The Chinese government is battling to contain the coronavirus outbreak that has infected tens of thousands and killed more than 3,000 people, while spreading worldwide. Nikkei’s bureau chief in China, Tetsushi Takahashi, is on the ground in the capital and is filing dispatches on what he sees.
Monday, April 13
There were more people than I had expected, but far fewer than in normal times.
I visited a section of the Great Wall of China in Badaling, on the outskirts of Beijing, on Saturday. The atmosphere was somewhat lively, but I’m not sure whether to describe the crowd as large or small.
Badaling had been closed for two months to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but it reopened on March 24. Tickets must be purchased online in advance, and entries will be stopped if the number of visitors exceeds about 30% of normal levels. Last summer, up to 65,000 visitors passed through per day; now the limit is around 20,000.
Usually, the place is so packed you cannot move. So this might be an ideal time for a leisurely visit.
I saw a middle-aged woman making a video call on her smartphone. “You should visit here now!” she said. “You can get in without waiting in line.”
Still, hordes of people do form here and there — especially at Beibalou, the highest point in Badaling, and Haohanshi, a popular photography spot. A worrying thought crossed my mind: What if these crowds included a coronavirus carrier? I wondered if the Chinese authorities shared this concern.
Then I remembered that, upon entering, I had been asked to show my smartphone with the Health Kit service screen.
One registers for this through the WeChat mobile messaging app, by providing a face photo and personal identification number. Using big data, the service detects whether registered individuals have had contact with anyone known to be infected, and tracks infected people leaving Beijing. When I entered my passport number and picture, I promptly received an all-clear message.
I suppose the government is confident it has a firm grasp of the situation, thanks to smartphone location data and the surveillance cameras set up all over the place. Perhaps that factored into the decision to reopen Badaling.
The wall of information China has constructed is as large and strong as the Great Wall.
Friday, April 10: Tokyo becomes a cautionary tale
Tokyo’s surging coronavirus cases are making headlines in China. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government on Thursday announced 181 new confirmed infections, bringing the total in the Japanese capital to 1,519. The official total for Beijing, in contrast, is under 600.
Tokyo seemed to be handling the crisis better than other big cities like New York and London, which have seen explosive outbreaks. My Chinese acquaintances used to compliment me, praising Japanese hygiene. But now they may be thinking the Japanese let their guard down.
Some may see a lesson for China, on the risk of becoming too relaxed.
Data from the government-owned China Tourism Academy shows about 43 million Chinese went traveling during this year’s Qingming Festival, or “tomb-sweeping” period for visiting graves, which ended on Monday. Footage of crowds at Mount Huangshan — one of the country’s best-known scenic spots, in the eastern province of Anhui — went viral on social media.
On a Chinese news site, I found a video titled “Beijing Station is in big trouble!”
When I visited the station on Thursday afternoon, there were more people milling about out front compared with my last visit in mid-February. It was a little alarming to see people with large luggage sitting on the ground, and even spitting.
At a top-level Communist Party meeting on Wednesday, President Xi Jinping stressed that China is facing a complex, severe international pandemic and worldwide economic woes. The country, he said, will have to stick to “bottom-line thinking.” This unfamiliar slogan probably means people should prepare for the worst.
The Xi government may be looking to tighten its grip yet again to contain a second wave of infections.
Thursday, April 9: Hard-line spokesman Zhao returns with a softer script
Zhao Lijian, the deputy director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, has resurfaced nearly a month after he disappeared from the public eye.
In mid-March, Zhao raised eyebrows by tweeting that the U.S. military may have brought the novel coronavirus to Wuhan, where the outbreak started. American officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, condemned this conspiracy theory, further chilling relations between the two countries.
Until this week, Zhao had not been seen in public since the uproar, prompting speculation that he might have been replaced. But on Tuesday, he hosted his first regular news conference at the Foreign Ministry in about a month. I attended the next day’s briefing to see how he looked and hear what he had to say.
In the April 8 news conference, Zhao was asked about U.S. President’s Donald Trump’s criticism of the World Health Organization for being “very biased toward China.” Trump also threatened to review American funding for the organization.
Zhao gave an innocuous reply.
He said the WHO, under the leadership of Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had been “playing an important role in coordinating international efforts and advancing international cooperation in response to the pandemic.”
Zhao seemed to be at pains to avoid denouncing Trump while defending the WHO and its chief.
While fielding questions, Zhao frequently stopped to leaf through papers. Even when he started to deliver answers, his eyes would linger on the documents.
After his tweet about the U.S. military caused such a fuss, he appeared to be sticking to the script. This was a very different Zhao than the seemingly outspoken man seen before.
Something else has changed as well. After the spat over the origin of the virus, numerous comments expressing displeasure with Zhao appeared on Chinese social media. But now, criticism of the spokesman is rare, and anyone who knocks him is blasted as a “puppet of the U.S.”
It seems clear that everything Zhao says reflects the intentions of the Chinese leadership, led by President Xi Jinping. He is not expressing his own views, even on Twitter.
China’s tight control of free speech, which contributed to the delayed initial response to the outbreak, is also working well here.
Wednesday, April 8: Wuhan’s ordeal ends but other battles have just begun
On Wednesday morning, planes took off one after another from the airports in Wuhan, Hubei Province. The city’s lockdown, in place since Jan. 23 due to the deadly coronavirus, was finally lifted.
While Tokyo, Osaka and other Japanese cities entered a state of emergency on Wednesday, the Chinese city at the center of the initial outbreak is beginning to return to normal.
Even without a lockdown, no flights from Wuhan are allowed to go to Beijing directly. Airlines must first stop in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, or other cities. No direct international flights are allowed into Beijing, either.
Reported new infections have remained roughly flat in mainland China, with no new deaths recorded on Monday. Still, the authorities’ message is clear: We are winning the fight against the virus, but do not come to Beijing.
After all, the capital — the headquarters of the Communist Party — is special.
So Beijing’s two large airports remain deserted. On Tuesday afternoon, I went to Beijing Daxing International Airport, which opened only last September, about 45 km south of the city center. It was strange to see the empty terminal, which resembles a huge spaceship in a sci-fi movie.
The government spent 80 billion yuan ($11.3 billion) to build Daxing International Airport to ease the capacity crunch at Beijing Capital International Airport. The new hub’s passenger volume was forecast to hit 72 million by 2025.
The plan was to increase the number of runways from four to seven in pursuit of 100 million annual passengers. Now, however, the government will have no choice but to rethink that.
Wuhan’s liberation has brought relief and excitement, but President Xi Jinping’s government faces numerous “postwar” challenges.
Tuesday, April 7: The Communist Party and an Olympic twist of fate
This year’s Qingming Festival, or “tomb-sweeping” period for visiting graves, ended on Monday. Over the three-day weekend, some parks in the capital were crowded, as the public loosens up after months in coronavirus crisis mode.
It was a stark contrast with Tokyo, which is entering a state of emergency.
On Monday morning, I stopped by Xiangshan Park in the western suburbs. After a temperature check, I entered and found numerous families and young people out for a stroll.
