A woman wears a protective mask as she walks by Chinese flags  during the Lunar New Year and Spring Festival holiday in Beijing on Jan. 28.
A woman wears a protective mask as she walks by Chinese flags during the Lunar New Year and Spring Festival holiday in Beijing on Jan. 28. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Dispatch

How Virus Lockdown Orders Went From Xi Jinping to My Neighborhood Auntie

Virus quarantine measures have left hundreds of millions of people trapped indoors.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here and subscribe to our newsletters here.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic now known as COVID-19, China has split into hundreds of thousands of isolated cells. Across China, apartment complexes, villages, and whole cities closed themselves off to the world for weeks. At the height of the quarantine, I needed a ration ticket to go outside.

In a movie, there would have been loudspeakers all over town, blaring something like: “All citizens are confined to their homes by order of the district commissar.” In real-life China, new rules arrived like a rumor: Mrs. W, whose family I was visiting, got a text message from the company that runs her apartment building. These are the people you’d normally talk to about the plumbing or a squeaky elevator. Imagine your co-op board declaring martial law.

We did get the loudspeakers, eventually, but I’ll get to that later on.

In this city, quarantine came in two waves. The first lasted from Jan. 25 to Feb. 3. At that point, life was fraught but relatively normal. But from Feb. 5, true lockdown came and with it being confined to the house.

Who was really keeping us inside and why? I never really found out. I never really found out what the rules were, for that matter. But I can tell you what I saw myself and a bit of what I heard from friends.


A man wears a protective mask as he runs past red lanterns at a canceled Spring Festival event at a park in Beijing on Feb. 8.

A man wears a protective mask as he runs past red lanterns at a canceled Spring Festival event at a park in Beijing on Feb. 8. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The first wave

I was visiting friends in a city of about half a million in Zhejiang province for the Chinese New Year when state media first reported the scale of the outbreak on Jan. 25.

When we saw the outbreak reported as an emergency, we were relieved. It had been obvious for days that something very serious was happening in Wuhan, in the central province of Hubei, and that Lunar New Year travel was going to bring the problem to the rest of China. State media had played down the story, encouraging people to carry on with holiday plans and allowing the infection to spread.

I’d planned to return to my home in Beijing at the end of the week, but fearing infection on the train, I decided to stay longer.

The government sprang into action. Public health messages encouraged residents to take ordinary precautions: Stay indoors as much as possible, avoid crowded places, wear masks, and wash hands. We went outside for exercise and visited vegetable markets. On the whole, compliance seemed high—by the second or third day, almost everyone we saw wore a mask, and people gave each other a wide berth.

I saw pictures of red propaganda banners with messages like: “To eat together is to seek death. To visit relatives is to harm them.”

The same day, across China but especially in the provinces of Henan and Zhejiang near the epicenter, villages took quick action to stop people from gathering for traditional new year’s activities, including visiting relatives. They used strong language: I saw pictures of red propaganda banners with messages like: “To eat together is to seek death. To visit relatives is to harm them.”

On Jan. 30, we went out for a drive and saw our first checkpoints. On country roads, we also saw red banners with similar messages to those in the online images. Smaller checkpoints appeared at every village, housing compound, or cul-de-sac. These usually consisted of two people in yellow vests—often nondescript younger men but in other cases older people—and a folding table. At major intersections and at highway onramps and offramps, we had to pass larger checkpoints manned by four to five people wearing police uniforms or white lab coats. We were allowed to enter and walk around a larger town with a historic center and permitted to use the highway, both times after temperature checks, but were turned away from another village by a guard who appeared to think we were idiots to have gone for a pleasure drive.

We were mostly reassured by all this—maybe more so because it didn’t really affect us. Other places, especially villages, seemed to be panicking, closing themselves off to outsiders. Friends sent photos of bulldozers digging up the roads into villages. A few videos passed around online showed men with spears posted at village entrances as if they were trying to catch a werewolf.

Many places reportedly began searching for people who had escaped the quarantine and were hiding. Other banners we saw on social media carried messages like: “Those who have been to Hubei and do not report themselves are the enemy within.”

