Trapped in a ‘Dead’ City: The Cost of China’s Zero-COVID Policy

By Eva Fu
Eva Fu
Eva Fu
China Reporter
Eva Fu is a New York-based writer for The Epoch Times focusing on U.S.-China relations, religious freedom, and human rights.
November 15, 2021 Updated: November 16, 2021

He may be short in years, but not so with his COVID-19 testing record.

At not quite 2 years of age, the boy was born at a time of great upheaval—in January 2020 at the start of the pandemic, just days after Beijing instituted lockdown policies following a weeks-long delay in admitting the severity of the outbreak.

Ever since around 3 months old, the toddler has been subjected to repeated virus testing. As of October, he has been through 74—once every three days in recent months—even when he spends most of his time at home and has little contact with the outside world.

The procedure has been frequent enough that he no longer cries at the sight of a medical worker, but readily opens his mouth, although the throat swab apparently makes him nauseated.

The toddler became a media sensation in the country after his father, a jade merchant from the southern border city of Ruili, China, posted a short clip of the child on the internet. Netizens adored him and joked about his meme-worthy look of resignation, with some commenting sympathetically that he probably sees more of the medical staff than he sees of his own friends.

Lighthearted as it may sound, the reality in his hometown is anything but.

Located in the southwestern corner of China, the remote town of Ruili, a gateway to Burma (Myanmar) famed for its jade and emeralds, has arguably some of the harshest pandemic policies yet seen.

Ruili has locked down its population of 280,000 people four times in the past year. With a total time under lockdown at more than 200 days and counting, the city has been brought to near paralysis.

Much of normal daily life has been paused as the city’s officials struggle to stamp out every infection, a policy that Beijing has insisted upon, even as much of the world has moved on to less restrictive containment measures.

During Halloween, around 34,000 visitors found themselves locked in Shanghai Disneyland until midnight to be checked for COVID-19, because of one positive case. Wuhan, Beijing, and Shanghai have called off marathons as the country battles the contagious Delta variant. Zhuanghe, a county in northeastern China, set all traffic lights to red on Nov. 4 to bar traffic over one reported infection, and a sudden lockdown in Inner Mongolia stranded nearly 10,000 tourists in a city with only 35,000 residents following the detection of local infections.

In Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, police in early November sent a text message to 82,000 residents warning them not to leave their homes. These people were designated as “companions in space and time,” a new term coined by authorities describing those who have stayed for more than 10 minutes in the same area as a COVID-19 positive case, or 30 hours cumulatively over a two-week period.

Amid all the zeal from authorities, the virus has stubbornly lingered. The latest round of outbreaks since Oct. 17 has so far been linked to 1,000 cases across 20 provinces, the largest number reported from China this year. While the country’s infection tally so far looks to be miraculously low compared to the rest of the world, residents and experts have questioned Beijing’s official figures, citing the regime’s coverup of the initial outbreak and others across the country, as well as the practice of downplaying bad news to preserve its image.

Zhong Nanshan, China’s top epidemiologist, concedes that the zero-COVID policy comes with a high cost, but insists that opening up would cost more.

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Security staff stand guard at the entrance of a residential area following COVID-19 cases in Zhangye in China’s Gansu Province, on Oct. 23, 2021. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The ‘City Is Dead’

Perhaps nowhere are the strains felt more keenly than in Ruili.

Movie theaters, gyms, jewelry stores, and barbershops have been shuttered, one after another, while locals, many turned out of work, found themselves barred from leaving the city. Conducting sales through livestreaming and the delivery of jade are on hold—measures that officials have said are necessary to restrict the flow of goods to tame the outbreak.

Ren Hua (a pseudonym), a jade trader and father, told state media The Paper that he has recorded a loss of more than 100,000 yuan (roughly $15,700) since the start of the pandemic, and probably has just enough to hang on for a few more months.

He’s hardly alone.

Like Ren and many other locals, He Xiuli (a pseudonym), a tutor, has been living on her savings for more than half a year while paying her mortgage. Her tutoring school also has become a casualty of Beijing’s crackdown on the education sector, and likely won’t come back even after the outbreak is over.

In March, local officials ordered a blanket ban on grocery stores, wholesale markets, and even street stands; they weren’t allowed to reopen until recently. As a result, black markets for vegetables have flourished. Farmers set up vendor stands during the wee hours of the night to sell their greens, and vanish before dawn, when local urban management officers would get to work and shoo them away.

When He gets to venture out during the day, there is little to see or do. Most retail stores she sees have gone dark. Every other street, there are houses sealed by mesh nets to keep people away.

“The entire city is dead,” she said. “You don’t see anyone.”

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A staff member is being given a nucleic acid test for COVID-19 at the gym of a company in Wuhan in China’s Hubei Province, on Aug. 5, 2021. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Mental Toll

He’s boyfriend lives in a separate village. With no place to work and having nothing else to do at home, he has been playing video games to kill time.

He’s sister teaches at a middle school in a neighboring county. Due to the school’s COVID-19 policies, she has had to live on campus since her students returned to school in August, even though her home is just a 20-minute drive and her child is not yet 2 years old. With her husband quarantined in the frontier town in Ruili, the child is left entirely to a grandmother’s charge and, to her mother’s dismay, seems to be forgetting her.

When He’s sister had a video chat with her child, the child paid little heed to her, instead toddling after the grandmother and calling her “mama.”

“She has been having a breakdown every few days, saying she’d better quit and go home,” He said of her sister.

The government has offered little to alleviate their pain, the residents said. For He, assistance from the state so far consists of a roughly 11-pound bag of rice, two buckets of cooking oil, a dozen eggs, and two packs of noodles. Ren, the jade seller, only got a pack of masks and a bottle of disinfectant. He’s boyfriend has gotten 1,000 yuan, the equivalent of about $157.

