In 2022 I decided to go to Burning Man despite the restrictions in place for getting back into China. I didn’t really care all that much, I just needed to get out of the country for a while. I wrote about my experience returning to China shortly after going through quarantine.
At the point this was written, the fire in Xinjiang hadn’t happened yet, and thus the riots and White Paper Protests hadn’t started either. China was still requiring everyone to test virtually every day, random lockdowns were still occurring, and people were still being dragged away to “Covid Camps”.
While I have gone through and edited the article to try and maintain factual accuracy, bear in mind these words reflect my thoughts and feelings at the time, which may not necessarily align with my current feelings and opinions.
Going into Quarantine
On our way into Shanghai we had to stop at Incheon Airport for a cabin crew change. Obviously the cabin crew doesn’t want to disembark in China. The restrictions there are still extreme. No one wants to go to Shanghai if they don’t have to. Unfortunately I had to.
After landing in Shanghai we were told not to move from our seats even after the plane had come to a complete stop. We had to wait until we were given permission to disembark. They want to spread out people coming in so there’s less chance of transmission. When you have a group of people who are all vaccinated, and have all tested negative for Covid over the previous two days, you can’t be too careful.
As we got off the plane we were flanked by two dabais (“big whites”, so called due to the white PPE that they wear). I feel physically sick at the sight of them – reminded of how much they don’t care, how they treated people like cattle, how they were quick to use violence during the 2-month lockdown. Why did I come back here? What was I thinking?
Once off the plane we had to sit down and wait before we were allowed through immigration. The dabai here checked one of the many QR codes we had to obtain before flying, before allowing us to move to the next stage. We queued up so we could scan the QR code and have our body temperatures scanned. While in the queue they tried to get us to spread out, but everyone ignored the dabai.
Once through this we had to go through a test site. In between each test they made us wait while they thoroughly cleaned their gloved hands. When I approached they asked me if I wanted a nose swab or a mouth swab. Obviously I picked ‘mouth’, but then they started going into a speech about some extra things I’d need to do. I wasn’t listening. Unable to sleep on planes, I had been awake for over 24 hours and was already getting frustrated with how insane this was. “I don’t care,” I said, interrupting them, “just give me the fucking test so I can get out of here.”
They gave me a nose swab. They forced it back so far that the pain caused my eyes to water. I’ve had more than 50 of these tests by this point, none of them were like this. After this I was allowed to go on through immigration.
Immigration took forever. The queue was small, but they were checking and double checking everything for the foreigners coming in. It felt like they were looking for any excuse not to let us back in. Another reminder of the increase in xenophobia over the last few years.
Once through we could pick up our bags and go through to the next waiting room. We had to scan another QR code and fill out another form, to get yet another QR code that the dabai could scan. After that we had to find the desk for our district so we could register for our quarantine hotel. I got to the Jing’An district and registered with the police there.
Everyone was wearing the PPE. The immigration officers, the police. Everyone. We hadn’t seen any faces outside of the other passengers since we entered the country. It felt like I’d entered into a Squid Game, though it was probably closer to The Cassandra Crossing.
I thought about trying to escape, but it was obvious how stupid that would be. We waited. And waited. There was no indication of how long we needed to wait, and our questions fell on deaf ears. I was hungry and thirsty. It had been 4 hours since we had landed up to this point.
Eventually we were told to use the toilets as we were about to board the bus. They then took us to another queue, with more forms, more QR codes, more nonsense. They really need to streamline this stuff. Though it’s maybe not streamlined on purpose.
While on the bus ride my girlfriend messaged me asking how the hotel was. She was shocked that I wasn’t even there yet.
We were driven to the Shanghai Hotel on Wulumiqi Lu. The lobby was a disaster. It made the buildings in Pripyat look well-maintained. Random piles of furniture, medical supplies, and other things covered in dust littered the place.
And of course, more dabai, more forms, more QR codes, more red tape. We had to pay for the privilege of staying here. It’s something I don’t mind on principle, but given how pointless all this is, and how we were being herded like cattle, how hard it was to get answers to basic questions, it seemed wrong to have to pay.
