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Over the past few weeks, novel coronavirus has transformed life across China.
When I wrote about the ongoing epidemic last week, it still seemed possible that it would pass within a week or two, brought under containment as the Chinese public took precautions. It is now clear that we are talking months.
Bottom line: The coronavirus epidemic, and quarantine measures, will be the main news drivers for a long time. People will be staying home as voluntary and some mandatory restrictions on movement are in place throughout the country. So far, restrictions are only increasing.
Watch what happens as businesses attempt to start work on Monday. And don’t miss the story beyond Beijing, Shanghai, and the Greater Bay Area cities.
War footing: Over the past week, local governments have deployed much stricter quarantines, with many areas moving from voluntary to mandatory measures as the country declares a “People’s War” on the coronavirus. The effects reach far beyond the city of Wuhan and Hubei province, which has been under quarantine since Jan. 23-24. The country’s largest “tier one” cities keep public transport open, and a degree of normal life continues. In Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, however, almost all residential areas are guarded by manned checkpoints. Most do not allow non-residents to enter.
Much of China’s population is under a form of lockdown in smaller cities, towns, and villages. People can leave these places to return to homes in major cities, and deliveries still arrive, but life is severely restricted.
Trains still run, and the tier-one cities so far allow people to return. TechNode received a notice from the Shanghai government requiring returnees from seven cities, including Shenzhen, to register with local authorities and report their temperature every day for four days.
In a small city in hard-hit Zhejiang province, my household has been issued ration cards for going outside. One person from the house is allowed outside once every two days to buy food. Zhejiang has the largest number of coronavirus cases outside of Hubei, which is under full quarantine. Contacts in small cities and villages across the country report barricade and mandatory registration or quarantine for new arrivals. More people than usual are in places like these, as many have not returned after spending the Chinese New Year in hometowns.
Travel plans are even hard to make as people don’t know whether they are allowed to enter and leave cities. In Jiangsu province, TechNode reporter Shi Jiayi says many people believe the city is closed to outsiders. Weibo users have posted photos of highway signs warning that anyone who leaves will be placed under 14-day quarantine upon returning. However, notices posted online appear to require only that new arrivals submit to a temperature check and register their presence with the government.
Of course, the greatest effects are in Hubei itself, and especially Wuhan. Later, we will bring you a full translation of a fantastic piece of Chinese-language reporting from Wuhan from GQ Reports on the coronavirus. For further reading, turn to the New York Review of Books, where TechNode reporter Lavender Au has published an essay about her experiences under quarantine in the Hubei city of Shiyan.
Back to work? Most businesses remained shut or relied on remote work over the past week. Starting Monday, businesses in Shanghai can open their offices. Companies will reopen but what this looks like is highly uncertain. Train schedules across the country are severely reduced, suggesting that many who went home for the holiday are not returning to major cities yet. But this week may give us our first look at “normalcy” under quarantine conditions.
Study at home: Unlike offices, schools are shuttered indefinitely. But children are returning to study earlier than usual through online classes. This is the world’s largest-ever experiment in online education, and we’ll learn a lot about how it works. Students, naturally, hate the app (in Chinese), and flooded its page on app stores with one-star reviews.
Outside the fifth ring: The most draconian isolation measures are happening “outside the fifth ring.” Most of China’s population lives in this less cosmopolitan world, and these areas have grown faster than the national average in recent years, driving the growth of companies like Pinduoduo and Kuaishou. Expect mixed effects from the differential enforcement of quarantines: being stuck at home may accelerate adoption of online services, and the kids who went to Shanghai for work may pass some urban habits to their hometown relatives during the extra-long period home. But the economic damage may be much greater in small cities and rural areas, limiting growth.
Alibaba singled out—again: One major tech company lives outside the fifth ring: Alibaba, based in wealthy, but lower-tier Hangzhou. Hangzhou is under especially intense quarantine measures this week—so Alibaba’s headquarters may suffer more than its rivals. But Alibaba has been through worse. Taobao launched while the company was under quarantine for SARS (in Chinese), after a staff member contracted it at the Canton Trade Fare.