Xiangshan, the site of a Qing dynasty imperial summer palace, is one of the Communist Party’s revolutionary bases. In March 1949, the party set up its first headquarters there after beating the Kuomintang, or Nationalist party.
Communist leader Mao Zedong spent nearly six months there, formulating plans for the People’s Republic of China, which was established on Oct. 1.
With the backing of President Xi Jinping, Mao’s residence and the new Xiangshan Revolution Memorial Hall were opened to the public in September 2019, as part of China’s 70th anniversary celebrations. There was a long line of visitors when I visited the following month.
Recently, the hall has been closed as a precaution against the virus. But it is expected to feature prominently when the party commemorates the 100th anniversary of its founding in July 2021. As soon as it has the epidemic under control, the government will start planning nationwide centennial events.
The party considers July 1 its foundation date. But official records show the first party congress began in Shanghai on July 23, 1921. The party picked July 1 in the 1930s simply because Mao recalled that the first congress had been held in that month.
In a strange coincidence, another big event is scheduled for July 23: the opening day of the Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed due to the pandemic.
Monday, April 6: Three minutes of mourning
China’s death toll from the coronavirus outbreak stands at around 3,300. As the nation marked the Qingming Festival, or “tomb-sweeping day,” on April 4 — when people normally visit their ancestors’ graves — the government called on the public to observe three minutes of mourning for the victims at 10:00 a.m.
That day, a crowd converged on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where a Chinese flag flew at half-mast. At precisely 10:00 a.m., sirens rang out, people bowed their heads en masse and vehicles honked their horns.
Unlike in Japan, making loud sounds is a Chinese way of paying respects to the dead.
At exactly the same time, the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party’s top decision-making body led by President Xi Jinping, observed a moment of silence just west of the square. They stood in front of the Huairen Hall, roughly at the center of the vast Zhongnanhai area.
The hall was built in the 1880s, in the last years of the Qing dynasty. Empress Dowager Cixi, popularly known as the West Empress Dowager, lived there. Today, the hall is where the 25-member Politburo — including the Standing Committee — holds meetings.
In other words, it is the center of the Communist Party’s power.
The state-run China Central Television showed footage of the seven Politburo Standing Committee members and Vice President Wang Qishan standing solemnly in the front row, with Xi at the center.
Wang retired from the Standing Committee at the party’s last national congress in autumn 2017. But he returned to the core of the Xi regime as vice president in spring 2018. He is, effectively, an eighth committee member.
The eight leaders had all gathered the previous day, as well, for a tree-planting event in southern Beijing. They used shovels to dig holes and planted trees in a scene meant to show they are united against the virus.
That the eight of them appeared together two days in a row suggests growing confidence that the epidemic can be contained. After the day of remembrance, a festive, victorious mood is spreading.
Friday, April 3: The unbearable weight of being a student
June is examination season in China. Gaokao, the country’s national college entrance exams, are traditionally held during the month.
But this year, the gaokao schedule has changed due to the new coronavirus. The Ministry of Education announced in late March that the 2020 exams would be conducted on July 7 and 8, a month later than normal. The ministry also hinted that tests in Beijing and Hubei Province could be postponed further, depending on the status of the outbreak.
The gaokao exams, seen as a symbol of highly competitive Chinese society, are often likened to the civil service examination system that lasted from the Sui dynasty (581-618) to 1905, the end of the Qing dynasty. Then, as now, success or failure could have a major impact on the course of one’s life. The ministry says 10.71 million students are scheduled to take the exams this year.
After the announcement of the delay, social networks were flooded with posts by distressed students. It must be unbearable to have to study for another month.
On Thursday evening, I passed the prestigious Beijing No. 4 High School. In normal circumstances, students would have been rushing out at that time of day, but the gate was locked. All schools in the capital have been closed since the Lunar New Year holidays.
Students from Beijing No. 4 High School — many of whom pass the entrance exams for the country’s top universities every year, including Peking University and Tsinghua University — must be studying hard at home.
I often come across ads for online education in the city. Some operators are trying to attract 12th graders preparing for the exams by offering free classes. For the students, that must be the last resort. All I can do is to keep my fingers crossed for them.
Thursday, April 2: On-again, off-again face masks
Chinese President Xi Jinping was in a good mood — and was not wearing a mask — when he visited Xixi National Wetland Park in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, on Tuesday.
The other day, the state-run China Central Television aired footage of a woman on a small boat waving to Xi. “Would you like to join us?” she asked the president. When he asked how many people could get on the boat, she said six.
“I wish we could, but I don’t think everyone can get in,” Xi replied, smiling and pointing at around 10 aides.
Few of the aides were wearing masks. Were they sending a message that the government is winning the monthslong fight against the coronavirus?
To Xi, Zhejiang is like a second home. He served as head of the province, among other roles, from 2002 to 2007. His recent visit lasted four days through Wednesday — an unusually long domestic tour.
After the park, Xi visited Hangzhou’s big data-driven urban management center. “We should not let our guards down,” Xi said, adding that people should avoid mass gatherings and emphasizing that the virus battle continues. Noticeably, he had a mask on.
Xi’s words have a profound effect. At a news conference on Tuesday, a Beijing government official stressed that the virus had not disappeared and asked citizens to obey the rules, including on mask usage.
The next day, a few people who had stopped wearing masks put them back on.
Wednesday, April 1: As crowds return, will COVID-19 also make a comeback?
Beijing’s roads are getting crowded again — enough for morning and evening rush-hour traffic jams. I have not seen such bottlenecks since late January.
Subways and other public transport networks are also filling up as residents return to work. But some say people are driving more, due to fears they might catch the virus on trains.
Normally, Beijing authorities restrict the use of cars to limit traffic and pollution. Residents can only drive on certain days of the week, based on the last digit of their license plate. Violators face a fine of 100 yuan ($14).
This rule was temporarily lifted during the outbreak, since congestion was not a problem. Now residents are anxious about when the restriction will be reinstated.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday morning, crowds flocked to Yuyuantan Park to see the cherry blossoms. Although security guards were on hand, asking people not to congregate in one place, the visitors were busy snapping photos of the flowers.
The capital seems to be intoxicated with its apparent victory over the virus. My impression is that residents are loosening up after months of isolation. I can’t help feeling a little worried about the possibility of a second wave of infections.
Tuesday, March 31: Imagining the view from 108 stories up
For the first time in about two months, I went up to an observation deck that offers a panoramic view of Beijing’s Guomao central business district. The deck — which had been closed since late January due to the coronavirus outbreak — reopened recently.
Located on the sixth floor of a shopping mall, the deck is known as the best place to see China Central Television’s unique trapezoidal building. Usually the place is crowded, but it was empty. Most people are probably unaware that it is open again.
On the south side of the CCTV building, one can see the nearly finished Citic Tower. Also known as China Zun, the 108-story, 528-meter headquarters of state conglomerate Citic is the tallest building in the capital. E-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding will also have offices inside.
But the official opening date is yet to be announced, probably because the interior finishing has been delayed by the crisis. It may be a while before anyone can enjoy the view from the highest spot in the city.
There are also construction sites to the south of the Citic building, but there are no signs that work has progressed from two months ago. The virus has cast a dark shadow across the district that symbolizes Beijing’s economic development.