It was clear that there was no such thing as a national plan—just thousands upon thousands of local officials, businesses, and village heads scrambling to respond.

The tempo of response wasn’t set by the virus—if it were, Wuhan would have been quarantined before millions of people left for the Lunar New Year—but by messages from Beijing. As President Xi Jinping called for “boldness,” and then a few days later warned that those who did not show boldness would be punished and finally declared a “people’s war” on the virus, local governments moved from inaction to aggressive public health messaging to locking down most of China.

As often happens in China, they never got around to telling us what the rules were. We could see the roadblocks, and heard rumors of people being locked into, or out of, places, but were left guessing about what we were and weren’t allowed to do.

For the time being, we could still walk by the river. We noticed that the flower shops were closed, but they left funeral arrangements outside on an honesty box system. Other families were evidently more cautious: Sitting on our 16th-floor balcony one sunny afternoon, the air was suddenly cut by a young boy’s voice repeatedly howling: “I need to go out and play! I need to go out and play! I need to go out and play! I need to go out and play!”


Airport staff bid farewell to medical team members before their departure for Shiyan in Hubei province from Nanning, China, on Feb. 12.

Airport staff bid farewell to medical team members before their departure for Shiyan in Hubei province from Nanning, China, on Feb. 12. Xinhua/Zhou Hua via Getty Images

The second wave

It was around Feb. 3 that the government asked everyone in the city to stop going outside. In an online notice, the city government pleaded for people to stay indoors, suggesting that it would be best to send only one person out every other day, for under two hours. It concluded: “Staying indoors is your contribution to the Party and the Country.” But the message did not say that these measures were mandatory, and our evening walks by the river didn’t seem like much of a risk—especially because in the whole area around the city there were only four cases of the virus. We went out again, and nobody said anything.

But we started to notice mysterious barricades going up around neighboring housing compounds. From our 16th-floor window, they didn’t appear to be intended to block people but cars. It made us wonder what was coming next.

In the small Hubei city of Shiyan, under full quarantine, a friend told me that on the same day, the government also called for people to stop going outside. A poem was broadcast over local public address systems: “If you have a grain of rice, you can still avoid crowds. If you have one sprig of spring onion, you don’t need to shop for vegetables.”

Things changed again on Feb. 5. We were just about to go out for a walk when Mrs. W told us we weren’t allowed. She showed us a WeChat message from the property management company, explaining that staying indoors was now mandatory and that there was a new ticket system.

We were shocked—we simply couldn’t believe that the property management company could force us to stay inside. Our first impulse was to go downstairs and see if anyone stopped us—but Mrs. W was dead set against trying, warning that we would use all the tickets for the next few days, that we would all get in trouble. In the end, we didn’t make it to the elevator. A little later, we heard the tinny sound of a roving police car with an announcement on loop, repeating the city government’s pleading message from Feb. 3.

There was nowhere we could confirm this officially in print. The city government’s website boasted that it was working hard to fulfill Xi’s call to obstruct and treat and, again, pleaded for us to stay inside. The car-borne loudspeakers started to mention criminal penalties for “breaking the rules”—but no one ever told us any rules besides the property management company.

In the end, it wasn’t Xi or the city or the coronavirus or even the property management company that kept us inside on Feb. 5—it was Mrs. W. The fear that traveled down the system eventually became her fear of trouble with the local authorities, and she made sure that her children and I did what we were asked.


A Chinese worker wears a protective suit as he stands outside an office building in Beijing while checking people entering on Feb. 10.

A Chinese worker wears a protective suit as he stands outside an office building in Beijing while checking people entering on Feb. 10. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Staying in

Were they really enforcing the ticket system?

For three days, we sat by the window in the living room, trying to figure out what was happening outside. This turned into keeping score with pedestrians. A middle-aged woman wandering by the river was a point for us. A cop was a point for the tickets. When we stopped seeing people, we started counting cars. Mrs. W went to buy vegetables once and told us things were very strict.

With the city quiet, nature started to move back in. By the third day, the apartment was full of birdsong, even on the 16th floor. One day, an eagle flew by outside.

