The Perfect Enemy | What it’s like returning to China’s zero-COVID bubble
December 6, 2022
Read Time:7 Minute

After spending the last two months in the U.S. and Canada, Marketplace’s China correspondent Jennifer Pak has re-entered China’s zero-COVID territory. This is her second trip.

Here is what has and what has not changed.

Simpler test requirements

Pre-boarding testing has simplified a little. Under the old rules in January, I had to submit one negative PCR test and do a blood test for a certain type of antibody that can be present if one has recovered from COVID recently.

When I flew in early November, I only needed to provide two negative PCR tests taken at least 24 hours apart from two different testing facilities

Since last Friday, China’s government has further reduced the requirement to one PCR test taken within 48 hours.

“Green” QR code

My test results, along with my personal details, are sent to the nearest Chinese consulate for pre-boarding approval. If I pass, I get a “green” QR code.

“Black” QR code

Then I fill out an online form for China Customs, listing all the countries I had visited within the past 14 days. I am then issued a “black” QR code.

Longer check-in times

It takes longer to check in for China-bound flights because airlines have to re-check the “green” and “black” QR codes and related documents for each passenger.

Last time, I arrived at the Calgary airport 3.5 hours beforehand. Because the flight was delayed, I missed the connection to Shanghai; this time, I arrived four hours early.

Pak's flight from Toronto to Shanghai made a stop in Seoul for a crew change.
Pak’s flight from Toronto to Shanghai made a stop in Seoul for a crew change. Most international flights do this to bypass China’s quarantine. The new crew stays on the plane in Shanghai and head out with it. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)

Flights are still limited

Up until last Friday, China operated a circuit breaker policy, which meant if a certain number of passengers from the same flight tested positive for COVID upon arrival, the airline was forced to suspend flights.

Pre-pandemic, there were 325 weekly scheduled flights between the U.S. and China, according to the U.S. Transportation Department. That has been cut down to around 20 weekly flights.

The U.S. retaliated against Chinese carriers, citing that the circuit breaker policy “places undue culpability on carriers,” especially when all passengers are fully tested and pre-approved by China’s government.

Last Friday, China finally got rid of the circuit breaker policy.

Flights prices are dropping, but still expensive

Flight prices have been dropping ever since.

When I left Shanghai in September, $8,000 round-trip tickets to the U.S. were considered cheap. Airfare is much lower in recent days but has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, in part because many airlines do not fly directly into mainland China.

My flight from Toronto to Shanghai scheduled a quick stop in Seoul to change crews. Most international flights do this so that the new crews do not have to disembark in China. That allows them to bypass Chinese quarantine procedures.

Travel woes are typical

On top of China’s zero-COVID rules, there are the usual frustrations of air travel; my Calgary flight was delayed by two hours and the Toronto flight took off three hours late.

The crew change in Seoul was meant to be a 45-minute stopover, but due to plane issues, that turned into a seven-hour layover. Passengers were forced to disembark and go through security again at Seoul’s Incheon airport. Since liquids are not allowed, some passengers could not carry their duty-free alcohol bought in Toronto. They were livid.

Entering zero-COVID

Posters supporting China's anti-pandemic measures plastered across the processing area for quarantine hotels, blocking off any view of Shanghai from the Pudong airport. (Courtesy Pak)
Posters supporting China’s anti-pandemic measures plastered across the processing area for quarantine hotels, blocking off any view of Shanghai from the Pudong airport. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)

The tough part begins once we land in Shanghai. Not much has changed since the last time I did this journey.

A pandemic worker stands in front of a quarantine hotel in Shanghai with a busload of cranky passengers waiting behind him. It usually takes 4-6 hours after arrival for inbound travelers to reach their quarantine hotels. (Courtesy Pak)
A pandemic worker stands in front of a quarantine hotel in Shanghai with a busload of cranky passengers waiting behind him. It usually takes 4-6 hours after arrival for inbound travelers to reach their quarantine hotels. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)

We sat on the plane until Chinese authorities gave us clearance to disembark. Presumably, they are checking our paperwork, or “green” codes. This takes anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours.

Once we leave the plane, a cordoned-off path leads us to scan our “black” QR codes, get our temperatures taken and go down two flights of stairs to the PCR testing site.

“Pull your mask down to cover your mouth,” a woman in full hazmat suit said, putting a swab so far up my nose it felt like it grazed my brain.

She kept the swab in for a full 10 seconds before rotating it and leaving it in for another 10 seconds, forcing me to cough. It is quite an unpleasant experience.

Quarantine hotels

Quarantine hotels are assigned to passengers according to district. We’re not told where we will be staying until the shuttle bus pulls into the hotel.

Some passengers took one look at the hotel lobby and got back on the bus. They demanded to be taken to a better hotel in the district. Their complaints fell on deaf ears.

Once we can get off the bus, people in hazmat suits started barking out orders: “Take (another) PCR test! Disinfect your luggage! Stay three feet apart! This is a pandemic!”

One passenger snapped. “Hey! Could you guys be more polite? I was just in the U.S. and no one is wearing a mask. What is so dangerous now about COVID?”

It took 46 hours from when I left my parents’ place in Calgary to arrive at my quarantine room in Shanghai.

Quarantine

Plastic stools are placed outside quarantine rooms for contactless meal deliveries. Guests are only allowed to retrieve the meals once they hear an automated message play. (Courtesy Pak)
Plastic stools are placed outside quarantine rooms for contactless meal deliveries. Guests are only allowed to retrieve the meals once they hear an automated message play. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)

Once inside our rooms, we are not allowed to open the door except to grab our meals or for PCR tests.

In between, they drench the hallways in disinfectant at least four times a day.

The length of quarantine for inbound travelers has shortened since the last time I did this journey:

  • January 2022: 21-day quarantine = 14 days at hotel + 7 days at home
  • November 5: 10-day quarantine = 7 days at hotel + 3 days health monitoring (although some local districts treat this as a de facto home quarantine)
  • November 11 updated policy: 8-day quarantine = 5 days at hotel + 3 days at home

Since the policy update came in the middle of my hotel quarantine, I received the call from the local Center for Disease Control only on Day 7 telling me that I could finish the rest of my quarantine — one more day — at home.

Pak is released from the hotel for home quarantine. No one helps her with the luggage because inbound passengers and their belongings are treated as infectious. Her luggage has been continuously drenched with disinfectant upon entering and leaving the quarantine hotel. (Courtesy Pak)
Pak is released from the hotel for home quarantine. No one helps her with the luggage because inbound passengers and their belongings are treated as infectious. Her luggage has been continuously drenched with disinfectant upon entering and leaving the quarantine hotel. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)

Still, the shuttle bus driver said it was really up to our communist neighborhood committees to decide when we’re free. At least we were out of that hotel.

“That hotel was so dirty. There was a layer of hair on the carpet,” one passenger said. “They treat us like we’re the virus,” another woman said, adding that the hotel felt like a prison.

Once we arrive at my stop, I bid my fellow inmates farewell. I paid 3,300 yuan ($470) for six nights of hotel quarantine, including meals.

China makes this trip hard because its borders are officially closed. I have the impression they don’t really want people to come.

Additional research by Charles Zhang.

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