A Border City Offers a Peek Into China’s “Zero COVID” Strategy
A small border city in the southwestern province of Yunnan has experienced multiple local COVID-19 outbreaks since the first infections were reported in March. Now, residents say the prolonged virus control measures put in place since have disrupted daily life and livelihoods.
Social media posts from people who identified as Ruili locals have gone viral over the week, with many sharing their plight from the persistent lockdown-like situation. They say the local government’s “extreme measures” to prevent COVID-19 in the community have made it difficult for people to work; they need permits from local governments to leave the city; and students have been subject to just virtual classes for months now.
“Persistent lockdowns have disrupted our livelihood,” read one post that has been shared over 500,000 times on microblogging platform Weibo.
Ruili, a city of some 200,000 people that sits on the Myanmar border, offers a snapshot of smaller cities determined to keep the virus at bay in line with the national strategy — while local officials fear punishments for failing to upkeep the virus-free status. Many places have become even more alert with a fresh wave of infections sweeping across China.
Ruili residents Sixth Tone spoke to said they feel closed off and isolated. They said most entertainment venues and retail businesses are still closed, resulting in unemployment.
“We feel isolated without entertainment,” said a 24-year-old local, surnamed Xu, who works at a state-owned enterprise. “I want to go out, maybe to a big city. My life was plagued with persistent lockdowns and mass testings, which almost drove me crazy.”
Sixth Tone’s phone calls to Ruili’s local government to verify the claims made by residents were transferred to the city’s COVID-19 control unit, though phone lines were busy until the time of publication.
Since last year, Ruili has reported four sporadic local COVID-19 outbreaks — the city was cleared of the latest local infections in mid-September — resulting in subsequent lockdowns, while authorities continue to report and monitor cases among returnees from Myanmar. On Wednesday, the city government reiterated that it would strengthen its already strict entry-exit rules — unlike other places in China, residents in Ruili are required to undergo pre-departure quarantine and COVID-19 tests before traveling domestically.
“I couldn't even go to my grandmother's funeral because local officials denied me a travel permit,” one resident, surnamed Zhao, told Sixth Tone.
Ruili attracts numerous migrants and traders, and its porous border makes it “a hotbed for cross-border transmission of COVID-19,” the city’s mayor said in July. Local authorities were so determined to prevent any virus flare-ups that they introduced a surveillance system equipped with facial recognition technology to track and trace its residents.
Such surveillance isn’t unique to Ruili, as Chinese cities continue to conduct mass tracing — and also snap lockdowns — amid coronavirus flare-ups, testing tens of millions of people multiple times within a few days. The approach has mostly worked in China’s favor — though the more contagious Delta variant has added further challenges — with virus outbreaks usually cleared within a few weeks.
But as the pandemic prolongs, there are questions as to how long the country plans on extending its zero COVID approach. Once adopted by the likes of New Zealand, Australia, and Singapore, those countries have gradually replaced the method with a decision to co-exist with the coronavirus.
However, Chinese officials have been cautious about fully reopening borders — travelers into the country are now subjected to strict quarantine measures — with some health experts saying China can’t abolish the restrictions that guarantee normalcy while the rest of the world still grapples with the virus.
That same debate exists in Ruili, too, with residents agreeing that testing and quarantine measures were helpful. However, many argue that prolonged curbs on the movement of people could cost the community economically, even when the country’s economic growth is growing, albeit at a slower pace.
A local resident, surnamed Dong, said it’s been difficult to keep up with the restrictions. Prior to the pandemic, like many others in Ruili, he said he was engaged in cross-border trade. Now, with his businesses operations halted, he has no job or a steady income like many others in the city, and his savings are quickly depleting.
“Some firms are on the edge of collapse,” Dong said. “Apart from restaurants, most industries have shut down.”
On Thursday, Ruili’s former vice-mayor, Dai Rongli, penned a poetic and heartfelt letter addressing the issues the city faced. He said the multiple outbreaks have “looted the city,” and its people were “waiting in hope, and feel the endless torture and suffering in the waiting.” The vice-mayor added that the local government was aware of people’s suffering and urged the state to provide financial support to the city.
“The key to survival is self-help,” Dai wrote. “It’s imperative to resume production and trade under strict measures … Please pay attention to this beautiful border city. Please give this city a promising future.”
That same day, the secretary of Ruili municipal party committee, Mao Xiao, acknowledged the outbreaks have “severely affected” businesses and people’s lives, and the public opinion had “fully exposed” the shortcomings in ensuring their livelihoods,” according to domestic media. Local authorities also pledged millions of yuan in subsidies for people with economic hardships, including those affected by COVID-related restrictions.
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: A man receives COVID-19 test in Ruili, Yunnan province, Oct. 2, 2021. People Visual)