The southwestern Chinese city of Ruili is small, remote and largely unknown internationally. It is also, when it comes to the coronavirus, perhaps the most tightly regulated place on earth.
In the past year, it has been locked down four times, with one shutdown lasting 26 days. Homes in an entire district have been evacuated indefinitely to create a “buffer zone” against cases from elsewhere. Schools have been closed for months, except for a few grades — but only if those students and their teachers do not leave campus.
Many residents, including 59-year-old Liu Bin, have gone months without income, in a city that relies heavily upon tourism and trade with neighboring Myanmar. Mr. Liu, who ran a customs brokerage before cross-border movement essentially stopped, estimated he had lost more than $150,000. He is tested on a near-daily basis. He borrows cigarette money from his son-in-law.
“Why do I have to be oppressed like this? My life is important too,” he said. “I’ve actively followed epidemic control measures. What else do we normal people have to do to meet the standards?”
remained the last country chasing full elimination, for the most part with success. It has recorded fewer than 5,000 virus-related deaths, and in parts of the country without confirmed cases, the outbreak can feel like a hazy memory.
But the residents of Ruili — a lush, subtropical city of about 270,000 people before the pandemic — are facing the extreme and harsh reality of living under a “Zero Covid” policy when even a single case is found.
live on campus. Classrooms have been converted to dorms. Since students are always around, they also have classes on weekends.
told state media he had taken 90 Covid tests over the last seven months. Another parent said that his one-year-old son had been tested 74 times.
Tens of thousands of residents have fled the city for elsewhere in China in the breaks between lockdowns; officials recently acknowledged that the population had dropped to about 200,000. To control the outflow, the authorities now require people to pay for up to 21 days of pre-departure quarantine.
In a sign of the desperation many residents are feeling, a former deputy mayor of Ruili last month wrote a blog post called “Ruili Needs the Motherland’s Care” — a stunning move in a country where officials almost never deviate from the government line.
“Every time the city is locked down is another instance of serious emotional and material loss,” wrote the official, Dai Rongli. “Each experience battling the virus is a new accumulation of grievances.”
according to state media. No cases have been traced to people leaving Ruili for elsewhere in China.
Even so, officials insist that there is little room for adjustment.
“If Ruili’s epidemic does not reach zero, there will be risk of outward transmission,” Ruili’s deputy mayor, Yang Mou, said at a news conference on Oct. 29.
Shanghai’s Disneyland spent hours waiting to be tested on Sunday night before they could leave the park. Parts of Beijing are locked down, and many incoming trains and flights have been canceled.
announced that all traffic lights would be turned red, to prevent unnecessary travel. (It later backtracked.)
Ruili is uniquely vulnerable to both the virus and the burdens of lockdown.
Nestled in the corner of Yunnan Province, it shares more than 100 miles of borders with Myanmar, attracting tourists and traders. In 2019, people passed through its border checkpoint nearly 17 million times, according to official statistics.
When China sealed up the country, trade and tourism all but collapsed. Yet Ruili’s borders remained porous, raising fears of imported cases. And the military coup in Myanmar this year has led some to seek refuge in Ruili, legally or illegally. Some residents have had to dodge stray bullets from the conflict across the border, according to Chinese media reports.
banned residents from livestreaming about the local jade industry to limit gem orders and the movement of delivery people.
told state media that “at the moment, we do not need” additional help. The day before, he had warned against “criminals” who he said would use “public opinion and false information to disrupt social order.”
have admonished people for protesting lockdown conditions.)
Earlier this year, Mr. Li and a group of fellow investors pooled together about $3 million for a jade market in Ruili, which they had hoped to open in May. Instead, the premises have sat empty, though they have continued to pay rent. He has heard nothing about government assistance.
Originally, his company employed about 50 people. Now? “We only dare to keep one person, to guard the door,” he said. “What can you do? We can’t pay them.”
The cost of daily living has shot up. A kilogram of bok choy used to cost less than 6 renminbi, or under $1, Mr. Li said; now the price has jumped to 8 or 10 renminbi.
“The ordinary people,” he sighed, “have no way to live.”
The trip began in Shanghai, where the couple, both former professors, joined a tour group of other retirees. They traveled through Gansu Province and Inner Mongolia, staying at a bed-and-breakfast and eating three times at the same lamb chop restaurant. Flying south to Xi’an, they dropped into a 1,300-year-old temple. Their fellow tour group members checked out an art museum, strolled through parks and visited friends.
Then, on Oct. 16, the day they had planned to visit the Terracotta Warriors, the couple tested positive for the coronavirus.
