What Returning to China Taught Me About China

Coming back to Beijing showed me what happens when an unfettered state is allowed free rein, unchecked by law or civil society.

A human figure is surrounded by giant swabs.
Ben Hickey for The Atlantic

Four days into my COVID-prevention quarantine at a Shanghai hotel, I heard someone knock on the door. Like my fellow travelers at the facility, I wasn’t allowed to interact with anyone during my weeks of isolation, except the medical officers tasked with monitoring my health. An unexpected visit could mean bad news. I had been tested that morning. Could the results have been positive?

I opened the door to find the elderly gentleman who had administered the earlier COVID test. He said nothing, pointed an infrared thermometer at my forehead, and shuffled off with a grunt. I was safe, at least for the moment.

The fear I felt then has been constant since I returned to China three months ago. It hovers in the back of my mind; it keeps me awake at night. The fear isn’t of the virus itself. It’s that the next knock will come from one of the health officials, community wardens, or security officers who enforce China’s strict pandemic controls and have the power to drag me into any quarantine, at any facility, for any length of time, at any time. It’s the fear of being suddenly locked into my apartment, without access to food. My fear—the fear of the millions experiencing harsh lockdowns in Shanghai and elsewhere in China—is the fear of the arbitrary.

China under Communist Party rule has always been an autocracy with overwhelming repressive capabilities. But in the era of Xi Jinping, the state has been empowered to tighten its grip on society and equipped with enhanced surveillance technology to make that possible. The pandemic has offered the state further rationale and opportunity to expand this power. Ever since the government squashed the initial coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan more than two years ago, keeping COVID cases at zero has been touted at home and abroad as a mark of Chinese greatness. To maintain that success, the bureaucracy has erected new controls and regulations, implemented through technology that tracks, monitors, and limits people’s movements and behavior, penetrating deep into Chinese life.

This zero-COVID policy is not an aberration. It is representative of China’s political and social system. Authoritarian rule, by its very nature, must be arbitrary. Anything else would require the state to be held accountable for its failings and actions, and that would be intolerable here. The knock on the door must be able to come at any moment—and too often does—for something written, said, read, or done that the state doesn’t like. The consequence, by design, is a society that lives in a constant atmosphere of trepidation and helplessness.

My experience returning to zero-COVID China shows what happens when an unfettered state is allowed free rein, unchecked by law or civil society. It helped me better appreciate what is truly at risk with China’s global ascent. Washington’s widening confrontation with Beijing is not only about geopolitical supremacy or economic primacy, but about something far more fundamental. It concerns the fate of the individual in the international community—whether our future will be guided by values that cherish individuals or run roughshod over them.

From afar, China can appear to be a society of relentless progress, of high-speed railways built at high speed, and a strategic government efficiently planning for years to come. It is that, to an extent, but it’s also a place where a stifling bureaucracy inconsistently applies a tangle of vague and confusing regulations. Sometimes that can work in your favor. An official, feeling charmed, or lazy, or intimidated, can let infractions or requirements slide. This opens the door, however, to abuse, frustration, and irrationality. China’s zero-COVID policy has produced an additional morass of opaque rules that can change by the hour, handing the already intrusive bureaucracy even more power over your life.

In returning to China, I had to clamber through this bureaucratic steeplechase. An American journalist who had been living in Beijing, I was denied a new visa by the Chinese authorities amid deteriorating relations with Washington and, unable to work, I decided to exit the country in the summer of 2020. I left behind my wife, also an American journalist, who had to remain with her bureau.

I bought a plane ticket to Hong Kong (which, though part of China, has different regulations on journalists) and packed a single suitcase. Back then, the pandemic in China appeared to be under control and there was talk that its border with Hong Kong would open to freer travel, so we reasoned that we’d see each other again in a few weeks; at worst, a few months. Ultimately, we would not meet again for almost two years.

At first, COVID restrictions were what kept my wife and me separated: Foreign residents of China were prohibited from returning from trips abroad to prevent the virus from seeping in. But the hurdles were diplomatic as well. As part of Beijing’s continued harassment of American journalists, my wife was told that if she left the country, she might not be allowed to return. So we stayed where we were—I in Hong Kong, she in Beijing. We celebrated anniversaries and birthdays over FaceTime. Once, she reported from Shenzhen, so close to Hong Kong that it can be reached by subway, yet she might as well have been in the Himalayas.