They charged 5000 RMB for 10 days. I asked why it was 500/day, not 400/day as it said at the airport. I also asked why I had to pay for 10 when it was supposed to be only 7 days. Initially they ignored me but when they saw I was unwilling to pay they caved. An extra 100/day for food, and they would refund the 3 days if we were allowed to go home.
After paying they assigned me a room. I was extremely hungry by this point so I asked about food. They just pointed at some pot noodles in a corner. I grabbed a couple of boxes so I had something to eat that night. In hindsight, I should have grabbed more.
On the way up I saw several more dabai pulling plastic bags full of rubbish out of the elevators to dispose of them. The elevators had been labelled and split into two sides – one for guests and one for dabai. But the dabai had used the guest lifts. Not even following their own quarantine protocols. I figured out the reason very quickly. All the lifts were linked – when you pushed a button you couldn’t control which one would come. They had obviously come up with the rule without thinking it through, and didn’t think to adapt when the reality was that it didn’t work. It’s a good metaphor for how the Chinese government creates policy.
The room was okay. But it was dirty. The carpet was covered in hair and nothing seemed to have been cleaned thoroughly. Considering this was supposed to be a quarantine facility it was shocking to me how they couldn’t even clean the rooms properly.
I sat on the bed. I finally called my girlfriend. Then I thought about escaping again. I was on the 11th floor, and the windows couldn’t open fully. The door had a sensor on it, with an alarm that would go off if it was open too long. There were cameras everywhere. I don’t know why I was thinking of escaping, to do so would be utterly stupid, and would likely end up with prison time. Perhaps it was just my mind coping with a stressful situation. Because there was only one other thought bouncing around my head:
Why? Why in the absolute fuck did I come back?
The food at the hotel was not great, but occasionally edible. The breakfasts always had a boiled egg and some bread. They were the best meals. The rest usually contained some kind of meat, some slimy vegetables and a lot of rice. Some meals were worse than others. One meal the “meat” was literally just bone. I couldn’t even suck out the marrow. I ended up surviving mostly on the rice, though I would keep some leftovers in the fridge, just in case.
For drinking, we were given 20x500ml bottles of water to last us the 7 days. We would get milk with breakfast, and one carton of juice per day. There was no tea or coffee.
We weren’t allowed to order our own food in. China had pushed the myth that packages spread Covid, despite the fact that there is more evidence to the contrary. This was the myth that led to the food shortages during the 2 month lockdown, and the reason people died in their own homes due to starvation, inability to get vital medicine, or from suicide.
There was an option to buy more food in the group chat. The options were limited and pretty awful: some instant noodles, a bit of fruit, some biscuits, and some cold drinks. They were all marked up to ridiculous prices – about 10 times what you would normally pay in a supermarket. It made me feel like this whole lockdown was just a money-making scam. Or at least, people were taking advantage to make extra money.
Unfortunately food could only be ordered using WeChat, a payment method not available to me at the time. I asked to see if anyone would help me buy food, and one person responded. She got in touch with me and we messaged each other briefly. By this time it was too late to order – they closed it every day at 3PM. When you did order the it would be delivered the day afterwards. I would have to wait 2 more days before I could get extra food.
On the third day the meat was prawns still in the shell. The “tendrils” were stretching out all over the tray, meaning I couldn’t risk eating any of it. I have an intolerance for shellfish, and the last thing I needed in quarantine was food poisoning. I complained in the group chat they had set up for us, but to no avail. This would be one of three times I would be given shellfish and be unable to eat the food.
I had been barely eating up to this point. There’s only so much poorly cooked rice I can shovel into my Western stomach, and the rest of the food wasn’t very nutritious. Now I was getting really hungry. I pulled the leftover rice out of the fridge to eat some of that, but I struggled to eat it when it was so cold.
The only thing I had in my room that could heat anything up was a kettle. I wondered if I could somehow steam the rice, but I had nothing that could hold it above the kettle. I could boil it, but I had a limited amount of drinking water, and how would I strain the rice afterwards? I decided to just throw the rice in the kettle, and ended up straining it with a t-shirt I had washed in the bath. It was something at least. It kept me going until the next day.
