A New York Times analysis examines the lengths China will go to eliminate Covid infections. Three years into the pandemic, China stands out in the harshness of its measures.
It has been weeks since Gao Mingjun, a 24-year-old resident of the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou, saw her mother.
As coronavirus cases began spreading in Zhengzhou last month, Ms. Gao’s mother, who works and lives at the city’s Foxconn industrial park — home to the world’s biggest iPhone assembly plant — told her daughter that she was barred from leaving the compound. Then, one night, Ms. Gao’s mother was ordered into a quarantine center about four miles away. She and dozens of other groggy workers were made to wait outside a workers’ dormitory compound around 1 a.m., according to videos she filmed.
“She sobbed while we spoke,” Ms. Gao said.
The videos from Ms. Gao’s mother depict the social toll of China’s Covid strategy. China continues to use exceptionally stringent measures to try to eliminate infections even as the rest of the world has largely adjusted to living with the virus. Around 340 million people across 37 cities in China — about a quarter of the population — were under some form of lockdown in mid-November, according to an estimate by the investment bank Nomura.
Information about the hardship imposed on residents by pandemic measures is limited by intense government censorship. The Times collected and analyzed dozens of videos from cities that have recorded outbreaks this fall. The footage shows that officials have sometimes gone to extremes to enforce lockdowns, such as denying non-Covid patients medical care. Disobedience can lead to public shaming or arrest.
The Times verified the exact location of each video. To determine the time period the videos were shot in, the Times traced the earliest emergence of the videos online. In some cases, we were able to confirm by speaking directly with witnesses. In others, we corroborated with news about local Covid prevention and control announcements.
The Chinese government says that its strategy is crucial to preventing the mass deaths that other countries, especially those in the West, suffered during the pandemic. Infections and deaths in China have remained relatively low, and while many Chinese decry the harshest restrictions, they say they still support “zero Covid” in general. Last week, Beijing pledged to fine-tune some Covid restrictions to reduce the disruption to people’s lives, though officials vowed to stick to the strategy.
The Times reached out to China’s National Health Commission for comment as well as the local health authorities or the police in the places where these videos were filmed. The health commission directed The Times to a news conference it held earlier this month, in which officials reaffirmed the importance of “zero Covid.” None of the other authorities responded.
Separation of Children and Parents
The authorities’ central tool for enforcing “zero Covid” is restricting movement. Officials have long targeted not only people who tested positive, but also their neighbors, co-workers or anyone who has visited the same public places as them. Even after officials changed the rules to exclude contacts of contacts, entire housing complexes and districts remain under lockdown around the country. In some cases, they have confined children away from their parents.
The Times found several instances, depicted in videos, where boarding schools kept thousands of young students in lockdown. Boarding students in China normally return home once a week, but these days they can be prevented from doing so for weeks or even months.
More on China
- Xi Tightens His Grip: Having secured a precedent-defying third term, Xi Jinping is poised to push his vision of a nationalist China even further, with himself at the center.
- ‘Zero-Covid’ Guessing Game: Companies, investors and policymakers are trying to divine when the Chinese government will drop its strict virus restrictions. But the decision comes down to one man: Mr. Xi.
- Business Elite: China’s entrepreneurs had an unspoken contract with the Communist Party: Let us make money and we’ll turn a blind eye to how you rule. That is no longer the case.
- A Growing Climate Challenge: China’s greenhouse gas emissions rose last year at the fastest pace in a decade. And the country’s addiction to coal is likely to endure for years.
On Oct. 27, the authorities in Zunhua, a small city in Hebei Province, announced that people on the campus of Yizhong Secondary School, a boarding school with thousands of students, were not allowed to leave because of an outbreak.
A video shared on social media shows a group of students, filmed through a window on a door, taking turns reassuring their parents that they are all right. “It’s OK. Everything is fine,” one girl says. The Times verified that it was filmed in a dormitory building at Yizhong by matching the interior details in the video with online photos of the dorms.
Reached by telephone, a teacher at the school, who did not want to be named for fear of losing her job, said that teachers filmed videos of students as an update for parents. It is unclear how long the students were kept in quarantine. Two other teachers declined to answer questions; calls to a number the school posted online in late October for parents seeking information about students’ “conditions living on campus” went unanswered.