Then came an unexpected breakthrough. Last November, Washington and Beijing negotiated a truce in their journalist war. Each would again issue visas to the other’s journalists, and much to my surprise, I was one of the initial Americans approved. Perhaps, my wife thought, I could be home by Christmas.

But when it comes to China, optimism is a dangerous thing. The authorities made me reapply for the visa, involving a mountain of paperwork and a Zoom interview with officials at China’s embassy in Washington, D.C., during which I was lectured on journalistic ethics and asked if I had ever been in a guerrilla army. My application was eventually approved, but then I had to do the paperwork all over again with Chinese consular officers in Hong Kong, where I was still living, to process the visa. Finally, in March, a prized J1 (for “journalist”) visa was in my passport. That little slip of paper lifted a great weight off of me. I could reunite with my wife.

A human figure is drowning in paperwork.
Ben Hickey for The Atlantic

Timing conspired against me, though: By the time I had the necessary documents, both mainland China and Hong Kong were going through renewed pandemic waves, the latter engulfed by its worst-ever outbreak, with daily cases skyrocketing into the tens of thousands. Getting to the mainland, always a tricky venture amid its COVID restrictions, became even more complicated as local officials strove to protect their towns from Hong Kong’s surge. Crossing the border into Shenzhen became difficult; flights to Beijing were delayed. I ended up boarding a plane to Shanghai, the best route open to me at the time.

Like anyone entering Shanghai from abroad (and that includes Hong Kong), I had to endure three weeks of government-managed quarantine. Rather than allowing travelers to arrange their own accommodations, China insists on allocating a room to those entering. You could find yourself relaxing in luxury or condemned to a one-star dump and not be able to do much about it. Most worrisome were the meals: Quarantine hotels typically don’t permit food deliveries, and that wouldn’t work for me. Though I’m not a religious person, I grew up in a household that kept a strictly kosher kitchen, and to this day, I won’t eat pork or shellfish. In China, a country that maintains a “strategic pork reserve” like America does a strategic petroleum reserve, it was safe to assume that most of my meals would contain pork, and if not pork, then shrimp, and if not shrimp, then more pork. There were only so many granola bars and cans of tuna I could carry.

We learned through friends that one particular quarantine hotel in Shanghai permitted meal deliveries, but to ensure that I was assigned to it, I needed an address in the same neighborhood. (Shanghai officials tend to quarantine incoming travelers based on where they live.) After several failed attempts, my wife and a friend devised an elaborate plan to book an Airbnb nearby as a place to stay after my quarantine, and use that address to get me into the right hotel. Owners were wary of hosting a traveler from COVID-ridden Hong Kong, but eventually, one agreed.

When I landed in Shanghai, the airport had been converted into a warren of pandemic-control checkpoints. After I got my suitcase, I wandered into another maze of desks and lines where I would be assigned to a quarantine hotel. At the end of it, I stepped onto a bus to a pork-free room at my hotel of choice. The scheme had worked.

Until it didn’t. The hotel had just a short time before changed its policy—no more food deliveries. The game, though, was not up. In China, many bureaucratic entanglements that seem so impersonal and impenetrable are not, if you know who to call. Rules that appear strict on the surface can be manipulated behind the scenes. We contacted a friend who knew a rabbi in Shanghai whose organization happened to run a kosher restaurant in the city. He intervened on my behalf, and the hotel staff assented to an exception: They would bring kosher meals sent by the restaurant to my room. Two hours later, I had chicken schnitzel, mashed potatoes, and lentil soup for dinner.

The purpose of zero COVID is to save lives, and that, it has achieved. Yet this policy has often been imposed with extreme severity—even cruelty. Authorities erected fences around Shanghai apartment buildings to prevent residents from leaving. They have separated sick children from their parents, killed the pets of quarantined families, invaded apartments and soaked them indiscriminately with disinfectants, and kept innocent citizens penned in their homes without food or medical care. Why does the government act with such inhumanity in a supposedly humanitarian cause?

