Coronavirus in China | DW Documentary

Coronavirus in China | DW Documentary


For weeks now in Beijing there
hasn’t been any point in getting up early. The only reason to do so is to check
the latest number of new infections – right after waking up. Have you seen the figures? There are almost 45,000
confirmed cases of the illness! I came to work in China
as a journalist in 2007 and got married
to Lulu from Beijing. We have one son and live in a
housing complex in the north of the city. I travel around China
a lot, making reports. But now I’ve been grounded. Only Tibet’s still okay. Cordons have been erected around
cities, but also around entire provinces, as well as city districts – and even every housing complex. Outside my apartment block uniformed
men check everyone’s comings and goings. The neighborhood
committees are important cogs in the Communist
Party’s security apparatus – there to monitor residents’
political and social behavior. Now, they’re functioning
as health police. Temperature checks, enforced
quarantines upon leaving the city, mandatory face masks – Beijing’s residents have bit by bit
disappeared from the face of the city – their movements curtailed by
the regime and their own fear. The only report that I can I make is
one about standstill, a quarantine diary. The days seem uneventful, but they
raise many questions about China’s future. There’s one good
thing about the situation. Now that our family is together
24/7, we are more united than ever. I’ve even persuaded
my son to help me. We have to fetch water. The tap water is undrinkable, so water
containers are delivered on most days. But since our district was cordoned
off, we have to collect them ourselves. My son is lucky, the
barricade isn’t very high. Since the outbreak of the virus Lulu and I have been wearing
new his n’ hers fashion accessories – face masks. Mine: black, hers: white. Lulu is unhappy she can
no longer wear lipstick. But since the
quarantine started, the wearing of face masks
has been “strongly advised.” Basically: if you leave the apartment
without one, you’ll be stopped. The remaining entry point to our
district has become a checkpoint. You need a special
pass to get in and out – and it is checked every time. Permission can be
refused at any time. You might think it’s five
pm on a Sunday afternoon, but in fact it’s
Friday afternoon. Normally, people would
be going shopping now – and Beijing would
look like this. It’s nice to have a bit more
space, but we’re feeling a bit lonely. And what makes things worse: getting our temperature
measured every 300 meters! But is it really such a good
idea to be pressing these devices onto dozens of
different peoples’ wrists? The mall is almost empty, too. Usually, we have to wait
half an hour to get a coffee. But people don’t
feel like going out. At least there are a few
young guys playing basketball – bringing a bit of
life to the place. But I’m surprised they
aren’t wearing masks. At the moment there is still
disinfectant to clean our hands. But for how much longer? At the supermarket
entrance: another checkpoint. At least there’s a
bit more life here. Since being in quarantine, cooking
has become our main activity. The sight of these supermarket shelves
is almost comforting, but only almost. We’ve all seen the images of empty shelves
in the city of Wuhan on social media. The situation at the
epicenter of the outbreak where thousands are
sick is ever-present. It’s feeding a sense
of collective anxiety. That’s even though our
situation is nothing like in Wuhan. In Beijing there are only
hundred official coronavirus cases. The capital is hermetically
sealed off nonetheless. In the subway, I’m meeting
Ms. Li, my interpreter. Before I even say hello, I already know
her skin temperature: 32.1 degrees Celsius. All subway entrances are
now fitted with infrared cameras. If your temperature
tops 37.3 degrees, you’re isolated behind a
barricade and sent to the hospital. And, of course, there’s also someone
checking for face masks in the subway- not that there’s much to check. Normally, the
trains look like this! The real problem is
the shortage of masks. Together with Ms. Li, I’m
going to investigate the problem. No, we’re closed. Try there! Here it says: “Masks: sold out.“ Hello! Do you still have masks? Only electric ones. Can I look? He only has a mask for 40 euros – which,
of course, he offers us straight off. Will it definitely guard
against the virus? Which virus do you mean? The coronavirus, of course … You have to change all the standard masks
every two days to be on the safe side. Every two days? Yes, to ensure that you are
protected against the virus. That isn’t necessary
with this electrical mask. It can be used for two
months, no problem. Two months! What about the standard
masks like yours? Could I have one like that? No, I don’t have any more. You’re too late. They’re sold out for today. Should I try again tomorrow? Yes, that’s normally
how it works. But get here early because we
only get a limited number of masks. Everyone in the