At Haiquan School, in Yuncheng, a city in northern Shanxi Province, thousands of boarding students from first to 12th grade were ordered to stay on campus for at least four weeks. On Oct. 30, the school posted videos on its WeChat account showing young children writing notes that say “I love you” or “I miss you,” and classrooms getting on group video calls with parents.
The mother of a fifth grader at the school said in a phone interview that she cried when she video chatted with her son, as they had never been apart for so long. Even sending packages is prohibited, said the mother, who gave only her surname, Chu. Still, she said that her son was safe from infection. “We have to compromise. There’s no other way,” she said.
Enforcement Above All Else
Stopping infections can also take precedence over residents’ basic needs, such as shelter or medical care.
Ms. Gao, the Zhengzhou resident, said her mother was sent to a quarantine center in the middle of the night after one of her co-workers at the Foxconn factory tested positive. But the transfer was chaotic: While waiting for admission to the new location, Ms. Gao’s mother and the other workers spent at least nine hours outdoors, shivering and hungry, the videos showed. Ms. Gao said workers who tested positive put on hazmat suits.
In a statement, Foxconn said it had been fighting a “protracted battle” to protect the health of its more than 200,000 employees in Zhengzhou and that workers’ welfare was a priority. The company did not answer further questions on the details of its quarantine measures or the specifics of Ms. Gao’s mother’s case.
Other videos, widely circulated on social media and analyzed by The Times, also show residents forced to wait outdoors before being sent to a quarantine facility. In one video, posted on Oct. 16, a man in a hazmat suit sits on the street, which was cordoned off by tape. The Times verified the location to be in Zhengzhou.
Another video, which The Times confirmed to be in the Qilihe district of Lanzhou in Gansu Province, shows residents sitting on folding beds in a parking lot. The video emerged in late October, when the district was discovering a handful of asymptomatic cases a day. It is unclear in both videos how long the people stayed outdoors.
In areas with outbreaks, some hospitals have taken in only Covid patients, or required up-to-date negative coronavirus test results for entry. In some cases, this has prevented or delayed people from getting medical help. A video filmed on Oct. 15 in Urumqi, the capital of China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, shows a man confronting workers in hazmat suits at a hospital, asking why they will not allow several pregnant women to enter. The guards do not respond.
After the video drew an outcry online, the hospital said in a statement that all beds were full at the time and that one of the women was later admitted.
Rigidly enforced rules can lead to deadly consequences. On Nov. 1, a 3-year-old boy died of carbon monoxide poisoning after his father’s requests for help to an emergency hotline were rebuffed because he lived in a zone with Covid cases. The authorities in Lanzhou promised to “learn from painful lessons” after the death stirred public outrage.
Strict Punishments for Violators
Offenses ranging from leaving quarantine to refusing to wear a mask outdoors can lead to swift punishment — including public shaming or physical violence.
In a video from early October, a police officer from a county in Heilongjiang Province in northeast China publicly reprimands a group of residents with a bullhorn. The authorities had mandated a nearly weeklong shutdown of businesses and schools after discovering one positive case in a population of more than 350,000.
In another video, several police officers confront an unmasked man at an outdoor produce market in Sichuan Province. After the man turns to address bystanders who are also urging him to put on a mask, an officer suddenly sprays his head with an irritant. Then police officers handcuff him and lead him away.
Some officials have also beaten residents who complain about being confined or about poor quarantine conditions. In a community in Shandong Province this month, workers in full protective gear punched, dragged and pushed at least two residents, according to widely shared footage that was met with public anger. The police later said that they had detained seven guards over the incident.
These incidents have stoked dissatisfaction toward the rigid control measures, despite the heavy censorship. And the authorities have at times acknowledged it: Recently, China’s National Health Commission criticized some local governments for adopting a “simplified, one-size-fits-all” approach to virus control. Last Friday, Beijing announced that it would ease some restrictions, citing the need for “optimization.”
Still, China has affirmed its commitment to the broader goal of eradicating Covid. “Practice has shown that our pandemic control strategy and tactics are completely correct,” an official said at a recent news conference.
Video Production by: Isabelle Qian and Ang Li Video Graphics by: James Surdam