Beijingers are tired but resigned to COVID zero

Society & Culture

Porta potties, blue fences, and angry old men: What does community lockdown in Beijing look like?

Photo by Anthony Tao

Yesterday, a friend of mine who I’ll call Tammy was woken at 2 a.m. by a series of hard knocks. Her roommate opened the door to see two people decked head-to-toe in personal protective equipment — in Chinese, anyone so-attired is called dàbái 大白, or “big white.” “Can we please see your ID card?” one of them asked. “How many people live here?”

And this was how Tammy and her roommate learned there had been a COVID case in their building, part of nine new imported cases within the previous 24-hour window — information that was immediately publicized, including the addresses where the cases were found, per usual as part of China’s COVID-zero policy. The next morning, neighborhood workers came by and installed a sensor on their door that flashes red, turning green when the door is opened. Both were throat-swabbed. A blue fence went up around several doors. They were informed that they’d be locked in for seven days (which would later be extended to 10), and that they could order delivery, but should let someone else — one of the neighborhood workers — bring it up for them.


It could have been worse. As Tammy looked outside her window, she saw residents lugging suitcases — apparently the people who lived near the positive case were transferred to a centralized quarantine location.

“I was really upset and a bit depressed, not because we were locked in the house but because of the uncertainty,” Tammy said. “They don’t give you information, and you see people being taken away with their luggage — with pets, in some cases — you don’t know if they will come for you, you don’t know how long you will need to stay quarantined, and you don’t understand why they still take it so seriously.”

That same day, Bloomberg reported that Chinese officials are considering cutting the mandatory hotel quarantine time for those who enter the country from seven to two days. Truly good news, and seemingly a confirmation of what many of us have long suspected (though to be honest, “hoped for” is more accurate): that COVID restrictions will loosen after the 20th Party Congress ends, even if the COVID-zero policy isn’t going away.

The thing is: the Party Congress is decidedly not over, and those of us in Beijing right now are seeing stark reminders that our “new normal” is being enforced.

Later that evening, outside a bar, a friend and I witnessed a scuffle. Two elderly men exchanged angry words, one of them saying, “I just want to buy a cigarette.”

“I’m not going to let you leave,” said the other, holding him back. The convenience store was a few steps away.

“Can I not buy a pack of cigarettes?”

“I’ll buy cigarettes for you! But I’m not going to let you leave.”

It was clear what was happening: the man was about to get locked down, but no one had informed him until this very moment. Eventually, he was ushered back inside, and the commotion died down. “He just wanted a cigarette,” a woman getting on a bike said. The guard replied, “Yes, and I was willing to buy it for him!”

Minutes later, dabai showed up to administer COVID tests and seal off the opening of the compound with red tape. This happened as my friend and I continued to drink, minding our own business. We briefly considered whether our proximity would result in a “pop-up” on the “health kit” on our phone, which would prohibit us from entering any restaurant, mall, office building, or basically any indoor establishment. But we decided not to be paranoid.

A bit after that, a truck pulled up carrying three portable toilets: when neighborhoods in hutongs — old Beijing alleys — are sealed off, porta potties are supplied because many of these places don’t have indoor toilets.

The residents there have it easy, though: they only need to stay in for three days, pending no positive cases. Someone inside was merely a “close contact” of a positive case.

Across the city yesterday, neighborhoods were sealed up, all because of a couple dozen cases (some imported, some “local,” i.e., found while under quarantine observation). To be clear, this is not a citywide “lockdown,” not even close to what Shanghai experienced in April and May, and not — as I have argued — a reason for panic. But if you want any indication that authorities are serious when it comes to enforcing COVID zero, look no further than the resources being mobilized during this period, as the country’s leaders hold their meetings three miles away.

And then, just before midnight, I received this text from a friend: 

uhhhh anthony

was just walking the dog and saw a barrier being built towards your hutong

She sent this:

They were erecting the quintessential blue fence across the entrance of the residential courtyard across from where I live. But I was spared.

The next day, I found someone sitting near my stoop across from the blue fence. We exchanged pleasantries, and I asked him what he was doing. “Guarding this place,” he said.

His surname was Yue and he had a companion, Guo, and they had come from Tongzhou, 15 miles away, to sit against a wall from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. For this, the two are paid about $30. Apparently 40 or so of them had come together in a bus, and would leave the same way, called upon by the neighborhood committee to guard the various residential courtyards and complexes under lockdown. But it’s not just about surveillance — their responsibilities also include helping the residents get their deliveries and running errands, such as buying cigarettes.

“How do you feel about the country’s COVID-zero policy?” I asked them.

“How can it ever be zero?” Yue said, sighing.

Neither of the men thought the policy was sustainable — but neither did they think it was going away. (It’s not.) This may seem like a paradox, but everyone here understands that if the government — if the Party — puts its mind to it, it can do anything. Even if it’s a thing that the people don’t support.

“The system here is better than other places,” Guo said, referring to Beijing’s modus operandi compared with other cities. “These targeted lockdowns, isolating certain communities. In other places, one case and the entire county might have to quarantine.”

He was right about that. We were chatting on the alley between my door and a blue fence, which penned in about 100 residents inside a courtyard. Things could definitely be worse. And tomorrow, they might be.