It was impossible to find flights from Tokyo to Beijing this week – the closest available flight was to Kunming, south of Yunnan province, about 1,600 miles (2,600 km) away. There, I will spend 21 days in quarantine, and until then, there is no guarantee that I will be allowed to enter the Chinese capital.
Since mid-December, the average daily number of cases in China has risen from double digits to more than 20,000. According to CNN’s calculations, at least 27 cities across the country are under complete or partial lockdown, affecting about 180 million people.
Some stricter measures are in place in Shanghai, the country’s financial powerhouse, where many of its 25 million residents have been quarantined inside their apartment complexes for more than a month, creating a furore that has flooded China’s heavily censored 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 not taking any risks as it seeks to stop the spread of the virus within its political center.
travel to china
My trip to China this week was even tougher than when I traveled to Beijing in February for the Winter Olympics, held as part of the world’s toughest countermeasures to Covid. Then, officials, media and athletes were separated from the Chinese public by a vast network of physical barriers, quarantine periods and regular Covid tests.
Now, to enter China, I had to submit three negative PCR tests from government approved clinics, taken seven days before departure, and then take two more tests 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 passengers on my flight were immediately directed to have another Covid test, a nose and throat swab.
Most of the passengers on my flight seemed to have Chinese passports.
Foreigners can only enter in very limited circumstances, and it is extremely difficult for American journalists to obtain entry visas to China due to the deterioration of US-China relations. The two countries agreed to ease visa restrictions for other journalists after a meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping last November. I got my visa earlier this year after several rounds of interviews.
But still, when I handed in my US passport, the immigration officer spent several minutes turning the pages, then called a group of workers with “police” written on their hazmat suits. Looks like I was the only one from the trip pulled aside.
They took me to a private room for interrogation, and after a lengthy police questioning about my professional and personal life, I was allowed to continue with Immigration and Customs.
After clearing immigration, I had a chat with the guy standing next to me while we were waiting to get on the bus to the quarantine hotel. He’s from Shanghai, but has been living in Japan for 30 years. He hasn’t returned to China since the epidemic began, but eventually decided that his 21-day quarantine to enter the country was worth it to visit his elderly mother in Shanghai. The city is now under a weeks-long Covid lockdown, so his only option was to travel to Yunnan and wait until the situation improved.
China’s National Health Commission said Friday that its “zero COVID-19 policy” has shown preliminary results in Shanghai, and that the situation across the country is showing a downward trend.
21 days in hotel quarantine
There was not a single empty seat on the bus, and our luggage was stacked in the aisles. From the bus window, I watched Kunming, a city of 6.6 million, pass by at night—bright lights illuminating buildings and highways.
After two to three hours’ drive, we arrive at our quarantine site: the Hot Spring Hotel has been converted into a quarantine facility. Workers in protective suits took me to my room.
The next morning, I realized that my room had a breathtaking view of Kunming – an expanse of green trees and mountains scattered on the horizon. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan Province, and is a popular tourist destination, famous for its beautiful natural scenery and tea production areas.
There is a balcony, but I can’t go out. But I am grateful for the sight and, more importantly, the ability to open the window for fresh air – in some prohibited quarantine facility.
I can’t open my door, except for medical exams and food pick-ups. I get two temperature checks a day and regular Covid tests, sometimes twice a day.
No food deliveries are allowed, but breakfast, lunch and dinner are included in the quarantine fee, which varies depending on which hotel you’re going to – no choice of where to go.
Meals come in plastic packages, which are placed on a chair outside the door three times a day – usually rice, soup, meat and fried vegetables. Supplement the meals with the snacks I brought from Tokyo, after I heard about the poor food in the quarantine hotels. Fortunately, I don’t mind food on my own.
In my room there is no fridge, microwave or laundry services. Only one towel is distributed over the 21 days. I pack my yoga mat, jump rope and weights for exercise. Despite the hot weather – around 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) – the hotel will not turn on the air conditioner due to concerns about transmission of the Covid virus.
Assuming I continue with the negative test, I still can’t get to Beijing. If the entire capital is closed, all flights will likely be cancelled.
Even before the latest outbreak, arrivals from parts of China considered “high risk” had to spend another 14 days in government quarantine in Beijing. Fortunately, Jonah is not one of them at the moment. Domestic travelers arriving from low-risk destinations are required to spend at least seven days at home for health monitoring.
Chinese authorities have doubled down on their zero-Covid policy, arguing that it has allowed the country to avoid an 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 control measures for Covid, a large number of people will be infected with many critical patients and deaths, causing the medical system to be overwhelmed,” National Health Commission Deputy Director Li Bin said Friday.
But critics say politics is more about politics than science.
President Xi has put his personal stamp on “zero-Covid,” and officials have often used the low death rate to argue that China’s system is superior to the West, as restrictions have been eased to reflect rising vaccination rates.
But in China, there is no sign of change, and people are getting tired.
In the third year of the epidemic, China still refuses to live with Covid. No issue is tolerated, regardless of cost.