Monday, March 30: Death and politics converge at Babaoshan cemetery
The Chinese term saomu literally means “sweeping the tomb.” It refers to the tradition of visiting ancestors’ graves to clean up, pray and leave offerings. This is done during the period around the Qingming Festival, which falls on April 4 this year.
Cemeteries in Beijing are normally busy around this time, but to prevent overcrowding and minimize the coronavirus risk, the municipal government introduced a reservation system for grave visits.
On Saturday, I passed the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery — the capital’s most famous resting place. The front gate was closed, with a sign instructing visitors to enter though another gate.
A maximum of three people can visit each grave per day. There appeared to be more police officers and security guards than visitors; the line of cars waiting to enter the parking lot was not very long.
Babaoshan is known as the cemetery where “heroes” who contributed to the development of the Chinese Communist Party are buried. When influential figures pass away, their funerals are usually held in Babaoshan under tight security, with President Xi Jinping and other members of the Politburo Standing Committee in attendance.
The funeral of former Premier Li Peng was held there after his death last July, at age 90.
In China, the dead often affect the politics of the living, as exemplified by the movement to remember Hu Yaobang, a former party general secretary who died in April 1989.
At the time, students pressing for democratization regarded Hu as a reformist and mourned his passing. Their protests ended with the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
It was Li who led the move to quash the protests. Thirty-one years on, Hu’s grave is not in Babaoshan.
Friday, March 27: Tokyo’s ‘critical phase,’ as seen from China
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike on Wednesday asked residents to work from home whenever possible and avoid nonessential outings. The Japanese capital, she said, is in a “critical phase” if it hopes to prevent an explosive rise in coronavirus infections.
Beijing residents are amazed when they see footage of Japanese people strolling through Tokyo’s Marunouchi district and other areas, even after the governor’s request. Their own city has been under a de facto lockdown since late January, when the number of infections was still low.
For citizens who saw the Chinese capital turn into a ghost town, Japan’s approach looks surprisingly relaxed. Now that the number of cases has surged in Tokyo, some Chinese netizens are alleging that the metropolitan government did not have the courage to disclose the real figures until the Olympics were officially postponed.
Meanwhile, Beijing authorities are urging citizens to go back to work and resume production. They had instructed offices to keep occupancy below 50% of the normal rate, but they eased the restrictions this week “if conditions are met.”
The conditions are the tricky part. The rules are extremely detailed: Employees must stay at least 1 meter apart from each other; each worker must have at least 2.5 sq. meters of space; staff must not sit face-to-face; and many more.
A representative of a Japanese company in Beijing’s Guomao central business district said that employees would be allowed to come to the office starting next week, but that the occupancy rate would be 80% at best. They cannot bend the rules because government officials drop in for inspections.
Even as the capital begins to go back to work, the country is about to close its doors to all foreign nationals.
China’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday night announced that even foreigners with valid visas or residence permits will be banned from entering, starting Saturday.
Such quick, bold decisions are possible in a country where the Communist Party has the final say on everything. Democratic countries, where individual freedom takes precedence, may be at a disadvantage in this respect.
Thursday, March 26: Rumors versus reality at the Great Hall of the People
A rumor that the National People’s Congress may be held in mid-April is going around.
China’s legislature usually opens on March 5, but it was postponed indefinitely in late February due to the coronavirus outbreak. The annual session is the country’s most important political event, setting the stage for the rest of the political calendar.
It would not be a surprise if President Xi Jinping were impatient to convene the congress, as it would show the country and the world that China has won the war on the virus. Earlier this week, there was even talk that a specific date — April 18 — had already been decided.
But are the rumors true? It seems difficult to imagine, considering how the congress venue looks now.
On Wednesday afternoon, I drove by the Great Hall of the People, located to the west of Tiananmen Square. A lone police officer stood outside, wearing a face mask — exactly the same scene I saw a month and a half ago. There were no signs of activity around the administrative office building south of the hall. The whole place was quiet.
Each year, as many as 3,000 representatives from around the country gather in Beijing. Many thousands more mill about — secretaries, security personnel, reporters. Even if the coronavirus situation has improved in China, it would be impossible to eliminate the risk of infections spreading through the crowds.
Of course, no rumor is floated in China’s capital without a reason. What does the date of April 18 indicate? Is it the earliest possible opening date Xi’s Politburo is targeting? Or did some anti-Xi force plant the idea, suggesting a date that would never be feasible to make the government look bad? It remains a mystery.
Wednesday, March 25: An ‘international’ airport in name only
It’s official: The Tokyo Olympics have been postponed until the summer of 2021 “at the latest.” Major Chinese media outlets reported the news on Tuesday night.
Beijing will host the Winter Games in February 2022 — possibly only about six months after the Summer Games in Tokyo. No one knows what kind of impact this tight schedule might have.
But there are more immediate concerns. Beijing Capital International Airport, which would welcome athletes and spectators from around the world, faces a highly unusual situation: Despite its name, no international flights can fly there directly.
On Monday, China’s aviation authorities began requiring airlines to stop at nearby Tianjin and elsewhere for passenger screening, before continuing to the capital. Passengers who clear health checks can board the same aircraft and head for Beijing, while those who are suspected of having the coronavirus are held up on the spot.
The goal is to prevent cases from reaching the capital, but this has made journeys much longer. Once passengers finally make it to Beijing, they still have to spend 14 days in quarantine at designated facilities. There is no way out — they are bused to the accommodations.
Starting on Wednesday, the Beijing authorities will also conduct polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for the virus on all travelers.
On Tuesday morning, there were no international passengers coming out of the airport’s Terminal 3 — an odd scene for a huge airport that opened just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as a symbol of China’s globalization.
Tuesday, March 24: A warm gift for a weary city
Spring has come. This time of the year, daytime temperatures in Beijing often exceed 20 C. Many people ditch their coats and stroll under blooming plum and cherry trees, snapping photos along the way.
But the mornings and nights are still chilly — sometimes under 5 C. Catching a cold is a concern, not to mention the new coronavirus.
This year, Beijing’s municipal government has given residents a gift: It has extended the operation of nuanqi, central heating systems unique to the capital and other northern Chinese cities.
These systems, which heat homes and buildings via pipes, normally operate from Nov. 15 to March 15. This year’s cut-off date, however, was pushed back to March 31.
The authorities’ rationale is that children and students have been forced to stay home, because schools and universities are closed. The city is shouldering the extra heating costs.
In the past, coal was the main energy source for the heating — a major factor behind Beijing’s severe air pollution in the winter. But in 2017, the city basically banned the use of coal and switched to natural gas, improving the local air quality. After the extension, the skies remain clear.
And for residents who are exhausted from the long fight against the virus, warm rooms are a small but welcome comfort.
Monday, March 23: Echoes of the SARS epidemic
The name Xiaotangshan Hospital looms large in Beijing’s collective memory.
When Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, hit the Chinese capital in the spring of 2003, the hospital was built in a week to quarantine the infected. It has a little over 1,000 beds.