I messaged my new friend again and she ordered some food for me. At least I would have some extra snacks for the next few days. The next day the food arrived around midday. I realised I hadn’t actually ordered that much, so I rationed out all the snacks and drinks for the coming days. I was only supposed to be in here four more days, but I had a sneaking suspicion that they would keep us here longer.
By the time Friday came around my stomach was hurting. I was struggling to survive on the food they were giving me, and that includes the extra food that I ordered. It’s been almost a week in this country now and I hadn’t even had a cup of tea. In China of all places. I was suffering from some painful indigestion and it was getting worse. I just had to hold out for another few days and I could finally have a proper meal.
Thankfully that day gave the best meal I had the entire time I was in quarantine: large chunks of beef, sweet and sour pork, and duck’s blood. It was unusual to get so much meat with a single meal. I knew I was struggling thanks in part to my inability to eat shellfish, but I wondered how a vegetarian/vegan would survive in here.
The first thing I did when I got into the hotel room was to call my girlfriend. It’s the only real company I would have for the next ten days. Unfortunately talking to each other would prove difficult. She works long hours in the hospital, and I would fall asleep for most of the next day. By the time I woke up I would have a missed call, but she would already be asleep.
The isolation got to me quickly. The fear was already back. My first day in the USA was the first day since the lockdown that I didn’t feel afraid. But it was back now. The fear. Fear that I’d be trapped in this hotel forever. Fear that I’d catch Covid from one of the dabai in the hotel. Fear that I’d test positive and they’d drag me away to a camp.
I thought about suicide. Having a foreigner kill themselves in quarantine could do a lot of damage to China’s image. But I’d have to make sure that people knew China was the reason. If I left a note it would just get destroyed. Maybe a Facebook post? Then again, if I made the post and didn’t follow through I’d make people worry for no reason. Shit, I can’t just kill myself. I couldn’t do that to my mother.
I’m used to thinking through this by now. It’s not the first time I’ve had suicidal thoughts this year. I know I’d never do it, but it’s getting harder to convince myself there are better times ahead.
On the Monday I started working. I can work remotely, and the hotel had WiFi, so I didn’t need any extra time off. It was good to get back into the flow of things, and I worked through the day. Having actual responsibilities made things easier.
Unfortunately I was to fall asleep at 6, missing my girlfriend’s call again. The next day I was determined to make the call. I had (cold) coffee now so I was able to keep myself awake. I was extremely tired during the call, but I made it. After this my sleeping pattern normalised, and I was able to start keeping to a routine.
In the toilet attached to the room I stayed in there was a sign. In English, Japanese, and Chinese it says:
Let’s minimize the use of detergents and save our planet.
The irony here was not lost on me. All our food comes in plastic trays, which are wrapped in plastic bags. The drinks are also wrapped in little plastic bag. We go through three meals a day, over ten days, which is a lot of single use plastic per person. The “food” we can purchase also produces more waste. Especially the instant noodles, which are wrapped in plastic and contain even more plastic/foil bags inside.
What happens to all this waste? Do even the trays get reused? Given that people who test positive while in quarantine are charged for replacing everything in the room, it’s unlikely any of this waste gets recycled/reused. At best it ends up in a landfill somewhere. At worst it gets incinerated.
That’s not even considering the medical waste produced from the testing kits. That almost certainly gets destroyed. In quarantine we have a test every other day, but on 2 of the days we have 6(!) tests. That’s 15 tests over the course of ten days. And once we are out, everyone in the country is testing every other day. The amount of waste being produced by all these tests must be astronomical.
They have to end up somewhere. And wherever that is, it cannot be good for the environment. China’s Zero Covid policy is creating huge amounts of waste that ultimately ends up polluting the environment in order to
control protect people.
“Let’s save our planet”, my arse.
When I first came to China I learned of a stereotype: that Chinese people have no logic. Obviously this is a racist view, but it seems Xi Jinping’s government is doing everything they can to reinforce this stereotype.
We were set to be tested every other day while in quarantine. They would knock on the door, and two dabai would be waiting outside to swab the inside of your mouth. We would test negative every time.
