It was impossible to find flights from Tokyo to Beijing this week – the nearest available flight was to Kunming, southern Yunnan province, about 2,600 kilometers away. There I will spend 21 days in quarantine, and even then there is no guarantee that I will be allowed to enter the Chinese capital.
Since mid-December, China’s average daily number of cases has risen from double digits to more than 20,000. At least 27 cities across the country are under full or partial blockade, affecting about 180 million people, according to CNN estimates.
Some of the most stringent measures are in place in the country’s financial powerhouse, Shanghai, where many of its 25 million residents have been sealed inside their residential areas for more than a month, creating discontent that has flooded China’s heavily police-run Internet.
The number of cases in Beijing remains low compared to Shanghai – 34 new cases were reported in the capital on Friday, bringing the total number of cases to 228 during this outbreak.
But China is taking no chances as it seeks to stop the virus from spreading inside its political center.
Travel to China
My trip to China this week was even more difficult than when I traveled to Beijing in February for the Winter Olympics, which were held under the world’s strictest Covid countermeasures. Thereafter, officials, media, and athletes were separated from the Chinese public by an extensive network of physical barriers, quarantine periods, and regular Covid tests.
Now, to get into China, I had to give three negative PCR tests from government-approved clinics, taken seven days before departure, then two more within 48 hours of the flight.
On the plane, all the flight attendants wore hazmat suits, as did the staff at Kunming Airport. Upon landing, all the passengers on my plane were immediately asked to take another Covid test, a nose and throat swab.
Most of the passengers on my plane appeared to have Chinese passports.
Foreigners can only enter under very limited circumstances, and it is unusually difficult for American journalists to obtain a China visa due to deteriorating relations between the United States and China. Both countries agreed to ease visa restrictions for other journalists following a meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping last November. I got a visa earlier this year after several rounds of interviews.
But still, when I handed in my American passport, the immigration officer spent several minutes flipping through the pages and then called a group of workers with the “police” written on their hazmat suits. It looked like I was the only one from the plane being pulled aside.
They took me to a private room for questioning, and after a lengthy police interrogation about my professional and personal life, I was allowed to continue through immigration and customs.
After clearing the immigration, I initiated a conversation with the man standing next to me while we waited to board the bus to the quarantine hotel. He is from Shanghai but had lived in Japan for the past 30 years. He had not been back to China since the pandemic started, but eventually decided that the 21-day quarantine to enter the country was worth visiting his elderly mother in Shanghai. The city is now under a week of Covid lockdown, so his only option was to fly to Yunnan and wait until the situation got better.
China’s National Health Commission said on Friday that the “zero Covid-19 policy” had shown the first results in Shanghai, and the situation across the country is showing a downward trend.
21 days in hotel quarantine
Not a single seat was empty in the bus and our luggage was stacked in the hallways. From the bus window, I saw Kunming, a city of 6.6 million people, pass by at night – bright lights illuminated buildings and highways.
After a two-three hour drive, we arrived at our quarantine site: a hotspring hotel converted into a quarantine facility. Workers in hazmat suits escorted me to my room.
The next morning it dawned on me that my room had a breathtaking view of Kunming – a plain of green trees and mountains on the horizon. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan Province, a popular tourist destination, famous for its beautiful landscape and tea-producing regions.
There is a balcony but I can not step outside. But I’m grateful for the view, and more importantly, the ability to open the window to fresh air – in some quarantined facilities that are banned.
I can not open my door, except for health checks and food collection. I get two temperature checks a day and regular Covid tests, sometimes twice a day.
Food deliveries are not allowed, but breakfast, lunch and dinner are included in the quarantine fees, which vary depending on which hotel you are taken to – there is no choice where to go.
Meals come in plastic containers, placed in a chair outside the door three times a day – typically rice, soup and stirred meats and vegetables. I supplement the meals with snacks I brought from Tokyo, after hearing about the subordinate food at the quarantine hotels. Luckily, I do not bother the food with me.
In my room there is no fridge, microwave or laundry service. Only one towel is distributed for a full 21 days. I packed my own yoga mat, jump rope and weights for training. Despite the hot weather – it’s around 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) – the hotel will not turn on air conditioning due to Covid transfer concerns.
Assuming I continue to test negative, I still can not reach Beijing. If the capital goes into a full lockdown, all flights are likely to be canceled.
Even before this latest outbreak, arrivals from parts of China were considered “high risk” obliged to spend another 14 days in government quarantine in Beijing. Fortunately, Yunnan is not one of them at the moment. Incoming domestic travelers from lower risk destinations must spend at least seven days sealed in their home for health monitoring.
China’s authorities have doubled the zero-Covid policy, arguing that it has allowed the country to avoid the explosion of deaths in other parts of the world and will buy time to vaccinate vulnerable groups such as the elderly and children.
“If we lose the Covid controls, a large number of people will be infected with many critical patients and deaths, causing the overwhelming (medical) system,” National Health Commission Deputy Director Li Bin said Friday.
But critics say politics is more about politics than science.
President Xi has left his personal mark on “zero-covid”, and officials have often used the low mortality rate to argue that China’s system is superior to the West, where restrictions have been eased to reflect rising vaccination rates.
But in China, there are no signs of change and people are getting tired.
In year three of the pandemic, China still refuses to live with Covid. No case is tolerated, regardless of the cost.