district knows that, so they arrive early and
are prepared to wait in line. Everything linked to this outbreak
is controlled by the government. It’s rationing the amount of
masks that we’re allowed to sell. Could you stop filming please? It would be better if
you didn’t film this. OK? I go to Tiananmen Square to see what
it looks like in the heart of the city. The pavements are cordoned off. You
can only get round the square by bike. On its north side is
the Forbidden City. Everywhere there
are police officers guarding the entrance to this huge
palace complex-turned-museum. It has never been more
forbidden than now. Just a few meters away: Zhongnanhai, the seat of the state council
and the Communist Party headquarters. The country’s top leadership both
lives and works behind this gate – cordoned off because
of fear of the virus. It’s impossible to stop here. I’m familiar now with the situation
in my district and in the city center, but what about the working-class
districts on the outskirts of Beijing? Are they under the
same quarantine? The companies are housing their
workers in small single room dormitories. In a model proletariat no one
would dare to contradict the party. Mr. Chen is a chauffeur. I’ve hired him for a day
to show me his district. Anyone who wants to
enter has to get registered. I’ll go out and
arrange it with them. No one is allowed into
the quarter without a pass. We try it using Mr. Chen’s. This is my pass for the quarter. We aren’t the only ones waiting. Everyone’s being checked by
the neighborhood committees. The Communist Party’s
security apparatus is omnipresent in the fight against the virus. The committees are
the party‘s local arm. It’s their job to enforce the
quarantines in the affected districts. They issue the permits and
inform authorities about anyone who is running a temperature
or not wearing a mask. The neighborhood committees have
grown since the beginning of the crisis. These people call
themselves “volunteers” united in the battle
against the virus. But whether they’ve
got an armband or not – they are, in fact, paid
by the city authorities to ensure people
stick to the rules. The checks are strict and you can
only leave the area for restricted hours. To our surprise, they
allow us to proceed. When the gates are
closed, you can’t get in. No matter what. Recently, I had
to sleep in the car. The streets and alleyways
are empty here, too. It’s not easy to find
someone to interview. This man is the only one. He’s venturing outside
for the first time in two days. I’ve got potatoes, noodles,
garlic, tofu and vegetables. I went shopping and needed to buy more
than usual because there are three of us and I’m the only one who leaves
the apartment every two or three days. Goodbye. Back home there’s a
surprise waiting for me. This is the first time I’ve seen an
ambulance outside the entrance of our apartment block. And yet, no suspected
cases have been reported. For our reassurance we
can see practically in real time whether or not there are
sick people in our building. There are several apps that
localize people who have the virus. This blue dot is me. This is our building. Around it, the yellow buildings are ones
where sick people are recorded as living. The darker the color,
the more recent the case. Every red dot is a
coronavirus case. No one slips through the net in a
society where everyone is tracked – by shopping, going about their daily
business, or via facial recognition. I click here on the ill person
to see where they have been. To a fruit dealer and a bistro. They’re two or three
kilometers away. We are here and we’re definitely
not going to walk three kilometers to buy an apple, so it’s fine. These new technologies
make everyday life a lot easier. But they also create fear. The apps show most of the sick
as being in the center of Beijing. The main shopping
drag Wangfujing is dead. Usually, Beijing’s equivalent of the
Champs-Elysées is thronging with people out shopping or window shopping. But today there are public health
videos rather than ads playing on the electronic billboards. The food market in the middle of the
street where you used to be able to buy insect larvae and
scorpions is closed. There’s a sign saying
it’s going to be renovated. But it doesn’t say when. These are agonizingly long days
for store and restaurant owners. Ms. Zhang is in charge of
the only open café around here. Today, I’m her only customer. When the epidemic first broke
out we had to find a way of coping. We assumed the whole thing would probably
go on for the first half of the year. I’ve a lot of friends in the restaurant
trade and we’re all in the same situation. We’re under a lot of pressure
if our estimates are correct. We don’t know when business
is going to pick up again and we’re keeping a very
close eye on developments. When things improve, we’ll
hear about it on the news. We keep calculating when we
might have more guests again based on the latest
infection figures. The city is sleeping, but
we’re going stir crazy at home. So we decide to go