On the 22nd things were a little bit different. They came to the door, and had the swabs as usual. But they seemed to want two samples from my mouth this time. They took two swabs, and put them both in my mouth at the same time. I was stunned. How is this different to just taking one sample? The stupidity didn’t stop there though.
I closed the door after they took the sample, then they knocked again. “Ni de shouji“, the said. They were asking for my phone. I was a bit confused by this. I gave them my phone number and they stopped me and repeated the request for my phone. I went into my room, got my phone and held it out. Then they took a swab and sampled my phone. I was stunned. But it didn’t even stop there.
I went to close the door again and they held it open and started asking me for more. My Chinese wasn’t great so I just stood there dumbfounded. What else could they possibly want? Then one of them came into my room and took some “samples” from my bathroom.
Are they really this illogical? Or is this some kind of malice? Because it’s starting to feel more like they’re trying to catch us out rather than protect us. We definitely aren’t patients in here. Patients are sick and get treatment. We are more like prisoners.
We were supposed to do 7 days in a hotel, followed by 3 days home quarantine. As the 7th day got closer people started asking in the group chat what time they could go home. They answered that it depended on their compound. People started posting the regulations, saying that we were supposed to be able to go home. They pointed out that we have all been testing negative consistently for at least two weeks. Still they wouldn’t let us out.
There were no replies. Eventually someone asked “are we patients or prisoners?” Another person in quarantine replied bluntly, “prisoners”. Another person said that we were worse than prisoners. Prisoners at least know why they are locked up. They get to go out to the yard for some exercise. For us, there is no “why”.
Only a couple of people were allowed to leave the next day. The rest of us would have to remain incarcerated for another three days.
On the Friday my girlfriend told me she had found out that her uncle had been diagnosed with cancer. He’s going to die soon. She works in a hospital and had tried to get some time off so she could go visit him in Xi’an. But the hospital has no compassion for its staff. Initially they wouldn’t even respond to here requests. Then they threw a lot of red tape at her if she decided to visit, including a 7 day quarantine when she returned to Shanghai. If a hospital cares this little about their staff, how much do they care about their patients?
On the penultimate day of quarantine we got a message in the group chat saying that if we were caught outside our rooms we would have to quarantine for another 7 days. Funny that the only information they were willing to give us was a threat of more quarantine even if none of us had Covid. It didn’t feel like they were trying to protect us or anyone else.
On the last day people started asking what time we could leave. They just told us to “wait for the phone call”. No one would give us any information. They didn’t seem to understand that we are people that need information, need to be able to plan our lives. Instead, they just treated us like cattle.
Eventually I got a phone call and was told I could leave. I went down. Of course there were even more forms to fill in, more checks. More QR codes. Eventually I was allowed out onto the street. I was “free”, for a given value of “free”.
The last message in the group chat asked, “what is the reason for waiting?” It remained unanswered.
Prisoners, not patients.
Ever since I left quarantine I have:
- Had to cancel plans due to health codes not being up-to-date.
- Been locked down in my apartment for two weekends in a row.
- Watched two foreigners get arrested and kicked for wearing a dabai costume.
China has actually become worse since I left. Xi has consolidated his power and he is showing zero signs of easing off. Whole buildings are locked down for seven days at a time. You don’t need to catch Covid to be dragged off to a camp anymore: they will take you just for being a close contact. They have these new “isolation chambers” that you have to stand inside before they transport you to a camp.
None of these policies are founded in reason. Watching what is going on I am reminded of how policies like “close-cropping” and the “four pests campaign” were implemented without a single thought given to logic or science. Xi’s China is a return to Maoism. And it will not be good for the Chinese people.
In 2012 I visited Iran, and witnessed first-hand how the government had oppressed its people. I see similar things starting here in China. There seems to be a push to make people too afraid to do anything outside of going to work. If you go to a bar on the weekend it’s almost a given you will be harassed by police.
No new passports have been issued since 2020. Some who have tried to leave have had their passports torn up. Some have them torn up when they return to China. It feels like they are trapping as many people in here as they can.