Because it can. Only in a society like China’s, where the individual has little recourse against the state, could zero COVID operate as it has. Officials will get into trouble if COVID breaks out on their watch, so they are motivated to be as strict as possible. The result is a system that breeds abuse. That doesn’t mean the government is completely immune to public pressure, but it does mean that officials will and can do whatever they believe necessary to protect themselves. If some ordinary people suffer along the way, so be it.

I should stop here and make clear that I am in favor of stricter controls to contain COVID, such as mask and vaccine mandates. But I also believe that people must be treated with respect and dignity. Too often, the implementation of zero COVID in China has lacked this basic humanity.

My quarantine in Shanghai was tolerable enough. The room had a big window, an empty mini-fridge to store food, and a large (though uncomfortable) bed. But in many respects, we were treated like prisoners: We were given only two hand towels for our entire incarceration, bags of garbage piled up outside my door, and I was refused a change of bedding. Even murderers are allowed time out of their cells for exercise in the open air; we couldn’t step out into the hallway. An alarm rang if you opened your door for too long. Staff thumped on your door without warning and expected you to immediately come running. I was routinely woken at early-morning hours for COVID tests.

This already stressful period was made more so by the constant uncertainty. Upon arrival, I was slated to be confined in quarantine for 21 days, but while there, Shanghai suddenly shortened it to 14. Immediately, my hopes rose. Could I get to see my wife earlier than we anticipated?

Of course not. I discovered I could not book a flight out of Shanghai until I had been on the mainland for 21 days. So I checked into another hotel to wait it out. At least I wouldn’t be confined to one room.

Until I was confined to one room: The new hotel’s management refused to acknowledge these updated quarantine rules and insisted that I isolate for my entire seven-day stay. (I also couldn’t move again: Most hotels would not accept travelers after the shortened quarantine.)

During this period of isolation, which eventually stretched to five weeks across two cities, I came to the conclusion that Chinese quarantines are a form of torture: Throughout, I was in the open air for no more than 10 minutes. My visitors were mainly health officers who performed COVID tests. (I had 14 in all.) Sometimes these were administered with unnecessary harshness—wooden swabs jammed roughly into sensitive nasal tissue, or deep into the throat, inducing gagging and choking, often multiple times. I could speak with people by phone, but in many respects I was in solitary confinement.

I began to exhibit symptoms of the abused: recurring irrational bouts of terror for what might come, extreme lethargy that caused a loss of will and concentration, uncontrolled agitation and feelings of hostility toward my oppressors. I found myself literally counting the hours down to my release, and worrying that it wouldn’t happen.

Was all of that isolation necessary to protect the public? A study by America’s CDC suggests that the incubation period of the Omicron variant (the one now plaguing China) is two to five days. If my third and fourth COVID tests were negative, what were the chances I’d be positive on rounds seven and eight? (Let alone 14.) After two weeks locked up in my initial Shanghai hotel, the staff tested my mobile phone for COVID. I fully understand the need for extra caution. I also understand that much of zero COVID is a state protecting itself.

A human figure with luggage faces a giant eye.
Ben Hickey for The Atlantic

COVID outbreaks in a city like Shanghai, the country’s financial center, are embarrassing enough for the image-conscious Chinese leadership. Allowing a similar fiasco in Beijing, with starving, resentful residents protesting as they did in Shanghai—by clanging pots and screaming out their windows late into the night—within earshot of Xi Jinping is simply inconceivable. Officials often place extra hurdles on entering the capital to prevent such disturbances.

Anyone traveling anywhere in China requires a green “health code” generated by a government-run app on your smartphone, showing that you are COVID-free. If you don’t have a green code, you can’t get into a supermarket or an office building, to say nothing of boarding an airplane. Because I was emerging from quarantine in Shanghai, my code was green. But to enter Beijing, I would need a Beijing-specific green code, created by a special Beijing-specific subprogram. Coming from COVID-engulfed Shanghai, I assumed I wouldn’t have one. I faced the prospect of being shut out of Beijing indefinitely.

