crossing Beijing’s city limits would require a quarantine afterward.
The state prioritized delivery services. The State Council, the highest organ of government, released several pieces of guidance to promote the smooth delivery of goods. Surely it’s one of the few times that humble delivery workers like truck drivers and couriers received explicit policy support. Home delivery worked well. Everything I ordered from jd.com, one of the two major e-commerce retailers, was delivered the next morning. Couriers no longer came to our apartment door but dropped off meals and packages at the entrance of the apartment compound, now under the watchful eye of our new guards.
The state coordinated food provisions. A marvel over this period was that supermarkets stayed normal. Everything was well stocked — including toilet paper — and I didn’t find the fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat sections ever to be lacking. The government released 300,000 tons of pork from the strategic pork reserves and requisitioned trucks once used to deliver electronics for vegetable delivery. When citizens expressed concerns after various countries started to impose export controls on food, a government spokesperson quickly came out to say that the country’s grain reserves were more than sufficient. That perhaps failed to reassure everyone, as one day I saw that one of my neighbors had started a tiny vegetable plot downstairs.
The state expanded surveillance systems. Certain malls and restaurants began to require me to scan a QR code, and the result would display whether I’d left Beijing in the last 14 days based on data from my mobile carrier. AliPay, Alibaba’s payments app, created a health code status that flashes red, yellow, or green based on self-reported health data and travel history. Many commercial buildings were equipped with a camera that scans everyone’s infrared signal at the entrance. Still, the most effective sort of surveillance has been the low-tech solution: a man sitting outside one’s residential compound, recording movements with pen and paper.
The state enlisted the help of tech companies. The central government tried to ensure that everyone could order food and goods to home. Meituan-Dianping, one of the main food-delivery apps, attached the temperature reading of my cook and courier on my bag. The mapping services made it easy to find the nearest hospital that handles coronavirus cases. They did their share of propaganda too by urging people to go for testing, and by urging people to stay home, and by going black and white on a day of mourning in April.
Most important in this war, the state mobilized resources to the front. After announcing a nationwide lockdown, the government started moving resources to Wuhan and the province of Hubei. According to state media, the country deployed 40,000 medical professionals to Wuhan, a significant proportion of which came from the army. It constructed two new hospitals and put up 16 temporary hospitals, which were converted from stadiums and convention centers. Automakers and electronics assemblers retooled their factories, quadrupling mask production to over 100 million a day.
Containment and treatment measures in Wuhan were extreme. It started with testing. The most common one involved swabs for a nucleic-acid test, which a director at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences estimated to accurately identify infection in only 30 to 50 percent of cases. Since China started to ship tests overseas, many incredulous countries have rejected them as faulty or unreliable. Yet they were probably the same tests that Chinese authorities felt comfortable using on their own people. Especially in the early days, the government combined both liberal testing and a low index of suspicion to err on the side of excessive containment.
On February 1, ten days after Wuhan’s lockdown, the health authorities initiated a much more intrusive testing and quarantine system. Instead of permitting home quarantines, which guarantees the spread of the virus to an entire family, the government pried away anyone who tested positive into designated facilities. These were temporary hospitals converted from stadiums and convention centers. People who tested positive and had symptoms were sent to special hotels. Close contacts of confirmed or suspected cases were sent to hotels or college dorms. Severe and critical cases made it to hospitals with ICUs. The most comprehensive academic study has found that these centralized quarantine measures brought down the virus’s estimated reproductive number from 3.86 to 0.32.
In recent weeks, the US and other nations in the west have developed skepticism around China’s numbers. My view is that it’s highly plausible that the official numbers understate both confirmed cases and deaths by a large degree. But everyone has had data issues, and while I am not working of any exclusive insight, only my own observation and conversations, I don’t believe that these numbers are off by many orders of magnitude. The government imposed a lockdown that was extraordinary, across the entire country, and has not much relaxed over the last two months. It’s also unlikely that the state never wrestled the epidemic under control, or we’d have heard from doctors and patients in overwhelmed hospitals. There might have been many more deaths than officially reported, but the trend of recovery feels real.
The state came close to declaring a victory in mid-March when President Xi made a trip to Wuhan. On the same day, the city announced the closure of all 16 temporary hospitals. And in late March, Hubei announced that it would allow residents of Wuhan to leave so long as they tested negative. It’s not victory in the whole war, however, only in a major battle. The state is still proclaiming that people need to be vigilant against new waves of infections.
Beijing has so far lifted few of the restrictions on daily life. In fact, it has tightened them. As the imperial center of the entire Chinese civilization, an outbreak in Beijing is politically intolerable. Other cities, I hear, have been more active in relaxing controls, but the central authorities are still not letting up. Starting in mid-March, everyone flying into Beijing from abroad has had to quarantine in designated hotels at their own expense. Subsequently, the country suspended entry of nearly all foreigners.
