Our reporter who was in China for 10 months before the coronavirus pandemic recounts his experience in the Asian country which has been under lockdown since late January to halt spread of the deadly virus first reported in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei Province in December 2019 and now spreading across the globe.
When I left China late last year, I never knew that the country I had lived for almost one year would be in the middle of a global health crisis.
In my experience living in China, I junketed across the country, walked its cities, visited neighbourhoods, parks and alleys, historically iconic sites and monuments, all of which made my stay pleasantly remarkable.
One night, I walked through the streets of Beijing to the Tiananmen Square located at the centre of the city, where one can visit the Tiananmen Tower, Monument to the People’s Heroes, Great Hall of the People, Chairman Mao Zedong Memorial Hall and see the national flag-raising ceremony.
In summer evenings, the square would be packed with people-men, women, children, young couples out on a romantic date or promenade, filling every inch of space. But in winter, it would be scantily filled with those who bravely defied the biting cold.
It was an unpleasantly cold winter night, dark and smoggy when the plants were dead and frozen and the moon shrouded by the murky looming clouds. About 30 minutes into my walk, I encountered an aged woman, loafing around somewhere close to a subway station. Donning jacket upon jacket, the woman, suffering from Camptocomia (bent spine syndrome), feebly walked toward passers-by, stretching out her right hand in a gesture typical of a beggar. In fact, I mistook her as one.
Up close, I saw that she was actually giving out leaflets that featured a map of the Beijing subway. She was a volunteer. This struck me not only because she’s aged and feeble, but also because of the patriotic sentiment she commendably demonstrated in the bleak weather.
On several occasions, I had met a number of Chinese people, whose surprising courtesy spoke volumes about their welcoming disposition. On a culinary tour in Hanzhong, one of China’s best eco-friendly cities in Shaanxi Province, I met one middle-aged man who was warm and sparkling with life, and who not only led me to the best street food in the area but also footed the bill.
Also, on a Sunday evening, Beijing was locked down for military rehearsals in preparation for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Major roads were blocked and some subway lines were closed. I was stranded somewhere in the heart of the city. Perplexed and utterly confused about what to do, I met two kind-hearted Chinese, a man and woman, who, despite going to different directions, happily led me to my destination.
In June last year after Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, I celebrated the Eidel-Fitr – the festival of breaking the fast – in Niujie, Beijing’s largest Muslim neighbourhood.
There, I had a striking experience of volunteerism and orderliness. The roads leading to the mosque were closed to motorists, and despite thousands of people streaming into the area, there was neither a chaotic scene nor obstruction of traffic flow. I was pleasantly surprised by the courteous behaviour demonstrated by an abundance of cheerful, enthusiastic volunteers who, with cheerful faces, approached worshipers and guided their ways to the praying area.
Beijing is on a top list of the world’s most crowded cities. Morning, afternoon, or evening, the city swarms with people walking through its streets or streaming into train stations and airports.
It is home to over 20 million people, and also notorious for traffic jams. The vehicular stampede is so bad that the government has limited who can drive on which days according to license number plate. But this strategy did very little to ameliorate roadway nightmare.
But what amazed me in Beijing is, despite its crowded feature, it is clean, orderly and relatively quiet-the honking of cars, the sirens of ambulances, the yelling of peddlers and all other rumpuses are rare occurrences.
Trains in the subway are packed but chit-chats are uncommonly rare. At ‘Line 10’, a busy transfer station, I often witnessed a frantic traffic of legs flowing left and right, people going to work, some returning, and others out for shopping.
Once, I looked out over a sea of restlessly eager commuters as they swarmed onto a train that just arrived at the station just as its doors opened. Inside, a few people turned to each other in conversation, but the remainder didn’t. Instead, they fixed their gaze to and fondled with their mobile phones. My Chinese language teacher, Laoshi Betty, once told us in class that even in the elevators installed in residential buildings, it’s rare to see neighbours exchange greetings.
To avoid chaos at packed sites, officials would get crowds corralled into two or three-lined marching formation. Sometime in April last year, we embarked on a group tour to the Forbidden City, the palatial heart of China in central Beijing which houses the Palace Museum, and once served as the imperial palace for 24 emperors during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 – 1911).
Long queues formed at the entrance and stretched for blocks. We stood in line with the other tourists waiting our turn to file in. One by one, we shuffled inside. Once in the Forbidden City, we were herded through the expansive palace like an excitable crowd at a fairground making its way through a haunted mansion. Despite the swarm of tourists filing in and out, the scene was not chaotic.
While exploring the country, I was intrigued by the curious stare many locals gave to foreigners, especially those seeing people of colour different from theirs for the first time. Some would summon the courage to ask for a group selfie with you with their cheeks flushed out with excitement.
Once I approached a Chinese lady for direction, and after showing me the way, she asked to take a selfie with me.
In a leafy, picturesque street, three giggling Africans were taking pictures of one another when a Chinese man in his early 60s riding bicycle suddenly made a u-turn, stopped a few feet away, observed them for a few moments, and then summoned the courage to request to be photographed with them.
A Malian friend, Moussa Sayon Camara, told me about his encounter with a Chinese lady, who had welcomed him to her electronic store with a curious gaze, but whose irresistibly tactile sense drove her to touch his skin, apparently to feel its difference from hers.
“She was relaxed, courteous and warm, and her reaction reeked no sign of racist tendency,” Camara told me.
Now, the above scenes have disappeared. Travel restrictions and quarantine measures, imposed by the authorities to halt the spread of coronavirus, have left many streets, parks, iconic sites and shopping centres essentially deserted in cities across China.
Recent scenes from Wuhan, Shanghai, Beijing, and other virus-affected areas showed nearly empty subways even at rush hours, deserted streets, and empty highways, shopping malls and parks.
During the peak period of the lockdown, I reached out to friends, both Chinese and foreign nationals in that country to know how they are acclimatising to a forced stay-at-home lifestyle.
Many recounted an ordeal of life typical of a prisoner’s. Some are frustrated, even exasperated, by the containment measures — but they largely support them, especially as the measures have helped to a large extent, contain the virus.
Though the country has more than 81,300 confirmed cases and 3,253 deaths, the situation of pandemic prevention and control continues to improve, with life being restored gradually.
China confirmed it had no new domestic cases on Wednesday for the first time since the outbreak began. But it reported 34 new cases among people who had recently returned to the country.
Now, its model is being imitated by many countries imposing travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders and closing their doors to visitors, including their closest neighbours and allies.