Hope rose when a friend discovered a new regulation that allows disabled people to travel to Beijing without the requisite health codes. I am almost completely blind, because of a rare genetic retinal condition, so I qualified. I have a general rule that I won’t use my disability to gain special favor. When it came to the Chinese government, however, I was willing to make an exception.

But remember what I said about getting too optimistic in China? I may have completed three weeks of quarantine, but by the time I emerged, Shanghai had gone into lockdown and restrictions had been extended when I was due to fly to Beijing. No one was permitted on the streets—not even if, like me, you had a booked flight. I quickly filed paperwork to the Shanghai municipal government seeking permission to travel, arguing that, as a new foreign correspondent posted to Beijing, I was obligated to be in the capital. Much to our surprise, a pass permitting me to go to the airport appeared in a few hours. But even that wasn’t enough. I had a flight and a pass, but no transport. It’s not like you could just hail a taxi in the middle of a citywide lockdown. Working through contacts, we located a driver in possession of a permit allowing him to operate during the lockdown and scheduled a pickup at my hotel.

The morning of my flight was the most stressful of the entire journey. We had done everything we could, but there was always that fear of arbitrary action. Any official I encountered could bar me from the flight and strand me in Shanghai. And then what? I worried something would go wrong as the driver pulled up in a minibus and we drove through the eerie, depopulated streets of Shanghai, a city of 25 million people. An elevated highway, usually bumper to bumper, was empty as we approached the airport. I entered a vacant terminal of closed shops and check-in counters.

First, two security officers at the entrance examined my documents. (I carried a stack of 18.) Then they summoned the airport doctor to take a look. He gave his consent, and I rolled that one bag I had packed nearly two years prior through the silent terminal. At check-in, several staffers rifled through the same papers as I stood by nervously, attempting not to look nervous. Eventually, I was handed a boarding pass.

I was finally on my way to Beijing and my wife. And yet what would life be like there? More COVID tests, more intrusive high-tech tracking, and probably more lockdowns, more rules, and more uncertainty. It would be a life of perpetual fear of the arbitrary, of the next knock on the door.

Advocates of the Chinese system believe that the U.S. sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives because of an ideological devotion to freedom. In that, there is an element of truth. But what China is propagating instead is far worse: a state without boundaries. Many proponents of that state within and outside China possess the wealth and connections to protect themselves from its most egregious abuses; most Chinese, still poor and voiceless, cannot. They remain defenseless against a capricious and powerful government. The state may have prevented COVID deaths better than many liberal democracies. But that success has come at great cost—to human dignity and to the human spirit. The threat of COVID will pass; the threat of autocracy, sadly, will not.

My reunion with my wife took place in the same airport where we had parted 662 days earlier. “Hi, it’s me,” she said as I emerged from baggage claim. It was as if we had seen each other the day before. For a moment, those painful, lonely years apart suddenly evaporated, as though they had never happened.

But only for a moment. On our way through the arrival hall, we were waylaid by men in hazmat suits. That morning, Beijing’s rules had changed yet again. No longer could I take my own transport to my 14-day quarantine at home. (The 21 days in Shanghai weren’t sufficient.) Now only designated cars, dispatched by the city’s districts, were permitted, in order to create a supposed “closed loop.” The problem was that no one seemed to have informed the district offices. The cars had not arrived. In the meantime, we were corralled like livestock into a roped-off pen inside the terminal with other Shanghai arrivals, without food or water. Eventually, staff at a nearby McDonald’s, apparently feeling sorry for us, took orders and brought them over. My first meal with my wife was Chicken McNuggets and fries. Four hours passed before a car finally materialized. The driver pulled on the requisite hazmat suit, but, a bulky fellow, he punched his foot through the bottom. (He had a ready replacement.)

Then when we got home, I got shut into our apartment, and my wife, unable to stay, took her packed suitcase and checked into a hotel down the street.

It wasn’t exactly how I had envisioned coming together again, us tearfully throwing ourselves into each other’s arms. But it was probably more fitting. In zero-COVID China, normalcy—and sanity—will have to wait.