Seventeen years later, the two makeshift hospitals thrown together in Wuhan — where the new coronavirus outbreak erupted — are said to be near carbon copies of the Xiaotangshan Hospital design.
The aging Xiaotangshan Hospital, itself, has returned to relevance amid the pandemic. In late January, Beijing’s municipal government launched major renovations to prepare for a surge of virus cases. Several hundred doctors and nurses were dispatched to the hospital from others within the city.
The refurbished facility started accepting patients on March 16.
I visited Xiaotangshan Hospital, located about 30 km north of central Beijing, at noon on Saturday. The area is also known for its hot springs. But now that most hotels are closed due to the virus, the streets were deathly silent.
The hospital’s front gate, which is usually open for outpatients, was firmly shut. It appears regular medical exams have been halted to allow the hospital to specialize in combating the new virus.
I proceeded northwest to another gate. There, security guards were checking people and vehicles entering and leaving. This is likely the gate used for transporting virus patients to the hospital.
Beijing has reported hardly any new cases since early March. So the hospital is probably being used for suspected cases or patients with mild symptoms who arrived from abroad.
The front line in the fight against SARS has become the front in the battle to keep the new virus away from the capital. But China failed to stop SARS in its early stages, partly because the authorities did not promptly disclose necessary information.
Have the lessons of that outbreak been applied this time?
Thursday, March 19: Feeling safer on China’s shores
The coronavirus has hit major cities in Europe and the U.S. Chinese media are showing deserted streets in Rome, Paris and New York. Many Beijing residents feel Europeans and Americans are now in the same predicament as they were a month and a half ago.
The situation in Beijing is very different now. Subway ridership has increased significantly, so the authorities have imposed entry restrictions on some routes to limit traffic.
While Apple decided to temporarily close its stores across the globe, most of the iPhone maker’s stores in the Chinese capital are open again.
It is understandable that many Chinese now believe their country is safer than Europe or the U.S. And this has fueled a different fear.
Earlier this week, Beijing residents were alarmed by a rumor that as many as 110,000 Chinese expats and students would return from Europe in the coming days. The authorities denied this, but a video of crowded arrival gates at Beijing Capital International Airport went viral online.
Sources say aviation authorities have started asking airlines to divert international flights away from Beijing, as the capital’s quarantine system has reached its limit. Flights bound for Beijing may be allowed to land in the capital only after stopping at nearby airports in Tianjin, Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province and elsewhere for passenger screening.
The Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, chaired by President Xi Jinping, released a statement on Wednesday that steps must be taken to prevent infections in Beijing and other priority areas. The government’s battle to defend the capital has entered a crucial stage.
Wednesday, March 18: All quiet at the Forbidden City
On Monday night, a car crashed into the Donghua Gate of the heavily guarded Forbidden City, north of Tiananmen Square. Police are reportedly investigating the driver. Chinese media covered the incident and a video went viral online.
The video shows policemen rushing to the car, which apparently damaged the gate’s decorations. It remains unknown if it was an accident or a deliberate act.
I went to the scene on Tuesday morning and was able to stand in front of the gate as usual. Everything looked normal. I could not even confirm that anything had been broken.
The video is still on the internet but there have been no follow-up reports. I wonder if it was just a mishap.
It was a beautiful day, so I walked to the Meridian Gate — the main entrance to the Forbidden City. The palace complex has been closed since Jan. 25, the first day of the Lunar New Year holidays, due to the coronavirus outbreak. Normally, it is such a popular attraction that they limit visitors to 80,000 a day. Now it is completely empty.
The complex was once the residence of Ming and Qing dynasty emperors. Less than a century ago, in 1924, Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, crossed through the gate and left the Forbidden City for good.
Outside the quiet Meridian Gate, I took a moment to reflect on China’s history and the dynasties that had come and gone.
Tuesday, March 17: On guard for imported infections
Beijing on Monday started quarantining everyone coming to the Chinese capital for 14 days at designated accommodations. Now that the number of new coronavirus cases has declined significantly in China, the authorities’ biggest concern is imported infections.
On Monday morning, I went to the Landmark Towers Hotel, believed to be one of the facilities designated by the authorities. I saw numerous officials dressed in white protective gear emerging from the hotel and boarding a minibus.
They must have been heading for Beijing Capital International Airport. Once passengers are ferried from the airport to the hotel, they are asked not to leave their rooms for two weeks.
At a news conference the same day, China’s National Immigration Administration announced that daily border entries to China had dropped to 120,000 since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic last Wednesday. The number was down more than 80% from the same period of last year. The prospect of 14 days in quarantine will surely dissuade more people from coming.
While the authorities step up measures to prevent imported cases, they are beginning to loosen restrictions in the city. The Place, a shopping mall near Beijing’s Guomao central business district, extended its operating hours from 7 p.m. to the regular 10 p.m. from Monday. Slowly, some aspects of life are returning to normal.
Official statistics show a grim outlook for China’s economy, though. Retail sales and other leading indicators for January and February, released by the National Bureau of Statistics on Monday, all showed the first negative growth since comparable data first became available.
Even as the spread of the virus slows in China, the epidemic is still wreaking havoc across the globe. Until the world’s economy recovers, China’s is likely to suffer, too.
Monday, March 16: No ticket, no cherry blossoms
Yuyuantan Park, about 6 km west of Tiananmen Square, is one of Beijing’s most popular cherry blossom spots. The park has more than 3,000 cherry trees, including ones sent from Japan, and attracts crowds every year.
I stopped by on Saturday afternoon, only to be told that until April 15, visitors must book tickets at least a day in advance on the WeChat messaging app. The tickets, which cost 2 yuan (29 cents), are obviously designed to limit numbers and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Since I didn’t have a reservation, I had no choice but to turn back.
As all museums and movie theaters in Beijing are closed, parks are one of the few oases for residents. Authorities have kept them open, citing a low risk of infections. But Yuyuantan’s administrator probably decided not to take any chances during the blooming season.
I made my way over to Jingshan Park, north of the Forbidden City. I was able to enter by paying a 2 yuan admission fee on the spot.
In the middle of the park, there is a 45-meter hill made with soil excavated from the moat of the Forbidden City. The Wanchun Pavilion at the top offers a view of the palace complex. It is one of my favorite places in the city.
But I could not go up to the pavilion because the authorities had closed it — again, fearing too many people would congregate there. I settled for gazing out at the empty Forbidden City from a step below the top.
Everywhere one goes, there are reminders of the crisis. Another came on Sunday afternoon, when the Beijing authorities announced that everyone coming to the capital would be quarantined for 14 days at a designated facility, effective at midnight on Monday.
Friday, March 13: TV shows capital’s ‘Giant Egg’ getting back to normal
China is rushing to bring business back to normal, as the rest of the world continues to struggle to contain the deadly virus.
“Broadly speaking, the peak of the epidemic has passed for China,” Mi Feng, a spokesperson for the National Health Commission, told reporters on Thursday.
On Thursday, the state-run China Central Television started broadcasting from the National Center for the Performing Arts, just across the street from the Great Hall of the People.
