Near-Daily Covid Tests, Sleeping in Classrooms: Life in Covid-Zero China

Residents in Ruili, in southwestern China, have been locked down four times in the past year as part of the country’s quest to eliminate the virus.

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The southwestern Chinese city of Ruili is small, remote and largely unknown internationally. It is also, when it comes to the coronavirus, perhaps the most tightly regulated place on earth.

In the past year, it has been locked down four times, one lasting 26 days. Homes in an entire district have been evacuated indefinitely to create a “buffer zone” against imported cases. Schools have been closed for months, except for a few grades — but only if those students and their teachers do not leave campus.

Many residents, including 59-year-old Liu Bin, have gone months without income, in a city that relies heavily upon tourism and trade with neighboring Myanmar. Mr. Liu, who ran a customs brokerage before cross-border movement essentially stopped, estimated he had lost more than $150,000. He is tested on a near-daily basis. He borrows cigarette money from his son-in-law.

“Why do I have to be oppressed like this? My life is important too,” he said. “I’ve actively followed epidemic control measures. What else do we normal people have to do to meet the standards?”

As the rest of the world shifts to a strategy of living with the coronavirus, China has remained the last country chasing full elimination, for the most part with success. It has recorded fewer than 5,000 virus-related deaths, and in parts of the country without confirmed cases, the outbreak can feel like a hazy memory.

But the residents of Ruili — a lush, subtropical city of about 270,000 people before the pandemic — are facing the extreme and harsh reality of living under a “Zero Covid” policy when even a single case is found.

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A closed border gate to Ruili in Muse, Myanmar. Trade and tourism all but collapsed in Ruili after China sealed its borders.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

While other Chinese cities have been locked down to control flare-ups, those restrictions have often been limited to certain neighborhoods or been eased after a few weeks. But in Ruili, the past year has consisted of extended paralysis, with people confined to residential complexes for weeks at a time. Even during the gaps between official lockdowns, residents have not been allowed to dine in at restaurants. Many businesses remained closed.

Only high school sophomores and juniors, as well as third-year middle school students, have been allowed to resume face-to-face classes — if they live on campus. Classrooms have been converted to dorms. Since students are always around, they also have classes on weekends.

One driver for a ride-sharing app told state media he had taken 90 Covid tests over the last seven months. Another parent said that his one-year-old son had been tested 74 times.

Tens of thousands of residents have fled the city for elsewhere in China in the breaks between lockdowns; officials recently acknowledged that the population had dropped to about 200,000. To control the outflow, the authorities now require people to pay for up to 21 days of pre-departure quarantine.

In a sign of the desperation many residents are feeling, a former deputy mayor of Ruili last month wrote a blog post called “Ruili Needs the Motherland’s Care” — a stunning move in a country where officials almost never deviate from the government line.

“Every time the city is locked down is another instance of serious emotional and material loss,” wrote the official, Dai Rongli. “Each experience battling the virus is a new accumulation of grievances.”

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A community worker delivering food and other necessities to a Ruili resident during a lockdown in July.Credit…Wang Guansen/Xinhua, via Associated Press

Ruili has reported just five symptomatic locally transmitted cases in the past month. More than 96 percent of residents in the city and its surrounding area have been vaccinated, according to state media. No cases have been traced to people leaving Ruili for elsewhere in China.

Even so, officials insist that there is little room for adjustment.

“If Ruili’s epidemic does not reach zero, there will be risk of outward transmission,” Ruili’s deputy mayor, Yang Mou, said at a news conference on Oct. 29.

Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, said Ruili epitomized the Chinese government’s stubborn approach to the pandemic. Since the outbreak began, he said, it has deployed the same playbook of lockdowns and mass testing, without considering potentially less costly tactics.

“They believe that’s the only way that they can be successful, but that is actually not the case,” he said. “The situation is rapidly evolving. Now it is actually very different from 2020.”

