Flights from Tokyo to Beijing this week were impossible to find – the closest 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 case count has climbed by double digits to more than 20,000. At least 27 cities across the country are under total or partial lockdown, impacting an estimated 180 million people, according to CNN calculations.
Some of the strictest measures are in place in the country’s financial powerhouse Shanghai, where many of its 25 million residents have been locked inside their residential complexes for more than a month, creating discontent that has flooded China’s heavily policed 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 in trying to stop the virus from spreading within its political center.
travel to china
My journey to China this week was even more difficult than when I traveled to Beijing in February for the Winter Olympics, held under the strictest Covid countermeasures in the world. Then officials, media and athletes were separated from the Chinese public by an extensive network of physical barriers, quarantine periods and regular Covid testing.
Now, to enter China, I had to provide three negative PCR tests from government-approved clinics, done seven days before departure, then two more within 48 hours of flight.
On the plane, all flight attendants wore protective suits, as did the staff at Kunming Airport. Upon landing, all passengers on my flight were immediately told to take another Covid test, an eye-watering nasal and throat swab.
Most of the passengers on my flight appeared to have Chinese passports.
Foreigners can only enter in very limited circumstances, and it is exceptionally difficult for American journalists to obtain visas to China due to deteriorating US-China relations. Both countries agreed to relax visa restrictions for each other’s journalists after a meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping last November. I received a visa earlier this year after several rounds of interviews.
But still, when I handed over my US passport, the immigration officer spent several minutes flipping through the pages, then called a group of workers with “police” written on their protective suits. It felt like I was the only one on the flight pulled to the side.
They took me to a private interrogation room, and after a lengthy police interrogation about my professional and personal life, I was allowed to continue through immigration and customs.
After going through immigration, I struck up a conversation with the man next to me as we waited to board the bus to the quarantine hotel. He is from Shanghai but has lived in Japan for 30 years. He hadn’t returned to China since the start of the pandemic, 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-long Covid lockdown, so his only option was to fly to Yunnan and wait until the situation improves.
China’s National Health Commission said on Friday that the “zero Covid-19 policy” has shown early results in Shanghai, and the situation across the country is showing a downward trend.
21 days in hotel quarantine
There wasn’t a single empty seat on the bus, and our luggage was piled up in the aisles. From the window of the bus, I watched Kunming, a city of 6.6 million people, pass at night – bright lights illuminating buildings and highways.
After a two to three hour drive, we arrived at our quarantine location: a spa hotel converted into a quarantine facility. Workers in protective suits escorted me to my room.
The next morning, I noticed that my room has a breathtaking view of Kunming – an expanse of green trees and mountains dotting the horizon. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan Province, a popular tourist destination famous for its beautiful scenery and tea-producing regions.
There’s a balcony, but I can’t go out. But I’m grateful for the view and, more importantly, the ability to open the window for fresh air – in some quarantine facilities that are banned.
I cannot 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 the hotel you are taken to – there is no choice where to go.
Meals come in plastic containers, placed on a chair outside the door three times a day – typically rice, soup and fried meats and vegetables. I supplement my meals with snacks I brought back from Tokyo, after hearing about the subpar food at quarantine hotels. Fortunately, I don’t mind the food in mine.
In my room, there is no refrigerator, microwave or laundry services. Only one towel is distributed for all 21 days. I got my own yoga mat, jump rope, and weights for exercise. Despite the hot weather – around 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) – the hotel does not turn on the air conditioning due to concerns about Covid transmission.
Assuming I continue to test negative, I may still not make it to Beijing. If the capital goes into total lockdown, all flights will likely be cancelled.
Even before this latest outbreak, arrivals from parts of China deemed “high risk” were required to spend an additional 14 days in government quarantine in Beijing. Fortunately, Yunnan is not one of them at the moment. Domestic travelers arriving from lower-risk destinations are required to spend at least seven days locked in their homes for health monitoring.
Officials in China have doubled down on 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 Covid control measures, a large number of people will be infected with many critical patients and deaths, causing the medical system to be overloaded,” National Health Commission Deputy Director Li Bin said on Friday. .
But critics say the policy is more about politics than science.
President Xi has put his personal stamp on “zero-Covid,” and officials often use the low death rate to argue that China’s system is superior to that of the West, where restrictions have eased to reflect rising vaccination rates.
But in China there are no signs of change and people are getting tired.
In the third year of the pandemic, China still refuses to live with Covid. No case is tolerated, no matter the cost.