Recently I reached out to friends living in Beijing, China to ask about their experience so far through 10 weeks of quarantine in a city of 21 million. I learned much through the experience they shared, and I’m featuring their perspective in two parts today and tomorrow. Just a note: please remember to pray for China. Pray specifically that the gospel would prevail and reach many in these days. Whenever you hear about China in the media, would you commit to pray?
Perspective from China
To start with, share anything about yourself that would be helpful for us to know your general life and circumstances.
My family and I live in the university district of Beijing, quite near the centre, in an older residential compound with a high proportion of retired people. There are densely packed low-rise apartment blocks from the 1960s and 70s and high-rise blocks from the 2000s all squashed together. We have lived in this general area for almost ten years, studying Mandarin, teaching in universities, and doing postgraduate research into minority groups.
How long have you experienced the effect of the coronavirus in your location?
It was already extremely quiet in Beijing when the effects of the coronavirus began to impinge on us directly, because huge numbers of people had left the city for their hometowns, preparing to celebrate Chinese New Year with their extended families. So, initially, there wasn’t much to notice that was different. But by the end of the third week of January there was enough about it in the media that we had begun to pay more attention, and then our church abruptly suspended its meetings and moved online. My father was planning to visit us just after that, and his airline cancelled all flights to China the day before he was due to come out. That was a big blow. So, it’s now 10 weeks since we really felt anything directly, though we had read about it earlier in January.
If we believe general media reports, China currently has the coronavirus completely under control. Can you provide perspective on what you see on the ground where you live?
Here in Beijing it does seem completely under control. The numbers of patients have been pretty low here, well under a thousand, with only a few deaths in the city. We happened to need to visit two different hospitals for unrelated reasons after the lockdown had begun, and in neither hospital was there any sense of panic. On the contrary, they were practically deserted, as most people were clearly afraid to leave their homes for almost anything, and non-emergency medical procedures were being postponed.
For the last two weeks there has been a gradual increase in the numbers of people out and about, on foot or in vehicles, and in the number of restaurants re-opening. But most other places where people might gather indoors remain closed — schools, campuses, churches, mosques, cinemas, etc. Many people continue to be wary about coming out of their homes except for essential purchases; at the same time, we know of several folk who have returned to Beijing from their hometowns, endured a temporary self-isolation, and then rejoined Beijing life, albeit in this new restricted and cautious sense. Of course, no one can predict what will happen when restrictions are lifted further and the possibility of a new outbreak rears its head.
How have average Chinese citizens responded?
There are many different kinds of average Chinese! But they do have this in common — they all wear masks. That’s the one product that I noticed was briefly in short supply in supermarkets. Since mid-February, however, no shortages have been apparent. And we have never had the sense that any panic buying that might have been happening in the first few weeks ever led to any shelves being actually emptied in the shops.
Those who have to work in lower-paid sectors, especially bus drivers, security guards and the small shop-owners who we all depend on for daily food purchases, have just got on with working — of course, all wearing masks, and sometimes conducting their trade by passing items out through their doors, rather than allowing customers into their narrow shops. Many of those sorts of workers have been prevented from returning to their work in the big cities because they were stuck in their hometowns for Chinese New Year. But these small shops are increasingly opening up again on the streets around us. Delivery drivers and couriers have been doing a roaring trade, since a lot more retail purchasing has been done online in the last two months.
The mobile elderly, who are normally outdoors puttering around residential compounds, have kept this up to a certain degree, though in February and early March even they spent a lot more time inside, and some familiar faces in our neighbourhood have not emerged yet.
Middle class and white collar workers, who tend to have a higher degree of ‘modern anxiety’ even when there is no crisis, have tended to retreat into their high-rise apartments, which they can do relatively painlessly, especially if they are able to work online throughout the lockdown. There has definitely been a lot of fear here, and this has helped people to self-isolate. Even without heavy-handed pressure, lots of people are extremely willing to hide themselves away. We know some families who kept their children inside their apartment for around 8 weeks before finally daring to let them go outside for a walk.
What has been your experience through quarantine?
Praise the Lord we have never felt afraid, or in any real danger either from the virus or from any knock-on effects. Thankfully my teaching job moved online relatively easily, and although it’s much less satisfying for me and the students than proper classroom interaction, we can still have classes and I am still getting paid. At my university even the foreign teachers who are not able to work (because the government won’t allow them to conduct online classes from outside China) are being paid. So, we have benefitted from the ‘social buffers’ that the Chinese government has in place.
Sometimes, however, we have wondered if we were going stir crazy. At one point we had not had face-to-face social interaction with anyone for 22 straight days, and the only people we had seen, fleetingly, were a handful of shopkeepers, and the guards and local neighbourhood volunteers who were at the gates and entrances of our residential compound, checking temperatures and temporary passes.
We have read more news online than has probably been good for us, but as the virus spread we have prayed more for countries that we had never particularly paid much attention to. Our understanding of what counts as responsible citizenship has also gradually changed as new information has become available — we get the feeling that we are still more relaxed than most Chinese people, but more careful than most Westerners (or, at least, than most Westerners were until around a week ago). We have grown more persuaded of the need for serious measures to be taken, and have had to repent of our earlier rather careless attitude. As regards our personal attitude in the face of restrictions, we have, I hope, grown to be more wise and godly.
Most of all we have had to learn to be patient. Some of the rules over personal movement, delivery of packages and entry into other residential areas have been irrational. Thankfully (and also annoyingly) the rules are also enforced slightly flexibly, and change frequently. This can create a problem on Thursday that wasn’t there on Wednesday, and doesn’t seem to make any more sense than the previous rule.
Mandarin is quite a blunt language, especially when spoken by non-native speakers, and it is easy for us to sound angry and indeed to get angry with security guards or the neighbourhood volunteers (and it seems like it’s the naturally bossy and officious people who sign up for that job!) when faced with minor restrictions or hold-ups in our walking around. Entering the compound of the one family we have gone to visit in the last 6 weeks brings a new challenge almost every time we go there! Slowly, we are learning to be sanctified through this process, though it is frightening how close sin is lurking at the door at times of stress or inconvenience.
[End of Part 1. Please check the blog tomorrow for Part 2 where we’ll get perspective on how Chinese believers have responded to Covid-19 and lessons we can personalize from Chinese believers’ experience here in the U.S.A.]