As I wrote in my Beijing Diary on Feb. 24, the center is one of the capital’s main cultural facilities, and includes an opera house and concert hall. It has been dubbed “The Giant Egg,” due to its distinctive dome-shaped design.
A total of 110 performances planned for February and March were cancelled due to the new coronavirus. The center was forced to refund some 50,000 tickets.
I thought the center was empty, but 175 workers have been doing repair work since March 2. The TV broadcasts must be meant to give the impression that Beijing is steadily returning to normality.
That said, the authorities are not blindly pushing toward normalization. Almost all of the 300 movie theaters in the capital remain closed. The authorities are still instructing offices to keep occupancy at less than 50% of normal.
President Xi Jinping warned people not to relax preventive measures when he inspected Wuhan, Hubei Province, on Tuesday. While business gradually returns to normal in Beijing, it’s unclear whether Xi wants to tighten or loosen his grip.
Thursday, March 12: Green or red, we’re all being watched
The number of people on the streets is noticeably increasing. Perhaps President Xi Jinping’s widely publicized declaration in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province, has something to do with it.
On Tuesday, Xi inspected Wuhan for the first time since it became the center of the new coronavirus outbreak. The “spread of the virus has been basically curbed in Hubei and Wuhan,” he said.
In this country, even a brief remark from the supreme leader can change things overnight.
Yet, while people may be venturing out again, life in Beijing is far from normal. Those returning to the business district after a long hiatus will notice signs at the entrances of buildings and supermarkets, with QR codes and messages such as, “Please register to prevent infection.”
To enter these buildings, one must first scan the code with a smartphone. This brings up a registration screen, where you tap in your ID and mobile phone number.
For Chinese people, government-issued ID numbers are the most important piece of personal information. Without ID cards, they cannot use smartphone payment systems, nor travel on high-speed trains or airplanes.
The system gives the government a trove of big data on the behavior of 1.4 billion people. And now the same system has become a key tool in curbing infections.
In mid-February, the government introduced an app that alerts people if they have had contact with an infected patient. This, too, is based on ID numbers. The app is not available to foreign nationals, so I asked some acquaintances if I could try it.
If the user is in the clear, a green certificate appears with the words, “Congratulations! You have not come into close contact with infected people.”
I’ve heard that if the user has been in proximity to an infected person, a red certificate will appear instead. Fortunately, I have not seen one of those.
The coronavirus outbreak has only expanded the scope of China’s extensive, high-tech surveillance. Although it may be an effective way to bring the virus under control, it fills me with dread.
Wednesday, March 11: The last lines of defense
Yesterday, I was given an “entry card.” Starting next week, I will have to show it just to enter my apartment.
The card was issued by my shequ, a type of residential precinct unique to China. It bears a slogan — “Let’s unite and cope with the virus” — along with the name “East Big Bridge shequ.” Until yesterday, I did not know I was a member of a shequ called “East Big Bridge.”
Shequs, akin to Japan’s neighborhood associations, are technically managed by residents, but they are actually the country’s smallest administrative units led by the Communist Party. Each shequ has its own secretary sent by the party.
In Beijing, there are about 7,000 shequs, including municipal committees in rural areas. And there are also thousands of subordinate organizations.
Since mid-January, the shequs have been a crucial part of the fight against the deadly new coronavirus. The entry cards appear to be another step toward tighter control of them.
President Xi Jinping visited a shequ called “East Lake New Castle” in Wuhan, Hubei Province, on Tuesday. “Shequs have to play an important role as a last defense to protect members from the virus,” Xi said, praising the local staff.
These small associations are taking on greater political significance.
Tuesday, March 10: The looming demise of dirty cash
Global stock markets have been fluctuating wildly over fears of the new coronavirus. Meanwhile, there is another money-related concern: that the virus can be passed along on cash.
I noticed a sign at the entrance of a convenience store that reads, “Please use smartphone payments as much as possible.” Many stores in the capital now display such requests.
Already, more than 80% of all transactions in China are made with mobile payment services — mostly Alibaba Group Holding’s Alipay and Tencent Holdings’ WeChat Pay. So I wondered why stores were bothering to ask shoppers to use them until I saw a sign that came right out and said it: “Please use either WeChat Pay or Alipay to prevent infection with the virus.”
This may not be mere paranoia.
At a news conference in mid-February, People’s Bank of China Deputy Gov. Fan Yifei said bank notes used in virus-hit areas would be sealed and stored for up to 14 days after being disinfected. Even the authorities are not denying the risk of infection through cash.
Sun, a central Beijing resident in her 50s, said she barely made smartphone payments in the past but started using WeChat Pay and Alipay recently. Many stores didn’t want to use her cash and she was also concerned about catching the virus.
The coronavirus may wipe out cash in China for good.
Monday, March 9: Home becomes a prison for nearly 830,000 people
When I tried to go out on the weekend, I found police officers crowded around the entrance of my condominium. I winced. “What happened?” I asked a woman at the front desk.
“It’s an inspection,” she replied. “Don’t worry about it.”
The authorities are becoming increasingly strict in enforcing the 14-day coronavirus quarantine for people returning to Beijing, called “home observation.” Residents returning from other parts of China as well as returnees from Japan and South Korea — places deemed to have “serious” outbreaks — cannot go outside at all.
The police were probably checking my building, where many Japanese and other expats reside, to see if the quarantine was being handled properly.
Last Friday, the Beijing authorities revealed that there were 827,000 people under home observation within the city at that point. Since the capital has a population of about 20 million, this means roughly one out of every 25 people was under quarantine.
As the epidemic is now spreading rapidly in Europe and the U.S., the authorities are nervous about infections being “imported.” But the prospect of having one’s freedom fettered so severely must be discouraging some from returning to Beijing.
When I visited Beijing Capital International Airport on Saturday afternoon, the arrival lobbies for both domestic and international flights were almost empty. So were the departure lobbies. But I heard that there was a rush to depart for Japan on Sunday, before the Japanese government imposed entry restrictions on arrivals from China and South Korea the next day.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang also visited the airport on Friday and stressed the need to prevent the cross-border spread of the virus. More travel disruptions are inevitable.
Friday, March 6: Soap aplenty, but face masks remain elusive
Panic over the new coronavirus is growing as the disease continues to spread worldwide, including in the U.S. My colleague at Nikkei’s Washington bureau told me that hand sanitizers and other sanitary products had quickly sold out at drugstores and supermarkets.
Until recently, we faced a similar situation in Beijing. Even regular hand soap was hard to come by. Two weeks ago, I had to ask my colleagues in Tokyo to send some supplies.
Things have changed, though. About a week ago, supermarkets started displaying mountains of hand sanitizers, hand wipes and medicated soap. Most of the products are made in China, but some are Japanese. The government here likely ordered Chinese producers to increase output, while companies boosted imports from Japan and elsewhere.
Face masks, however, are still difficult to find. At a nearby convenience store, I only saw some “exposure prevention masks,” written in Japanese.
Basically, masks are distributed on a rationing system through companies and other organizations called danwei. Employers must procure masks to have their workers come to the office. I’ve heard some businesses have no choice but to allow employees to work from home, since they cannot obtain enough masks.
