China Brief

Wuhan Is Going Under Quarantine

Chinese officials have suspended travel from the epicenter of the new coronavirus as the Lunar New Year travel season kicks into high gear.

Security officials check the temperature of passengers in Wuhan, China, on Jan. 22.
Security officials check the temperature of passengers in Wuhan, China, on Jan. 22. Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s weekly China Brief. The highlights this week: Wuhan goes under quarantine for the new coronavirus ahead of the Lunar New Year, Huawei’s CFO is fighting her extradition to the United States, and Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam appears at Davos.

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Travel Suspended From Wuhan as Lunar New Year Kicks Off

Wuhan, China’s seventh-largest city, will be under effective quarantine from 10 a.m. Chinese time on Thursday, the government has announced (link in Chinese). The move is an attempt to contain the Wuhan coronavirus, which causes pneumonia and has spread with worrying speed. Buses, train, and flights out of the city will be canceled, and the city’s 11 million people have been told not to travel without special reason. The quarantine goes into effect as the Lunar New Year travel season kicks off, raising fears of contagion.

The scale of the virus, first reported on Dec. 31, is growing, as shown below. Today, Chinese official figures confirmed 544 cases and 17 deaths, and the numbers are rising daily. In China, that could be the tip of the iceberg: The virus appears to have a long incubation period—eight to 10 days—and has likely spread further. Several deaths from pneumonia appear to have gone officially uncounted, dismissed as the flu. Five other countries, including the United States, have reported cases—all individuals traveling from central China.

The Spread of the Wuhan Coronavirus

Total Numbers and Dates Per Government Reports

Source: Reuters, AP, Al Jazeera, and Government Reports

Hard decisions. As the number of cases climbs, the Wuhan government’s initial response has come under scrutiny. For nearly three weeks, fewer than 50 cases of the virus were reported—which now looks more like a cover-up similar to the reaction to SARS in 2002-2003. That doesn’t mean that the Chinese government is lying now. It has at the very least acknowledged the crisis and threatened anyone who covers up new cases.

For the decision-makers at the top, weighing the need for control measures against the desire to avoid panic is tough. After the Wuhan quarantine, expect more restrictive steps in the next few days. For lower-level officials, the priority is avoiding blame—which at this point could mean implementing stronger measures at the local level, like travel restrictions. But if the Wuhan quarantine is extended to other cities during the Lunar New Year travel period, it is likely to cause widespread fear and disruption. 

Cancel your trips. Until the situation is clearer, it’s probably not a good idea to travel to China. The primary worry here isn’t the virus itself; it’s that travel restrictions or quarantine could be imposed suddenly. During the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009, some travelers were stranded for up to a week—and the Wuhan coronavirus looks more serious.

What We’re Following

Festival overshadowed. The Lunar New Year is on Jan. 25, so those lucky enough to get time off early are already on their way home. For young, urban Chinese, the holiday is often more of a chore than a celebration, between the hassle of travel, relatives’ interrogations, and working extra to compensate for time off. But for older people and migrant workers, the Lunar New Year is a rare chance to spend time with family—a joyous occasion marked by banquets, fireworks, and temple fairs.

The Wuhan coronavirus has cast a pall over that. Fireworks and public gatherings in cities have already been restricted in the last few years. Officials nervous about contagion may impose further limits, while fears of the virus could keep people indoors. Migrant workers, who could face an even harder time getting home than usual, will be the worst off, especially if they come from near Wuhan or have been working there. Already some villages have asked workers from Wuhan not to return home.

“Protesters” show up for Huawei CFO. Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou appears in court this week in Vancouver, Canada, to fight her extradition to the United States on fraud charges. But what seems to have been a propaganda attempt to support her went badly wrong. Students and actors were recruited online to “protest” on behalf of Meng and paid 150 Canadian dollars (around $114). Some believed they were extras in a movie scene. It’s not certain who was behind the plan, which fell apart when reporters tried to interview the protesters. Chinese state television broadcasted the images without question.

Pajama problems. Local Chinese officials issued a rare apology this week after public outcry over the use of facial recognition technology to name and shame people for going out in their pajamas. Wearing pajamas in public is common in urban neighborhoods where homes are small, shops and bathhouses are close, and the street is a shared space—the kind of areas that the government has tried hard to destroy. Pajama-shaming by officials, who see it as “uncivilized,” goes back to the 1920s but picked up ahead of the 2008 Olympics out of concerns for public image.

Tech and Business 

Carrie Lam appears at Davos. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam made an appearance at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, where she attempted to defend her record and reassure the business elite that Hong Kong is still a place worth doing business. Lam blamed unspecified “propaganda” for the protests, echoing mainland authorities’ attempts to pin the democracy movement on foreign interference. A common belief among young Hong Kongers is that their business elites have sold them out to China to preserve their privilege: Lam’s appearance at Davos isn’t likely to change their minds.

China’s bull market slows. Chinese stocks were on a high ahead of the Lunar New Year, but the Wuhan coronavirus crisis has stopped that run. Given the degree of government interference, there’s always a doubtful relationship between Chinese stocks and market realities, but events can nonetheless intervene. Pharmaceuticals stocks are soaring, including shares for antibiotic manufacturers, which can’t fight viruses like this one.

Growing suspicion in U.S. tech. Chinese engineers in U.S. firms have long complained about an effective glass ceiling for Chinese workers. In recent years, increasing suspicion of Chinese industrial espionage—and growing FBI restrictions—has cast a chill across the tech sector, with some firms sectioning off their China teams. The dilemma is the same as with U.S. universities: How can you attract talent and maintain security?

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What We’re Watching 

Nowhere to Call Home: A Tibetan in Beijing

This film about the reporter Jocelyn Ford’s friendship with a Tibetan migrant worker and her son was made in 2014, but it is currently on tour again in the United States. It is a gripping narrative that remains one of the single greatest accounts of ethnicity, poverty, and women’s status in China of the decade. It’s also a film that moves both Chinese audiences and Western ones.

That’s it for this week.

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James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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