Beijing Diary: China goes all out to fortify the capital


Empty trains and deserted streets silence a lively metropolis

Subways in Beijing remain virtually deserted, although some businesses have reopened following an extended Lunar New Year declared after the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by Tetsushi Takahashi)

Subways in Beijing remain virtually deserted, although some businesses have reopened following an extended Lunar New Year declared after the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by Tetsushi Takahashi)

Spooky ghost towns were a frequent setting for the manga stories this reporter read growing up in Japan. They have now become reality across urban China, including the usually bustling capital.

Empty streets languish below Beijing's soaring skyscrapers. Hardly anyone can be seen on subways and buses. Even as businesses restarted operations Monday after an extended Lunar New Year holiday, few people entered and exited buildings in the Guomao central business district.

The national leadership is determined to shield Beijing, the seat of the Communist Party, from the epidemic. It has stopped all long-haul bus service linking the city to the rest of the country. All group tours, domestic and overseas, have been canceled.

It's as if an invisible wall has gone up around the city, limiting people's movement and hopefully shutting out the virus.

 "I have told our staff to work from home this week," said one senior official at a Japanese-affiliated company in the area. Beijing authorities have recommended that companies instruct their staff to work from home.

The Monday traffic on the subway was smaller than on Sunday. "Everyone feels that the situation is worse than during the SARS epidemic," said a woman in her 60s, referring to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003. "Nobody wants to go out, for fear of contracting the virus."

As of Sunday, there were 337 coronavirus cases and two deaths in Beijing attributed to the disease. The situation is not as critical as in Wuhan, where about 17,000 people have contracted the virus and some 700 people have died. Yet Beijing's 20 million residents mostly remain shut up at home.

Walking the deserted streets, I'm struck by the capital's countless surveillance cameras, which seem more numerous than people. Occasionally, the cameras detect something and light the eerie flash bulb. 

But while China's 200 million or so electronic eyes keep close tabs on citizens, they cannot spot, let alone halt, the spread of the virus. 

This isn't how things were supposed to go. When the government placed a draconian lock down on the central Chinese city of Wuhan on Jan. 23, Beijingers still considered it a far off event.      

Some famous tourist spots such as the National Palace Museum and the Great Wall were closed, but shopping malls were filled with the usual crowds ahead of the Lunar New Year holidays, which began the following day.

The festive mood came to an abrupt halt on New Year's Day, Jan. 25. As I tried to enter a subway station that evening, I was stopped by two employees in white protective clothing. When I asked if there were infected people in the station, they replied that they were checking the body temperatures of all passengers to ensure safety.

By then the authorities had installed thermal monitors at busy locations around Beijing. Those running a fever of 37.3 C or higher were denied entry and directed to seek treatment at a hospital.

When I went home, I had to go through a thermal scanner again before I could enter the building. If I had developed a fever while I was out, I was not going to be allowed inside my house. I would be taken straight to a hospital and quarantined.

Why had the alert level been raised so abruptly? The answer soon became clear.

On the night of Jan. 25, state-run China Central Television broadcast footage of the Politburo Standing Committee, the country's highest decision-making body, holding a meeting. President Xi Jinping was there.

The CCTV announcer read out a directive from Xi ordering that the "centralized and unified leadership" of the party's Central Committee be strengthened, as the country faced a "grave situation" due to the accelerating spread of the coronavirus.

Xi's remarks to the standing committee marked the start of a "people's war," in communist parlance, one that will mobilize all Chinese people in a life-or-death struggle against the virus. Once word comes down from the top, things move quickly in China: a complete halt to long-haul bus services linking Beijing with the rest of the country was declared; all group tours, domestic and overseas, were canceled.

The idea is to assert total control over the flow of people, preventing the spread of the coronavirus across the country. The authorities are also trying to enclose Beijing, the nerve center of the government and the Communist Party, in a protective bubble.

The effect was apparent the next day, Jan. 26. Pedestrian traffic declined sharply. Barricades went up here and there, along with notices stating: "Access sealed off to prevent infection," making it impossible for people to pass through. Barriers were erected at the entrances of housing complexes and city districts. The sidewalk I use almost every day was blocked.

On orders from the authorities, supermarkets and convenience stores have remained open. There is no sign of food shortages, and the government has promised repeatedly to "guarantee the supply of vegetables and meat."

But many stores have two notices posted at their entrances. One says: "Please wear a mask when entering the store, for your safety and that of others." The other declares: "Masks and disinfection products are out of stock."

People not wearing masks are not allowed in. But with masks sold out, it makes one think how the people without masks are managing to buy their essential supplies.

The outbreak should be a boon to China's home-delivery services, which boast world-beating information technology. But while they appear to be flooded with orders, there are few people to deliver the goods. People say that even those fortunate enough to receive an order often have their items placed far from their homes to limit the risk of catching the virus from a courier.

A foreign-diplomat friend recently wrote to me on WeChat: "I will return home quickly at the behest of my home country. I am very sorry."

Countries including the U.S. are starting to pull diplomats out of China. I see foreigners leaving my condominium complex on a daily basis, heavy suitcases in tow. The exodus of foreign nationals from Beijing continues.

Every day, the municipal authorities publish a list of places where new coronavirus cases have been detected. More and more red dots note new locations.

Rumors are also increasing. Information about this area or that being closed off, regardless of its accuracy, quickly spreads through social media. Some talk of infected people found at central government agencies.

With no end to the public health crisis in sight, fear grips the city.

As if to symbolize the brewing danger to the Communist Party, the red dots have begun popping up not far from the Zhongnanhai district, where Xi and other Politburo Standing Committee members have offices.


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