BEIJING: On the eve of Chinese New Year, I set off from Beijing for my grandparents’ home in northern China. It is the day after the city of Wuhan has in effect been placed under quarantine.
I am headed some 600km from Wuhan, but this New Year holiday is very different: Almost everyone on the train from Beijing is wearing a face mask.
I take mine off when I arrive at my grandparents’ crowded flat, where they, along with a total of seven aunts, uncles and cousins, are already folding dumplings for the pot.
They are chatting about the virus outbreak, but the mood is still calm. Everyone is busy dealing with a more immediate concern: Making dinner for a large family.
TRAVELLING THROUGH LOCKDOWN
So far, only Wuhan has taken city-wide preventive measures, but we are now discussing our own. To some relief, my grandparents announce they are cancelling our usual visits to relatives.
Like me, some travellers managed to reach home before transport links started shutting down, and are at least holed up with loved ones.
But for late travellers, those who cancelled travel plans out of fear of contagion and transport disruption, let alone the 9 million people stuck in Wuhan, the situation is far worse. For many in China, the New Year is the only time in the year they see their parents and even their children.
China is a country of long-distance internal migrants. Go back one or two generations, and most people’s families were subsistence farmers living in the countryside.
Over the past 50 years, a vast rural-urban migration has spread those families across the country. Those who are lucky enough to go to university often settle down in the big cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and smaller provincial capitals.
Those who don’t settle in the cities go everywhere as migrant workers fuelling the low-paid casual labour of China’s economic development. Because the government makes it very difficult for migrant workers to access education in the cities, many leave their children with relatives in the countryside, and visit them at New Year.
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So Chinese New Year is a crucial annual migration that is easier for some than for others. Rail tickets sell out quickly, and those with the money might buy plane tickets instead.
Many migrant workers travel by long-distance bus – the same services that multiple provinces have since suspended in the wake of the virus outbreak. One of my father’s cousins drives for three days or more, covering 4,000km each way.
On the first day of the holiday, we make plans to visit my grandparents’ old farmstead the next day, to sweep my great-grandma’s grave and light firecrackers for her.
As we were making plans, however, Beijing announced it will stop long-distance buses going into the city.
The next morning, we wake to the news that our county has started asking its villages to block their road entrances, and that public bus services from the city are being suspended. Across China, other friends tell me of villages and townships embarking on self-quarantine in the national spirit of viral defence.
Much of it may be over-zealous, as there is an ongoing debate over the effectiveness of government-imposed city-level quarantines. Borders are always leaky, and quarantines give possible viral carriers a reason to lie about their whereabouts.
In my grandparents’ old village of some 500 people, there have been no coronavirus victims to date. There are 70 detected infections in their province of 80 million people.
WUHAN VIRUS ON SOCIAL MEDIA
As the news landscape shifts, my relatives now discuss preventive measures with more urgency than before.
But news of spurious quality proliferates both online and offline.
One of my uncles recommends that we all chew garlic to stave off the virus. As he describes the idea, I recognise it as coming from a much-shared article on WeChat, China’s main social-messaging platform and incubator of various unreliable articles over the viral outbreak.
There are a few peer-reviewed studies on the possible antiviral properties of garlic, but I doubt the author or sharers of that article had gone to the trouble of looking them up.
More pernicious rumours floated on the Chinese internet, such as the old rumour that SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) had been manufactured by the US to specifically target Chinese people.
The English-language internet is hardly much better. An old video of a street protest is recirculated as if happening now in Wuhan (untrue), and a video of Wuhan with firecrackers going off in the background is flaunted as evidence of police shooting people trying to leave (also untrue).
Much social media commentary is overlaid with disgust at Chinese people as a racial group and over their eating habits.
The worst part of the outbreak, for many of my friends, is the terrifying headlines they feel compelled to consume about it, which leave you feeling powerless and panicked.
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On social media, some share tips of varying helpfulness for staying safe, while others share a petition to extend the national holiday, or even lists of places in Beijing where virus victims are said to be staying. Some simply wish their friends were well, and hope we stay calm.
Out of the dozens of articles I’ve read about the virus, I can only condense one helpful piece of advice: Wash your hands properly and dry them on clean towels.
BACK TO BEIJING
On my second morning at my grandparents’, my uncle suggests that I go back to Beijing early, fearing more transport options would be shut down as the holiday went on. I pack my suitcase quickly, glad that the load is lightened by the presents I’ve offloaded.
But I have forgotten to reckon with the customary food parcels from my aunt. The next morning, as I leave for Beijing, she hands me a heavy bag packed with northern Chinese staples: steamed buns stuffed with sweet bean paste, salted duck eggs, breaded cabbage, deep-fried meatballs, and an entire cooked rooster.
She thrusts on me another bag filled with a dozen pink apples and a dozen oranges, saying I can eat them on the way. I am running out of hands to carry it all.
“It’s a three-hour train ride,” I reply, laughing, “I can’t eat that many oranges in three hours.”
“Well, you can eat them in Beijing!”
“Beijing is a big city. Beijing has oranges,” I say, leaving the second bag behind.
My uncle’s friend drives us to the railway station, as the local buses have been suspended. As we pull in to the station, he reminds us: “Put on your masks – I hear they’re not letting people in without them.”
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On the way home, I message friends on WeChat, telling them I’m returning early. Two of them invite me to their dinner parties, joking that Chinese grain liquor will help disinfect our throats.
I hesitate for hours before replying, wondering whether a yes or no would be overly cautious, rude or irresponsible. How are you meant to assess the risk of going to see friends, when you’re probably more likely to be killed from a traffic accident on the way there than from the coronavirus, yet people around you are panicking?
LIFE IS NORMAL BUT NOT REALLY
Back in Beijing, the city streets are emptier than they usually are in the new year’s holiday week.
But there are reassuring signs of normal life: I brush past green-coated guards still marching in formation around the embassy district, now with face masks on. Through a restaurant window, I see a few people eating Beijing barbeque skewers. And on the streets, the city’s migrant workers are still busy: Delivering, cleaning, hurrying everywhere.
When I arrive at my apartment block, the guard at the gate to the compound hands me a pink slip of paper from the local district government. It tells us to register ourselves if we have been to coronavirus-infected areas, to wear masks outside and to keep warm.
“We can’t cut corners on preventive measures,” the paper reads, “but we also don’t need to panic.”
The next morning, I venture out for groceries. In the cramped convenience store on my block, I am the only customer, but there are bags filled with other people’s groceries standing on the till. As I enter, a delivery man dressed in blue electric-scooter gear is leaving.
“I’m afraid we’re mostly out of fresh vegetables,” the shopkeeper says, seeing me enter. I’ll have to walk a bit further to a larger supermarket to get mine. “We’ve had very few customers in person, but we’re getting all these delivery requests,” she adds.
As she explains, her smartphone’s loudspeaker blares out another order. This shop, like most small shops in big cities, has understocked for the New Year holiday, expecting a dearth of customers.
“We plan to restock in a week, but really, I don’t think the shipments will come through for another two weeks,” she says.
“Where do you get your food from?” I ask, thinking of the farmland around Beijing and the villages that have sealed off their roads.
“Where it’s produced,” she replies, flatly, as if speaking of places that do not need to be spoken of.
I fish out a couple of apples from a small crate on the shop floor. I wish I had taken my aunt’s oranges.
Yuan Yang is the FT’s China tech correspondent in Beijing.