There’s a limit, of course, to how far one can stretch the analogy of war. Instead of mobilizing to the front to face down an enemy, most people merely had to stay at home. They struggled not with bullets but with boredom, marital strife, and childcare. They entertained themselves at home and posted their videos to TikTok. They read the diary entries of people in quarantine, especially those by Fang Fang, a novelist in Wuhan. They followed along the tale of a trucker from Hubei, who was continuously driven away by people frightened by his license plate and who consoled himself by writing poetry on the highway: “A truck drifting through the world, the rivers and lakes behind me. My home is still not in sight.” He wept when he finally came to a town that gave him food and a bed 500 miles from home.
The city was quiet over the month of February. Most stores and restaurants were closed, and my personal trainer was stuck three provinces away. I entertained myself by cycling around a nearly empty city. I’d always been mortified to admit that I never properly learned how to ride a bike. With the encouragement of kind and patient friends, I’ve cycled to the Olympic Village and the Temple of Heaven. Beijing turns out to be a wonderful place for cyclists, with flat roads and wide bike lanes. The economic shutdown has meant that there were many more blue-sky days in a period normally smoggy from winter heating. Learning to ride a bike isn’t as grand as writing King Lear during the Black Death or working out the foundations of calculus during the Great Plague, but I’m proud to have picked up a concrete skill during this pandemic.
For the most part, people around the world ignored the virus while China was going through agony. The world watched the Chinese government impose an extraordinary shutdown on Wuhan (and a lighter one throughout the country) with curiosity, not a sense of impending dread. Americans went on with their lives. The S&P 500 continued to make new highs. After imposing an early travel ban on foreign nationals who had recently been in China, President Trump ignored the virus or dismissed it as a hoax.
The turning point came suddenly. Over the weekend of February 21, news reports revealed that Iran and South Korea were struggling with their own outbreaks. Only then did the markets start to fall. At the time of writing, the number of confirmed cases in the world has crossed over 1 million, with around 440,000 of them in the United States.
In a book or movie, this would be the point in the story at which countries set aside their differences to work together. But the buzzwords of the last year have been “decoupling” and “great-power competition.” So far in this tale, the U.S. and China have both chosen to engage in mutual recrimination instead of collaboration.
The outbreak was entangled in a political narrative from the very beginning. As China began to be engulfed in crisis, commentators jumped in to present the outbreak as an indictment of its political system in toto. This coronavirus is a curious disease: fatal for certain people but capable of presenting asymptomatically in others. Just as it lulled the Hubei authorities into acting too slowly, it lulled many people into declaring it to be no worse than the seasonal flu. Media publications then took license to wheel out political scientists to diagnose the failures of authoritarian regimes, rather than medical professionals to warn the public about the coming health crisis.
There’s no getting around the fact that the authorities in charge of Wuhan and Hubei made a disastrous set of decisions that allowed the virus to spread. Local authorities delayed warning the public to ensure the smooth operation of a relatively unimportant political conference. Instead of shutting down large events and ordering social distancing, it congregated people around an enormous potluck. Most egregiously, it silenced early whistle-blowers in the medical community. The best-known case is of Dr. Li Wenliang, whom the police summoned in and admonished for “spreading rumors.” The doctor subsequently contracted the virus and died in early February. Anger at the news was swift and broad, exacerbated perhaps by the intense restrictions on daily life.
Mistakes, however, weren’t unique to China. Governments all over the world have repeated them, sometimes adding their own twists. The U.S. might never have admonished a whistle-blower. But the political elite, even the White House, downplayed the virus out of electoral concerns. U.S. authorities have hesitated to implement containment measures for fear of hurting the economy, failed to elevate health experts into positions of power, and have still not adequately ramped up testing and containment. Official reluctance to induce panic and hurt the economy has been a universal tendency across governments, and the result was far worse for Hubei having given into it.
The characteristics of the coronavirus itself made an effective response difficult. It’s both highly contagious and unevenly lethal, and the prevalence of asymptomatic transmission makes it difficult to contain. After a hesitant early response by the local authorities, the Chinese central government moved decisively. Beijing locked down Wuhan two weeks after a January 7 Politburo meeting, which is the first known date that the central government had been aware of the virus. While the West had weeks to observe deaths piling up in Hubei, the Chinese central government acted far more quickly and in more uncertain conditions. It also moved politically by giving the sack to the party secretaries in charge of Wuhan and Hubei, delivering a warning to other provincial officials that they could not engage in cover-ups.