Since then, China has locked down a city of 4 million, as well as several smaller cities and parts of Beijing, to contain a fresh outbreak that has infected more than 240 people in at least 11 provinces and regions. The authorities have shuttered schools and tourist sites. Government websites have detailed every movement of the unlucky couple and their sprawling web of contacts, including what time they checked into hotels and on which floors of restaurants they sat.
The no-holds-barred response is emblematic of China’s “zero Covid” policy, which has served the country remarkably well: China has reported fewer than 5,000 deaths since the pandemic began. The scale of the new outbreak, while tiny compared to many other countries, is large for China.
Lynette Ong, a political scientist at the University of Toronto. “At a huge cost, though.”
at-times strident nationalism.
Other countries that adopted “zero Covid” policies were hailed as models of competent governance that prioritized saving lives over convenience and economic growth.
As the virus has dragged into its second year, and with the onset of the far more contagious Delta variant, countries are again reconsidering their strategies. Australia, which was home to the world’s longest lockdown, is scrapping quarantine requirements for vaccinated residents returning from overseas. New Zealand formally abandoned its quest for zero this month. Singapore is offering quarantine-free travel to vaccinated tourists from Germany, the United States, France and several other countries.
attacked viciously online as a lackey of foreigners. A former Chinese health minister called such a mindset reckless.
Zhang Jun, an urban studies scholar at the City University of Hong Kong.
In addition, though China has achieved a relatively high full inoculation rate, at 75 percent of its population, questions have emerged about the efficacy of its homegrown vaccines.
And, at least for now, the elimination strategy appears to enjoy public support. While residents in locked-down areas have complained about seemingly arbitrary or overly harsh restrictions on social media, travel is relatively unconstrained in areas without cases. Wealthy consumers have poured money into luxury goods and fancy cars since they’re not spendingon trips abroad.
reinstated them in September amid a spike in infections. (Still, the government is moving forward with travel lanes.)
But experts agree that the costs of expecting zero cases will hit eventually. China’s economic growth is slowing, and domestic travel during a weeklong holiday earlier this month fell below last year’s levels, as a cluster of new cases spooked tourists. Retail sales have proven fitful, recovering and ebbing with waves of the virus.
The country may also suffer diplomatically. Mr. Xi has not left China or received foreign visitors since early 2020, even as other world leaders prepare to gather in Rome for a Group of 20 summit and Glasgow for climate talks.
China’s hard-nosed approach is also trickling down to Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous territory and global financial hub. In trying to align their own Covid prevention policies with the mainland’s, Hong Kong’s leaders have introduced the world’s longest quarantine, ignoring escalating warnings from business leaders about an exodus of foreign firms.
said in a recent interview with Chinese media that once the country reached an 85 percent vaccination rate, “why shouldn’t we open up?”
Until then, those stranded by the lockdowns have been trying to make the best of their situations. State news outlets have reported that roughly 10,000 tourists are trapped in Ejin Banner, a region of Inner Mongolia, after the emergence of cases led to a lockdown. As consolation, the local tourism association has promised them free entry to three popular tourist attractions, redeemable within the next three years.
On Chinese iPhones, Apple forbids apps about the Dalai Lama while hosting those from the Chinese paramilitary group accused of detaining and abusing Uyghurs, an ethnic minority group in China.
The company has also helped China spread its view of the world. Chinese iPhones censor the emoji of the Taiwanese flag, and their maps suggest Taiwan is part of China. For a time, simply typing the word “Taiwan” could make an iPhone crash, according to Patrick Wardle, a former hacker at the National Security Agency.
Sometimes, Mr. Shoemaker said, he was awakened in the middle of the night with demands from the Chinese government to remove an app. If the app appeared to mention the banned topics, he would remove it, but he would send more complicated cases to senior executives, including Mr. Cue and Mr. Schiller.
Apple resisted an order from the Chinese government in 2012 to remove The Times’s apps. But five years later, it ultimately did. Mr. Cook approved the decision, according to two people with knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Apple recently began disclosing how often governments demand that it remove apps. In the two years ending June 2020, the most recent data available, Apple said it approved 91 percent of the Chinese government’s app-takedown requests, removing 1,217 apps.
In every other country combined over that period, Apple approved 40 percent of requests, removing 253 apps. Apple said that most of the apps it removed for the Chinese government were related to gambling or pornography or were operating without a government license, such as loan services and livestreaming apps.
Yet a Times analysis of Chinese app data suggests those disclosures represent a fraction of the apps that Apple has blocked in China. Since 2017, roughly 55,000 active apps have disappeared from Apple’s App Store in China, according to a Times analysis of data compiled by Sensor Tower, an app data firm. Most of those apps have remained available in other countries.