South Korea and Germany have prohibited mask exports, while Japan has in effect banned resales. The global scramble for masks looks unlikely to abate anytime soon.
Thursday, March 5: Guts and Joe Biden’s Super Tuesday glory
Joe Biden, the former U.S. vice president, racked up a string of victories in the “Super Tuesday” primaries this week, boosting his chances of winning the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
As I watched a triumphant, beaming Biden address his supporters on TV, I felt an urge to go to one restaurant in particular.
Yaoji Chaogan Restaurant is adjacent to Gulou, a famous tourist spot in Beijing. Biden dropped in there in August 2011, when he was vice president to Barack Obama.
Chaogan is a unique Beijing dish — similar to pig pluck, or offal, stewed with soy sauce in Japan. It is a local favorite because it is tasty, cheap and nutritious. And Yaoji Chaogan Restaurant is a particularly popular place for it.
I stopped by yesterday. The restaurant was not fully open for business, due to the coronavirus outbreak. Customers could only buy takeout, rather than eating inside.
Yet, even at a time like this, a long line was forming outside. The customers were waiting 1 meter apart from each other, as a precaution.
Back when Biden dined there, media reports said he ordered zhajiangmian, a noodle dish. Strangely, he did not order the restaurant’s namesake specialty, chaogan. Maybe he does not like food containing guts?
As it happens, it was President Xi Jinping — then China’s vice president — who played host to Biden during the 2011 visit. The two did not come to the restaurant together. But Xi spent a lot of time with Biden as he toured the country for six days. The men are said to have hit it off.
If Biden is elected president, how might U.S.-China relations change? Xi is surely watching the U.S. campaign closely.
Wednesday, March 4: Defending the capital, 1 meter at a time
Signs cropping up in Beijing’s Guomao central business district call for “1-meter action.” The idea is that people should keep at least 1 meter of separation between themselves and others in public places, to reduce coronavirus infections.
The capital has seen few new virus cases in recent days, probably because it has some of the strictest epidemic control measures in the country.
Gradually, the authorities are encouraging people to go back to work. This is evident in Guomao, where more pedestrians are out and about. Nearly half the restaurants have reopened for lunch. Not long ago, the district was like a ghost town.
Even so, it seems unnecessary to tell people to stay 1 meter apart when, overall, the city is still so quiet. Only lovers walk close together.
Although officials are urging a return to work, they are also instructing offices to keep occupancy at less than 50% of normal times. On Tuesday, meanwhile, Beijing ordered everyone returning from South Korea, Italy, Iran and Japan to stay quarantined for 14 days. The government does not appear to be loosening its grip.
President Xi Jinping has repeatedly called on citizens to do everything possible to prevent a wider outbreak in Beijing. After all, the city is the headquarters of the Communist Party. The empty subways show the message has been received loud and clear.
Tuesday, March 3: Returnees lose in coronavirus blame game
An expat working for a Japanese employer returned from Tokyo to Beijing on Feb. 25. The next day, he received an order from the company that manages his apartment: He was not to leave his home for 14 days. He was even told to sign a declaration of compliance.
Similar measures are being imposed on returnees from other countries hit by the new coronavirus, after a Feb. 26 announcement by the Beijing authorities. The announcement said people coming back from “regions where the new coronavirus is spreading rapidly” would be subject to tighter controls.
The authorities did not name specific countries, but it seems they had Japan, South Korea, Italy and Iran in mind.
Previously, returnees from these countries had been free to go shopping. Now they are forced to stay in quarantine.
At a news conference on Sunday, a spokesperson for the National Immigration Administration stressed that preventing an “influx of infections” from overseas is one of the top priorities. The official line is now that intrusions of the virus from other countries with loose epidemic controls are a major threat — ignoring the fact that the slow initial response to the outbreak within China led to its global spread.
This seems to be part of a Communist Party propaganda effort to deflect blame outside China.
Monday, March 2: Steamed dumplings in a frozen economy
Upon hearing that my favorite steamed dumpling, or xiaolongbao, restaurant had reopened for business after a long hiatus, I wasted no time dropping by.
The restaurant is so popular that, under normal circumstances, long lines form outside. But for the first time, I was able to enter without waiting.
I found only a few customers inside. Even the window seats — normally difficult to reserve, with their panoramic views over the China World Trade Center buildings — were almost empty.
The restaurant is hardly the only one suffering. As the outbreak of the new coronavirus continues, few consumers appear to have the stomach for dining out. Business is slow even at the most famous eateries; reopening does not seem worth the effort.
A clearer picture of the epidemic’s impact of the economy began to emerge on Saturday, when China’s National Bureau of Statistics released the Purchasing Managers’ Index, or PMI, for February.
Not only the manufacturing PMI but also the nonmanufacturing index hit record lows, plunging below levels seen just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in fall 2008, at the onset of the global financial crisis.
Now, March has begun, and there are few signs that the pressure on service industries is lifting. People still refrain from going outside.
On March 1, which fell on Sunday, I went to the Parkview Green Fangcaodi shopping center, which houses numerous luxury brand boutiques. Just as I expected, it was practically deserted. The vast, modern atrium with crisscrossing escalators was eerily quiet.
I worry about the future of consumption, which has become a crucial pillar of the Chinese economy.
Friday, February 28: Loneliness epidemic as group dining comes off the menu
I noticed something had changed since yesterday when I got in an elevator in Nikkei’s Beijing office building. The floor was separated into four sections with black-and-yellow striped tape, with a notice saying: “Only up to four people can get in this elevator as long as the new coronavirus continues to spread.”
In Beijing, limiting the number of people in almost any given situation is now the norm. When I went to a Japanese restaurant which had resumed operations after a brief closure, I noticed a sign on a table that said: “You cannot dine in a group. Only one person per table.”
City authorities banned “group dining” in early February, but did not clearly state how many people constitute a group. Three, four? The policy caused controversy among citizens at first.
Some proprietors are interpreting the rule literally, possibly for fear of punishment, and the Japanese restaurant decided to play it safe.
Liu, a 60-something cleaner in Beijing, was stopped by staff member at the entrance of a nearby supermarket the other day. She was told to wait outside, as a maximum of 20 customers were allowed to enter the store at a time.
It has been a month since Beijing went on high alert, and quiet streets are becoming a common sight.
Thursday, February 27: From the Great Wall to a green wall
It feels like Beijing neighborhoods are competing over who can impose the tightest coronavirus containment measures.
Until last week, I was still able to go to my cleaners in the neighboring shequ — a type of residential precinct unique to China — as long as I gave my name and cellphone number and had my temperature taken. But when I went two days ago, I was told I could not enter the shequ without a pass.
The authorities are directing the shequs to step up controls. Now only residents are allowed in. But some communities are going an extra mile.
On Wednesday, some shequs started asking people returning from Japan and South Korea to stay home for 14 days, as the virus spreads in the two countries. This came as a shock to the Japanese expat community, as the rule would make it difficult for some residents to come back to Beijing.
The shequ that blocked me from entering had erected green barriers around its roughly 2 km boundary. I was reminded of the Chinese who had built the Great Wall, and the stretches of green hammered home the unusual crisis gripping the country.