“Going through days and nights by yourself in the house—it’s a form of torment,” Lin Quan, who runs a jewelry business in Ruili and has a daughter at a university, told The Epoch Times.

“If I’m in jail, at least I know which day I can leave, right? And I don’t need to worry about finances,” he said. While in quarantine, ”you have to worry about everything—the elderly, your child, food, auto loans, home mortgage. … You’re not earning a penny, while being locked up in your room.”

Trapped

On Oct. 26, a man surnamed Jin jumped off the fourth floor of a Ruili hotel. Officials later said the man committed suicide over problems at work, although on Chinese social media and offline, many appeared unconvinced.

“It’s laughable,” said He. “We don’t even have work, how would there be work-related problems?”

Among many, there’s a growing feeling that they are being trapped, without knowing when—or if—their ordeals will ever come to an end.

Cheng Hao (a pseudonym), a barbershop owner who now gets one-third of the customers he had during pre-pandemic times, believes the government doesn’t have an answer either. The city, he noted, has twice changed top officials after they failed to keep infection numbers down.

“We are pretty much like waiting for death,” he told The Epoch Times.

Leaving Ruili is also no easy feat.

When the city reopened for a week in July, He wanted to go to the provincial capital Yunnan to find some work. She did two sets of throat and nasal swab tests (since officials declared the first set invalid for being one day too late). Despite petitioning multiple government departments, she couldn’t win the approval of officials to leave Ruili.

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Medical staff members conduct nucleic acid tests for the COVID-19 in Zhangye in China’s Gansu Province, on Oct. 23, 2021. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

In each neighborhood compound, only two applicants were allowed to leave Ruili each day, according to He and another Ruili resident.

“You could apply endlessly and still get told that there are hundreds of people queued up ahead of you,” He told The Epoch Times.

So she abandoned the effort.

“I thought it would get better if I waited a little longer,” she recalled thinking at the time. More than three months later, she’s still stuck in Ruili.

The city registered 49 cases from Oct. 1 to Nov. 13—a drop in the ocean compared to anywhere else in the world. But in China, such figures are intolerable.

The city’s predicament led Dai Rongli, who had been the city’s deputy major until 2018, to issue a plea on his personal blog last month, a bold move given that Chinese officials are usually careful never to contravene the Party line. In a candid essay titled “Ruili Needs Motherland’s Care,” Dai pressed authorities to restart manufacturing and trade and bring in mental health counselors.

“Each lockdown leads to another grave emotional and material loss; each battle against the virus adds another layer of grievance,” he wrote.

Dai’s essay went viral and brought Ruili to the national limelight. The current city mayor, Shang Labian, quickly dismissed it as Dai’s personal views, telling state media that “for the time being, Ruili doesn’t need” outside assistance.

The current vice mayor, Yang Mou, also defended the strict regulations as necessary.

“As long as Ruili hasn’t reduced the case numbers to zero, there’s a risk it could spread outside,” he told reporters on Oct. 29 in an apparent response to Dai’s essay.

But the pressure has kept growing. In early November, hundreds from Tunhong and Hemen, two villages in Ruili, gathered at village entrances asking to be let out.

“We need to live,” Ms. Li, who took part in the Tunhong protest, told The Epoch Times.

‘Self Deception’

With less than 100 days to go to the Beijing Winter Olympics, the regime has shown no signs of easing its zero-tolerance policy anytime soon.

A nationwide campaign is underway to vaccinate children as young as 3. A new travel curb from Beijing on Nov. 13 bars entry to anyone if their county discovered a single infection case over a two-week period.

The capital has lately prosecuted 19 for allegedly “posing hurdles and harm to outbreak prevention,” a criminal offense in China that’s punishable with seven years in prison.

The uncertainties of the outbreak have fanned panic buying in major Chinese metropolises, creating spectacles such as customers jostling for scarce products, hours-long checkouts, and shopping carts loaded with pig carcasses, videos circulating on social media in recent weeks show.

Nucleic Acid Test Positive In 7 Migrant Workers Found In Wuhan
People wear protective masks as they line up to pay in a supermarket in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, on Aug. 2, 2021. (Getty Images)

“It’s the commoners who are bearing the burden,” said Feng Chongyi, a professor on China studies at the University of Technology in Sydney. The officials will want to eliminate the infections down “at all costs” for the sake of themselves, told The Epoch Times.

“Any region where the virus breaks out, the local officials are at risk of losing their jobs,” he said.

Even some Chinese experts have lately conceded that the regime’s approach to the outbreak might be impractical.

Guan Yi, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, recently told Chinese media ifeng that “we probably lost our chance to reach the goal of getting to zero COVID.”

“Like the influenza A virus, whether people are happy or not, it will remain endemic among us for a long time,” he said in mid-October. The original interview has since been taken down.

As the country heads into its third year with the pandemic, some residents appear resigned to the ever-tightening control exercised by the one-party state.

“The so-called zero-COVID policy is basically self-deception,” Mr. Lin from the east-central city Zhengzhou told The Epoch Times. “During Zhengzhou’s August outbreak, the city committee secretary vowed to bring virus cases to zero by the end of the month … but even after they declared the city virus-free, the regulations remain as restrictive as before.”

Lin Yun, from the southern city Guangzhou, thinks the same.

“Whether or not they have achieved zero-COVID is up to the government,” he told The Epoch Times.

Gu Xiaohua and Luo Ya contributed to this report.

Eva Fu
China Reporter
Eva Fu is a New York-based writer for The Epoch Times focusing on U.S.-China relations, religious freedom, and human rights.