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One Chinese town has started a fiery online debate about China's zero-COVID policy

A community worker delivers daily necessities to a household during quarantine conditions in the southwestern Chinese city of Ruili. Residents have taken to social media to complain about what they describe as harsh lockdown measures brought on by China's zero COVID policy.
Wang Guansen
Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images
A community worker delivers daily necessities to a household during quarantine conditions in the southwestern Chinese city of Ruili. Residents have taken to social media to complain about what they describe as harsh lockdown measures brought on by China's zero COVID policy.

BEIJING – Residents left starving inside makeshift quarantine centers fashioned out of shipping containers. Businesses forbidden from selling goods – even online. A baby reportedly tested for COVID 74 times.

These are some of the stories emerging from Ruili, a southwestern Chinese town famed for the quality of its jade. Situated on the border with Myanmar, Ruili has been battered by three successive lockdowns in the last year, pulling the town of about 270,000 people into the center of a fiery debate online about who must shoulder the costs of China's zero-COVID policies.

Online, thousands of Ruili residents have begun posting descriptions of the conditions they face and desperate messages for help. The response? An even greater volume of online vitriol from fellow Chinese citizens who believe the rigid quarantine policies are worth the human cost.

"I feel like our entire city has been abandoned by the rest of the country," said a jade trader surnamed Wang. He wanted to use only his family name because he fears state and online retribution: "I do not feel like I am living in China right now."

Earlier this year, his wife went to work one morning, only to be forced to find somewhere else to stay for a 45-day quarantine after the city district was sealed off because of a handful of cases discovered nearby. She was rounded up and told to shelter in place, with no date of release and no regular supply of food. Wang says he was finally able to get her out by asking a well-connected friend to bring her to a hospital on medical grounds, after which she did another two week hotel quarantine before being allowed to return home.

Yet despite the anger in Ruili, most people in China support the country's strict pandemic prevention policies, despite their huge economic cost and the risk of being suddenly quarantined or tested during frequent contact-tracing investigations. Local governments are under enormous pressure to ensure no infections crop up; officials who fail are often publicly shamed and fired.

People unlucky enough to test positive or — more commonly — cross paths with a close contact can find themselves ensnared in successive and expensive quarantines. Others have found themselves stuck in limbo, unable to leave cities under lockdown, including Ruili, and also banned from returning to their hometowns.

"These people [who criticize me] are brainless," said Wang. "Once such a calamity falls on their heads, they will not be saying such boneheaded things anymore."

The complaints in Ruili come as China is in the midst of containing more than 1,000 active infections across 17 regions — a relatively high number for Beijing, which has liberally deployed mass testing and quarantines to keep the national tally of cases hovering around zero for the last year. Authorities have already locked down several major cities (occasionally stranding tourists on vacation), quarantined thousands of close contacts and sometimes cancelled flights and trains to Beijing from areas where just a single active case has been identified.

China's zero-tolerance approach to the novel coronavirus is in stark contrast with much of the rest of the world, which has accepted that the illness will circulate in perpetuity and can only be countered with high immunization rates.

China, too, has pursued an aggressive vaccination campaign. It has three domestic vaccinesapproved for use in people as young as 3 years old, and health authorities say more than 70%of people living in China are now fully vaccinated.

But the country has simultaneously ramped up COVID-related restrictions as Beijing prepares for two important political meetings for top Communist Party officials this November and next October. Beijing has also indicated it is unlikely to re-open its international bordersuntil afterthe Winter Olympic Games, which will start this February in Beijing.

"I believe, for now, that the zero-transmission strategy is not too costly but is in fact a relatively less costly method," Dr. Zhong Nanshan, an infectious disease expert who has become the public face of China's pandemic control efforts, said in an interview with the state broadcaster this week.

The zero-transmission strategy has been implemented especially harshly in Ruili, parts of which are only yards away from northern Myanmar. Authorities have blamed successive COVID flare-ups on traders and refugees who frequently cross the border into China.

After the online outcry of Ruili residents gained momentum, the city said it would waive quarantine and testing costs for residents. It also set up ten additional quarantine hotels for people trying to leave. But residents say conditions inside the hotel centers are dire and put residents at risk of cross-infection. Those unable to pay for hotel quarantines are housed in shipping containers where conditions are worse.

"There is no hot water, the food is barely edible and other than spraying some disinfectant, the hotel rooms are not cleaned between quarantines," Lu, a Ruili jade trader. In March, she and her husband were suddenly put in quarantine for what reason, leaving her two children, ages 4 and 14, at home by themselves. She also requested her first name be withheld because she is worried about state retribution.

Some of the city's supermarkets have reopened since closing in March but residents say they fear being caught away from home by a sudden quarantine notice, which would put them in limbo. So they prefer to shop at night, when patrols are looser and they can buy supplies undetected.

"We support the government and its policies but that does not mean we should also have to go hungry," said Li Jie, a Ruili resident who just finished a 14-day hotel quarantine when NPR reached her by phone on Friday.

She hopes to move permanently back to her hometown in northeastern Liaoning province but lists the bureaucratic obstacles she must overcome to do so: first seek approval to complete a 7-day hotel quarantine to leave Ruili, then a 14-day hotel quarantine in Liaoning, expenses she cannot afford because authorities have banned people from going to work for the better part of this year.

Last month, Ruili's predicament prompted the city's former deputy mayor Dai Rongli to post an unusually candid essay on his personal social media page, asking Beijing to grant relief.

The pandemic has "mercilessly robbed this city time and again, squeezing dry the city's last sign of life," Dai Rongli wrote. His essay went viral, prompting Dai to clarify he was not criticizing the country's policies but merely asking for compassion and more resources to support the city's pandemic prevention policies.

"I know the government's job is not easy," he told a Chinese outlet. "But I want people to understand how truly difficult life is in Ruili right now."

Days later, the city's current mayor Shang Labian dismissed Dai's essay in a curt interview with Chinese outlet The Paper: "Ruili does not need outside assistance for the time being," he said.

Aowen Cao contributed research from Beijing.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.