Wednesday, February 26: Just leave it on the red shelf
Recently, I noticed red shelves in an old residential complex 3 km northeast of Beijing’s central business district, Guomao. The shelves are accompanied by a sign that says “contactless delivery” in Chinese characters.
It is a pickup point for orders from T11 Food Market, a high-end supermarket in the capital. With many people staying home for fear of contracting the new coronavirus, e-commerce services are doing brisk business. But delivering products has become a huge problem.
China has a unique type of residential community called shequ. They are the country’s smallest administrative units, akin to Japan’s neighborhood associations.
Each shequ has been restricting the movement of local residents since the whole of China went on high alert to stop the spread of the outbreak. The communities have only one entrance, and security guards keep watch 24/7 to block outsiders from entering.
Delivery drivers cannot go into the shequs, and in any case, many online shoppers are wary of accepting parcels in person. This led T11 to the idea of contactless delivery, using shelves set up at shequ gateways. Customers receive smartphone notifications that their orders are ready to be collected.
T11 launched the service on Feb. 15, installing shelves at more than 100 locations. They stand as a testament to Chinese business ingenuity even under adverse conditions.
Tuesday, February 25: Seats far apart as news conference resumes
“Your temperature is 39 C. You are not allowed to enter.” A member of staff stopped me at the entrance of China’s foreign ministry as I attempted to attend a news conference there on Monday afternoon, and I panicked.
“That’s not possible,” I told them, and asked for a reexamination. This time, my temperature was around the 36 C level. Was it a thermometer malfunction? Eventually, I was allowed to go in.
It was the foreign ministry’s first real news conference in nearly a month after holding virtual events on the WeChat messaging app since Feb. 3 to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
Beijing has decided to resume conventional news conferences while the coronavirus continues to spread, probably because the government has decided it is necessary to convey the message to people both at home and abroad that Chinese society is gradually getting back to normal.
When I entered the conference room, I noticed a change to the usual layout: chairs were placed more than a meter apart from one another. Furthermore, foreign delegations, which are usually allowed to be present at the back of the room, were absent. The somewhat somber atmosphere reflected that there is no place to hide from the threat of the virus in China.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, one of China’s top diplomats, appeared, but she introduced new spokesperson Zhao Lijian and left the room without answering questions from reporters. Perhaps Beijing is trying to emphasize that the country is moving back toward normality by introducing a new spokesperson to handle communications in the emergency.
Zhao is known as an outspoken diplomat who has criticized the U.S. on Twitter and other social media. When asked about China revoking the press credentials of three Wall Street Journal reporters, Zhao seemed upset and insisted that China will not be a “silent lamb” in the face of “malicious insults and smears.”
The appearance seemed to demonstrate China’s frustration at the difficulties of finding ways to resume business as normal while continuing the fight against the coronavirus.
Monday, February 24: The ‘Giant Egg’ goes dark
As the coronavirus outbreak wears on, one of Beijing’s premier cultural destinations remains shuttered. The National Center for the Performing Arts, located just across the street from the Great Hall of the People, announced that it has canceled all of its scheduled concerts and shows through March.
Work on the center began in 2001 under the auspices of music-loving then-President Jiang Zemin and was completed in the fall of 2007. Dubbed “The Giant Egg” for its distinctive dome-shaped design, it contains an opera house, a concert hall, and other facilities that can seat a total of about 6,000 people.
In recent years, the center had become something of a destination for classical music fans as China used its deep pockets to lure world-renowned orchestras.
It has been a month since entertainment all but vanished from the capital. According to city officials, 260 movie theaters and 183 museums have remained closed since the Lunar New Year break began in late January. Blockbuster film releases and special exhibitions that had been scheduled for the holiday have been mothballed. The entertainment industry has suffered a devastating blow.
Where, then, are people going to relieve their stress?
This weekend — Beijing’s fourth on high alert — I took a walk in Ritan Park in the city’s diplomatic district and was surprised to find a number of families there. They were surely happy to be able to go outside again after so long. Mask-wearing children ran around, brimming with energy.
But their parents looked glum. The exhaustion of living on alert for weeks on end has steadily worn people down.
Friday, February 21: The more authorities reassure, the more people worry
The number of people using the subway system seems to have increased in Beijing, while restaurants have also gradually started reopening for business.
Meanwhile in Hubei Province, where the novel coronavirus outbreak is the most serious, the number of infections rose by only 411 on Feb. 20. The daily increase was below 1,000 for two consecutive days.
Under these circumstances, China’s state-run media outlets are now touting what they describe as “clear improvements in the situation.”
Caring about the impact on the economy, the Chinese government is probably beginning to lay the groundwork for society getting back to normal.
I have also heard that Beijing authorities have started providing guidance behind the scenes urging companies to make their employees stop working from home and return to normal work from next week.
But in this country, the more authorities say, “It will be fine,” the more people worry.
In fact, the decline in the number of new infections is due to a statistical gimmick.
Authorities revised the criteria for diagnosing new coronavirus cases for the second time in just a week. As a result, some people who would have been classified as “infected people” under the previous criteria are now simply excluded.
No matter how authorities explain, there are deep-rooted concerns among the public that the situation might be worsening even further.
When I tried to get out of a subway station, I found a small enclosure where an “isolation area” sign had been set up. It was not there a few days ago. Will people be kept there temporarily if tests show that they have temperatures of 37.3 C or more?
I also found another sudden change at the entrance of a shopping mall I visit every day. An official in charge of temperature checks was wearing white protective clothing, instead of the ordinary work clothes he wore in the past.
It is weird that while authorities are trumpeting “improvements in the situation,” the city is on increased alert.
Thursday, February 20: ‘Red dots’ closing in on me
Checking “red dots” within the city of Beijing has become part of my daily routine.
The dots, shown on an online map, mark places where coronavirus cases have been found. This morning, there were 58 of them within the Chaoyang district, where I live. The map showed my residence is 2.5 km from the nearest location.
The appearance of a dot so close to home is unnerving. I think anyone would feel the same. The local authorities have begun calling on people to “return to their workplaces if safety is confirmed,” but many residents are reluctant to go out.
Meanwhile, the discovery of an infected individual in the government sector is the talk of the town. The Beijing municipality revealed on Tuesday that an official of the Xicheng district government had come down with the virus, and that 69 colleagues had been placed in quarantine.
The Xicheng district office is close to the financial district where major institutions, including the People’s Bank of China, the central bank, are headquartered.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Financial Street was eerily quiet. Most banks have cut back on their teller windows and few pedestrians were out on the main street.
“We have been instructed to report to work only one day a week and work from home on other days,” said an employee of a major bank in her 30s.
This morning, the central bank cut its benchmark one-year loan prime rate, or LPR, for the first time in three months. Is Gov. Yi Gang also working from home?
Wednesday, February 19: Longing for the buzz of Beijing Railway Station
My usual route to the subway was sealed off again. This is the second access route closure I’ve seen since the beginning of this week. As a precaution against the coronavirus, the authorities are probably trying to control the flow of people by limiting the number of paths connecting the subway system with office buildings and shopping malls.
