The Chinese city that covid forgot
mef Jane, in some parallel universe, allowed to vote on his “zero-covid policy”, the “course of change” camp would gain ground. Fighting new strains of covid-19 ahead of a winter surge in infections, officials have imposed partial lockdowns in cities from Xining in the west to Fuzhou in the south. Restaurants have closed, schools have gone online, access to food shops has been limited and millions of people have been thrown into some kind of lockdown, many for the second or third time.
“Closed loop” policies that seal factory workers in production sites and fenced-in dormitories have also come under public scrutiny. Videos on social media have shown workers climbing fences and fleeing on foot down busy roads to escape a virus at the world’s largest iPhone factory, run by Foxconn. an electronic giant from Taiwan, near the city center of Zhengzhou. Amid an outcry from Chinese netizens, Foxconn offered bonuses to workers who stay at their jobs. Zhengzhou authorities declared the latest covid variants mild and not to be feared.
Unfortunately, such promises are at odds with the grim, war-time mood that grips other parts of China. Smartphone images have gone viral of white riot police beating citizens who defy restrictions to buy food or medicine for their families. Guards have also prevented sick people from reaching hospitals. A baby died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the northwestern city of Lanzhou after being held up at quarantine checkpoints.
Censors have more luck suppressing bad news from remote areas. Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, has endured more than two and a half months under lockdown, sparking rare street protests. Xinjiang, a heavily policed northwestern region, has been battling an uprising since the summer, leaving residents hungry and desperate. With both regions effectively closed to outsiders and most travel out of Xinjiang banned since early October, their plight is little known in China. That is certainly the case among Chinese who trust news coverage by state television. Last week the main night TV news program, Xinwen Lianbo, has shown graphic images of death, speeding ambulances and patients in intensive care. None of these gloomy views came from China. They were the result of a bridge collapse in India, a Halloween stampede in South Korea and the covid pandemic in America: all part of a concerted effort to portray China as a center of order in a fearful world. Xinwen Lianbo covers covid in China just at a glance, with a simple graphic showing case numbers each night.
As more Chinese grow weary of the zero-covid policy and the economy slows, some investors and other outsiders appear confident that China will have to join the rest of the world soon and prepare to live with the virus. Share prices of Chinese companies staged a multi-billion dollar rally on November 1 on the strength of an unsubstantiated rumor of a new pandemic policy committee. Such wishful thinking puts too little emphasis on the disorder that would follow, if covid was left to run through a country with enough vaccination without herd immunity and weak hospitals. It also adds to the importance, for party leaders, of cities protesting on social media. Zero-covid is a numbers game. If everywhere was as unhappy as Zhengzhou, party leaders would take notice. But China has more than 100 cities with at least one million inhabitants. At any given time, most are not under a hard lock.
Seeking the starkest contrast with his home in covid-obsessed Beijing, Chaguan traveled 1,300km (800 miles) south to Jingdezhen. This sleepy city of 1.6m people in the forested mountains of Jiangxi province may hold China’s record for pandemic luck, finding no cases for the past 33 months. Jingdezhen is strict about testing new arrivals to its airport and train station. But once a visitor is inside the city, the epidemic feels far away. Jaw agape, your columnist joined hundreds of masked locals gathering in People’s Square on a weekend evening as they danced in formation, overlooking children who ‘ riding a scooter or climbing a dragon-headed climber: scenes of unimaginable freedom elsewhere in China.
The good and bad of life in a backwater
Jingdezhen made pottery for emperors. Now locals are suggesting they are protected from covid by being off the beaten track. The town attracts very few migrant workers. Residents see a trade-off in that isolation. Business is bad, says a woman selling porcelain at a street market: the pandemic is keeping tourists from traveling. She has seen videos of America looking normal on social media, so she knows covid deaths have fallen there. But she does not question the government’s policies. “We Chinese follow instructions from above,” she says. “Whatever they ask of us is for our own good, isn’t it?”
For more than ten years Jingdezhen’s porcelain studios, low rent and rustic charm have attracted young artists and those who want to enjoy a “flat lay” and quiet life. Some refuse to take covid seriously. The barista in a hipster cafe jokes, “Jindezhen is so poor, even the virus can’t be bothered to come here. ” Another cafe owner, wearing a tweed jacket and indigo-dyed cravat, insists that Chinese in gridlocked cities have plenty to eat and drink, and maybe even relax at the house “What’s there to be sorry about?” he asks.
Not all are so wise. In a nearby studio, a young European-trained ceramicist is “very sympathetic” to Chinese permanent locks. He moved to Jingdezhen from Shanghai after that city’s long quarantine this spring. Now he worries about cities or areas that are not so well known with very few young people. Their suffering is untold on social media. He suggests that many Chinese lead atomistic lives: “Many things are unimaginable to them unless they happen to them personally.”
Party leaders should be relieved to hear such fatalism. After all, they work hard to stop ordinary Chinese from knowing too much about conditions elsewhere in the country. Disaffected people can vote with their feet, like those who choose to get out of the pandemic in peaceful Jingdezhen. No further plebiscite will be offered to them. ■
Read more from Chaguan, our China columnist:
China and America barely on speaking terms, despite crisis (October 27)
No turning back for Xi Jinping (October 17th)
The dark side of Chinese pop culture (October 13th)