In recent weeks, other regions have reimposed restrictions as a new outbreak tied to domestic tourism infected more than 700 people. Roughly 10,000 tourists were stranded in Inner Mongolia after cases were found there. About 30,000 visitors to Shanghai’s Disneyland spent hours waiting to be tested on Sunday night before they could leave the park. Parts of Beijing are locked down, and many incoming trains and flights have been canceled.

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“Every time the city is locked down is another instance of serious emotional and material loss,” a former deputy mayor of Ruili wrote in a blog post last month. “Each experience battling the virus is a new accumulation of grievances.”Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

One county in eastern Jiangxi Province announced that all traffic lights would be turned red, to prevent unnecessary travel. (It later backtracked.)

Ruili is uniquely vulnerable to both the virus and the burdens of lockdown.

Nestled in the corner of Yunnan Province, it shares more than 100 miles of borders with Myanmar, attracting tourists and traders. In 2019, people passed through its border checkpoint nearly 17 million times, according to official statistics.

When China sealed up the country, trade and tourism all but collapsed. Yet Ruili’s borders remained porous, raising fears of imported cases. And the military coup in Myanmar this year has led some to seek refuge in Ruili, legally or illegally. Some residents have had to dodge stray bullets from the conflict across the border, according to Chinese media reports.

The city’s remote location and small size also meant that many Chinese people did not know about residents’ extended plight.

Then, on Oct. 28, Mr. Dai, the former deputy mayor, published his blog post.

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A testing site in Ruili in September 2020, when the city was locked down for the first time.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“The pandemic has ruthlessly plundered this city again and again, sucking out its last trace of life,” wrote Mr. Dai, who now lives in Beijing. “The long-term lockdown has brought this city’s development to a dead end. Restarting production and necessary business operations appears extremely urgent.”

The post went viral. Two hashtags about Mr. Dai’s letter have been viewed 300 million times on Weibo. Mr. Dai declined to comment further.

People who said they were Ruili residents also posted their stories on social media, which were then widely shared.

They described being unable to visit sick relatives or filmed themselves driving down deserted streets, with row after row of shops and restaurants shuttered. Some residents, unlucky enough to be sent to centralized quarantine, posted images of ramshackle sheds and flooded floors.

The lockdown has had other, more unexpected effects. The government banned residents from livestreaming about the local jade industry to limit gem orders and the movement of delivery people.

Amid the onslaught of national attention, Ruili officials dismissed the concerns as exaggerated. Mao Xiao, Ruili’s Communist Party secretary, told state media that “at the moment, we do not need” additional help. The day before, he had warned against “criminals” who he said would use “public opinion and false information to disrupt social order.”

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The border between Muse, in the foreground, and Ruili, in 2019. Ruili shares more than 100 miles of borders with Myanmar.Credit…Ye Aung Thu/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Still, officials promised to improve quarantine conditions and to bolster financial support for poor residents, through subsidies, gifts of rice and other staples, as well as rent breaks for some companies. They also pledged to increase the number of hotel rooms available for quarantine for those seeking to leave Ruili.

Those measures are likely to do little for people such as Mr. Li, a jade merchant in his 50s who asked to be identified only by his surname out of fear of reprisals. (The Ruili police have admonished people for protesting lockdown conditions.)

Earlier this year, Mr. Li and a group of fellow investors pooled together about $3 million for a jade market in Ruili, which they had hoped to open in May. Instead, the premises have sat empty, though they have continued to pay rent. He has heard nothing about government assistance.

Originally, his company employed about 50 people. Now? “We only dare to keep one person, to guard the door,” he said. “What can you do? We can’t pay them.”

The cost of daily living has shot up. A kilogram of bok choy used to cost less than 6 renminbi, or under $1, Mr. Li said; now the price has jumped to 8 or 10 renminbi.

“The ordinary people,” he sighed, “have no way to live.”

Liu Yi contributed research.

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