Finally, on Feb. 8, we decided to try using a ticket. It was the Lantern Festival, the last day of the traditional Lunar New Year festival, and as it was getting dark, we took a new ticket and some garbage as an excuse. Two of us went downstairs—and we got out! Maybe it was the holiday, but we found a lone guard at the entrance to our building, who barely looked up as we passed.

We found the city empty and barricaded. The table checkpoints we’d seen before had been replaced with bigger ones with tents, most manned by at least three black-clad men. The tent at our building advertised local beer. We managed a tense walk by the river, trying to keep out of sight among the trees. But the only people we passed were a few couples walking and a middle-aged man doing exercise. A few plainclothes guards standing on the bluffs above seemed to notice but not to care.

But the next day, the system was back in full force. The refrigerator had broken overnight, and we wanted to take some food to Mrs. W’s office, so we set out again in her car. We found three guards at the entrance, who told Mrs. W she’d been going out too often and that three people was too many. “If upstairs finds out, they’ll blame us,” they said. She went out, and we went back upstairs.


A woman wearing a protective face mask uses her cell phone while riding a train in Shanghai on Feb. 20.

A woman wearing a protective face mask uses her cell phone while riding a train in Shanghai on Feb. 20.NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

A journey to Shanghai

Finally, on Feb. 10, I had to leave—unless I made it to Shanghai, my visa would expire. I wasn’t entirely sure that I would be allowed to enter Shanghai or that I would be allowed into the apartment I’d arranged to stay in. But I didn’t have a choice.

I needed Mrs. W to give me a ride to a train station out of town, and a friend in the police told her that we could go but she might not be able to return. He suggested that she carry the deed to her apartment as proof of residency. In the end, Mrs. W managed to get a permit from a local Communist Party office to make the trip, and it was uneventful. On the town’s main street, we even saw pedestrians, and we passed through only one checkpoint—with a line of trucks waiting to get into town—on the way to the station.

At the station, I was met by workers in hazmat suits and signs warning that anyone who left town would face a 14-day quarantine on their return home. The train was empty, and the app in which I had to apply to enter Shanghai rated me a Class B risk—the good kind. I arrived to an improvised channel and announcements: Class B to the right. Like most of the passengers, I walked through on the right. I saw only one person pulled out of the line, a woman in late middle with heavy bags and the posture of someone who has been carrying heavy things for hours. I assume she was rated Class A—high risk.

Shanghai is almost as quiet as Zhejiang was, but here I’ve been able to take walks. I’ve seen a few cafes and restaurants open. Going into a building here means guards, temperature checks, mask checks, and filling out registration forms. When I leave the apartment complex, the guards give me a paper pass to get back in.

Still, compared with what I heard from smaller cities, towns, and villages, this is an open city. I still need to get back to Beijing, but I’ve read that if I went there, it would mean another 14 days’ isolation.


Doctors check the car information at a novel coronavirus prevention-and-control checkpoint of an expressway exit in Wenzhou, east China's Zhejiang province, on Feb. 8.

Doctors check car information at a coronavirus prevention-and-control checkpoint on an expressway exit in Wenzhou, in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, on Feb. 8. Xinhua/Weng Xinyang via Getty Images

Surveillance sets us free

Back in Zhejiang, my friends tell me that the total lockdown ended after nine days on Feb. 14. It was replaced by surveillance and limited lockdowns.

The city asked citizens to register with an online system created by the Zhejiang tech giant Alibaba, which rates infection risks as red, yellow, or green based on a short survey about recent travel, symptoms, and contact with infected people or people from Hubei. My friends got green—and for them, the isolation period is over. According to the news, yellow means seven days’ isolation and red two weeks.

The city is still under guard, and the new system is watching where you go: Entering an apartment compound or a market requires scanning a QR code generated by the app, keeping the yellows and reds inside and generating data about where the greens go. But tourist attractions have reopened, and shops are starting to reopen.

This system is supposed to go national next week, and I can’t wait to be surveilled. For weeks, I’ve been afraid to travel, fearing that any new city could turn me away or place me in isolation as a suspicious outsider. But I’ve already signed up for the Alibaba app, and it rated me green. If I can go back to Beijing next week and use my new national green rating, I might finally see my own house again.