In China, the 40-day period surrounding the Lunar New Year is called Chunyun. Normally, railways, airlines and other transport operators offer special services to cope with huge waves of migrants heading home and returning to work. The period ended on Tuesday this year, and Beijing should be completely back to normal.
The virus outbreak, however, has interrupted the natural flow of Chinese life. Now Beijing is on high alert, bracing for a gradual increase in the number of people returning from the countryside.
I went to Beijing Railway Station. The square out front is usually bustling, but it was quiet.
I remembered the first time I passed through the station 30 years ago, in the summer of 1990. I had spent half a day waiting to buy a ticket, in a crush of deeply suntanned people whose grimy clothes told the story of their hardships. Three decades on, many people who pass through the station are well-dressed, but until recently it was still overcrowded.
I wonder when the station will regain its buzz.
Tuesday, February 18: Great Hall awaits master’s return
With no end to the coronavirus outbreak in sight, China’s biggest political event is now in doubt — the annual session of the National People’s Congress scheduled to open on March 5.
On Monday, the NPC Standing Committee, similar to a parliament, decided to deliberate in one week the possibility of postponing the gathering of around 3,000 delegates.
The Great Hall of the People, where the congress convenes, is located to the west of Tiananmen Square. The building, an imposing example of socialist architecture, was built over just 10 months in 1958 and 1959 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. Inside, the Great Auditorium is said to have the capacity for 10,000 people.
On Monday afternoon, I drove past the front of the Great Hall. A lone police officer in a surgical mask stood where there would normally be crowds of tourists snapping pictures. Similarly, in Tiananmen Square, I saw only armed officers on security duty. A tense atmosphere had befallen the area.
Postponing the congress would push back the start of China’s political calendar, dealing a major blow to President Xi Jinping’s ability to set policy for the year ahead. When will the delegates return to the hall? The fact that the answer is unclear underscores the gravity of the coronavirus crisis.
Monday, February 17: In search of face masks
I left my apartment without wearing a mask again today. I realized this as soon as I reached the first floor of the building, because neighbors gave me strange looks and tried to avoid me. I went back up to get one.
You cannot go anywhere in Beijing without a mask these days. Signs and posters at the entrances of buildings say, “Please wear a mask before entering.” Just about everyone in the city is masked — except diners at the few restaurants that are open.
Yet, it is virtually impossible to find masks in stores, even online. Where do ordinary citizens buy them? I wonder.
“I ran out of the masks I bought when I traveled to Japan in January,” said Zhu Kexin, a 25-year-old saleswoman at a shopping mall in Beijing. “I come to work wearing a mask the shop gives me every day.”
Some are not so fortunate. Li Dan, a 30-year-old teacher, said she is stuck at home because the school is closed and she does not have a mask.
When President Xi Jinping inspected the city last Monday, he smiled at residents from behind a mask. “Where did President Xi get the mask?” one resident said bitterly.
Saturday, February 15: New quarantine rule unsettles foreign residents
The snow has stopped and the sun has come out, with a wintry wind blasting smog away from the city. But while the air has cleared, fear of the coronavirus persists. Few people are out in the streets.
An announcement by the authorities has caused a stir among foreign residents. Arrivals in Beijing from outside the city will be obliged to quarantine themselves for 14 days or undergo “intensive observation” for that period. Anyone who does not comply will be held legally liable, the announcement said.
It is uncertain whether this order applies to foreign residents who return from their home countries. If so, it will be very difficult for them to go home, since doing so would mean isolating themselves upon return. Some worry that once they leave Beijing, they will not be able to come back.
The restrictions are likely part of the “defensive battles” to protect Beijing — the Chinese Communist Party’s seat of power. But state media have repeatedly stressed a downtrend in newly confirmed coronavirus infections, stoking optimism among the people.
If the authorities are building walls around the capital higher and higher, I cannot help thinking the situation is getting worse.
Friday, February 14: Enduring the ‘special period’ with a brave smile
Sleet and snow are falling as Beijing remains on high alert due to the outbreak. It is the second snowy day since Feb. 5. I have been here for more than eight years, but I have never experienced such a snowy winter. It is probably related to climate change.
My biggest problem right now is food. There are said to be about 90,000 restaurants in Beijing, but most are closed as a precautionary measure. In Guomao, one of the capital’s core business districts, only around a fifth of the restaurants are open — even after some companies returned to work on Monday. Since I rarely cook for myself, I end up going to the same restaurants.
When I went to a Japanese restaurant for the second time this week to have lunch, I encountered a policy change. Not only did they take my temperature, but they also asked me to fill out my name and phone number.
The information might be used to track down customers if someone becomes infected. When I told a young female staff member that “things are becoming more and more strict,” she smiled and answered that this is a “teshu shiqi” — a “special period.” The phrase has become a slogan for citizens enduring life in the time of the coronavirus.
After going through the procedure and entering the restaurant, I found I was the only customer. The “special period” is far from over in Beijing.
Thursday, February 13: Bicycle alarms cut through silence in business district
On Thursday morning, I awoke to the news that the number of new coronavirus infections in Hubei Province had suddenly soared by nearly 15,000, approaching 60,000.
This was a bewildering development. In previous days, the case total had been rising at a pace of about 2,000 per day. Even though Hubei authorities stressed that they merely changed the diagnostic criteria, distrust of this country’s statistics is not confined to economic data.
As I absorbed the jump in cases, I heard a familiar refrain on TV: “General Secretary Xi Jinping is personally commanding and personally taking measures.”
In its reports on the coronavirus containment effort, the state-run China Central Television inserts a “commercial” designed to boost morale. This can be interpreted as an order to concentrate power in Xi’s hands to fight the battle.
As a shroud of air pollution settled over the capital on Thursday, the business district remained deserted. Only beeping alarms rang out from countless shared bicycles that had been abandoned.
The alarms reminded me of the cries of thousands of virus sufferers across the nation.
Wednesday, February 12: Tiananmen closure keeps tourists and thieves away
I drove in front of Tiananmen Square for the first time in weeks. Normally, the square is packed with tourists from all over China, but it was closed due to the coronavirus outbreak. The only people I saw were police officers; the portrait of Mao Zedong looked sad, somehow.
The last time I passed through Tiananmen Square had been around noon on Jan. 25, the first day of the Lunar New Year holidays. While riding a bus, I saw that visitors had flocked to the square, in part because the Forbidden City to the north and other tourist spots were already closed.
In a picture I snapped hastily from the bus that day, only half the people were wearing masks. Maybe some tourists from outside Beijing were unaware that a new virus was spreading. There was still a degree of normalcy in Beijing.
But around the same time, Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top Chinese Communist Party leaders were holding an emergency meeting in Zhongnanhai, west of the square. Everything changed in the capital after that meeting.
Now the city’s Wangfujing Street, east of Tiananmen, is empty. The street is known for pickpockets. Come to think of it, I got my compact camera stolen there 10 years ago. I wonder what happened to the thief.
Tuesday, February 11: Empty trains and deserted streets
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 flashbulb.
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 lockdown 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 service 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 update a map 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.
Tetsushi Takahashi is Nikkei’s bureau chief in China.