The mood started to shift when China appeared to successfully stabilize the growth of new cases. By early March, China looked like a haven of stability, while the situation was a mess in the U.S. and Europe. People who fled the country in January suddenly expressed the desire to be back. That sense was strongest with overseas Chinese students, who watched with disbelief at how the U.S. and European governments made few attempts at containment. People felt that they might be safer in China. At this point, tens of thousands of Chinese have returned from overseas.
As the outbreak became a global pandemic, my friends in Beijing first expressed bewilderment that the rest of the world refused to take this virus seriously. They couldn’t help feeling that the U.S. was happier to watch China’s miseries and score political points than to prepare for a crisis. Asian-Americans tended to practice social distancing early on, while most of the rest of the U.S. made no alterations to daily life. The Trump administration played no small role in that nonchalance. The messages coming from the White House varied among the president’s statements that the virus “like a miracle will disappear,” the advisers who declared that it was contained, and the words of the hawks who said that China was culpable for unleashing a crisis on the world.
My friends then expressed surprise at how poorly the U.S. had handled the outbreak. One of them texted me that he thought that the democratic system would do a better job of communicating to the public. Another cited the superior scientific and medical infrastructure. At the time of writing, the U.S. has still not adequately ramped up testing capacity. It’s now fairly well understood in China that the centralized quarantine system works, but there’s little evidence that the West has begun implementing the measures that Wuhan started to deploy on February 1. I’m personally surprised at the extent to which bureaucracy and legal issues have tied up the American response. The U.S. has become an extremely inflexible society that cannot even move patients in New York onto a Navy medical ship.
In China, people reacted with outrage when they saw that Trump had deliberately crossed out “coronavirus” and replaced it with “Chinese virus.” It came across immediately as a racist attack, the damage done even if he has reportedly sworn off using the term. People here are perhaps less aware that the U.S. government decided to adopt the more offensive language only after a deputy spokesperson at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs promoted a bizarre conspiracy theory that somehow U.S. athletes brought the virus to Wuhan in October.
I worry that a substantial portion of the Chinese population has committed to the idea that Americans have introduced the virus. Instead of accepting the reality that this virus spread from Wuhan, and confidently embracing the successful containment strategy, the Chinese government has antagonized other countries. While China has shared health expertise and exported medical equipment, it hasn’t been able to refrain from bullying tactics.
A touchy regime even at the best of times, China decided to expel three Wall Street Journal reporters over an insensitive virus-related headline in the editorial pages. The U.S. then took the chance to raise the stakes. In mid-February, the State Department designated five Chinese state-media publications as “foreign missions,” on par with embassies, and subsequently demanded that they shed 60 of their 160 staff in the U.S. China retaliated by expelling 13 American reporters from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. Since then, the two countries have put a pause on escalations, but it’s still stunning that they entered into a diplomatic crisis at precisely the moment it was most important to work together.
From China’s perspective, its brutal controls have worked, while the enlightened modern countries that have refused to implement strict measures have become a mess. The task is now to preserve the domestic situation, and nothing is more fitting with the Chinese spirit than to keep out foreign bad elements.
For the last several weeks, the official statistics report that the growth in confirmed cases has been driven almost entirely by imported cases from abroad. That fact has given ordinary people the license to blame foreigners, even though the government data is clear that these imported cases are made up overwhelmingly of Chinese nationals. A viral video showed an Australian woman of Chinese descent being flip toward police, after she jogged outside without a mask when she should have been in home quarantine. After people shared it around, her employer, Bayer, terminated her and the Chinese government revoked her visa to stay in the country. State media claimed that these decisions were met by broad approval.
At the same time as Asian-Americans report being harassed in the U.S., I see more anecdotal cases that foreigners are facing similar issues in China. One can find stories of Caucasians or Africans being refused entry into certain businesses and of being abused on the streets. As a Canadian citizen of Chinese descent who grew up in the U.S., I don’t worry much about blatant harassment, but wonder if I might ever have trouble checking into a hotel.
Meanwhile in the U.S., more voices have issued ominous calls for a “reckoning” with China after this virus is under control. It’s not clear what it could mean, but I suspect that there wouldn’t be such calls if the U.S. took the virus a bit more seriously, as the rest of China did after late January. The worse the situation looks in the U.S., the more interested people have become at China’s early missteps, as opposed to making greater demands on the U.S. government. Beijing is getting back on its feet, as the weather warms, as the trees recover their leaves, and as people get back to their daily lives, albeit with a mask on. It’s hard, however, to be broadly hopeful. The U.S. and China look set to emerge from this crisis not with warmer feelings toward each other but with vengefulness instead.
Dan Wang is the technology analyst at an economic research firm based in Beijing. His website is danwang.co, and you can follow him on Twitter @danwwang.