out. It’ll do us good. Because we can’t be visited by anyone
from outside and everything is closed, we pay a visit to
our neighbor Gary. Up to now we had only
met on the parking lot. The secondhand car dealer
lives here with his wife and cat. For more than a month now, he has been
sitting at home and twiddling his thumbs – like all of us. Since the start of the quarantine he
hasn’t missed any of the news broadcasts on CCTV, Chinese
state television. In 2003, at the time of the SARS epidemic,
I was in my third year at the university. I think people were
less worried back then. People are far more worried
than they were about SARS. People are saying that the mood
is different because of WeChat. Fear is spreading because we are communicating with one
another more due to social media. At the time of SARS
these platforms didn’t exist. In 2003 the authorities in
Beijing committed grave mistakes. They hushed things up and
that created big problems. But I believe that
they’ve made progress and they’ve got the situation
pretty much under control now. Maybe they tried to
cover things up at first. I don’t know. Based on the information
he hears from the government, Gary prefers to stay at home. Every evening state TV
shows images of the crisis: pictures of hospitals, patients and
above all the military and medics working together in
perfect coordination. And on-the-ground shots from
cities where the state apparatus is naturally shown as intervening
swiftly and efficiently – even cleaning the
street with mops. The premier sets a good example. The message:
Everything is under control! As every day goes by more people
disappear from Beijing’s streets. Normally there’s an almost constant
flow of cars and consumers along this road. Today: nothing – just silence. This banner reads: We are all
united and thanks to this trust and the scientific
strategy of state leadership this epidemic will
be vanquished. The regime is obsessed by the
concern that fear about the virus could spark social unrest or
criticism of the leaders. The party seems more worried about
that than about the coronavirus itself. People spreading information on
social media can expect sanctions. Blogger Fang Bing was
arrested at home by the police. Who’s there? The police! The police? Yes, open up! Why are there so many of you? Stop taking photos! Why are you here? We’re here because of you! Where are you taking me? What do you, what
do want from me? Come on, open the door! First I want to know
where you’re taking me! Finally, the police
broke the door down. Fang Bing hasn’t
been seen since. The blogger had been filming
since the start of the crisis in Wuhan and posting his
videos on social media. He ventured into hospitals,
showed overflowing waiting rooms, dying patients and doctors
and nurses at breaking point. Unsanitized images. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese
people had been following him online and watching how he openly
denounced government inefficiency. You will get your punishment
and pay for your deeds. All anti-communist
forces must unite. Even if you arrest
me, I am not afraid! An unbearable
affront to the regime. But this type of video managed
to spread through social media before the government
was able to intervene. So, too, did videos filmed by
Chen QiuShi, in Wuhan’s hospitals. He showed sick people
not being treated – desperate people who
were not being attended to despite having
had a fever for days. Hello, this is Chen QiuShi.
It is 11am on January 30th. This was his last video
before he was quarantined. I’m frightened. I have the virus before my eyes and
state security breathing down my neck. But I’m not going to
let that get me down. I’ll carry on
reporting in this city, as long as I live, and I’ll
show what I see and hear. Go to hell! Does the communist
regime think that I’m afraid? Over the last few days I’ve noticed
a few posts on WeChat and Douban – the Chinese equivalent
of Facebook and Twitter – that also challenge
the official line. They were written by a
blogger couple in Beijing. Accompanied by an interpreter, I visit
them in their small city center apartment. We haven’t been outside for
days and we’re just killing time. Since the start of the crisis, there has been a rise in the
number of citizen journalists in China – trying to disseminate information to
supplement the official version of events. A tentative breath of freedom. With limited means, the two bloggers
wanted to spark a mini revolution after Dr. Li Wenliang died. The doctor from Wuhan was the first to try
to warn the public about the new disease. He was arrested, but died
after contracting the illness – and became a symbol for this
absurd system that silences people to maintain the
regime’s stability. When Dr. Li died, people
were sad and angry. I wanted to honor him by getting
as many people as possible to use a drawing of his face as
their profile picture in social media, or to send posts with messages like
“It’s no crime to express your opinion” or “Have a safe
journey to paradise” – a kind of online demonstration. Thirty minutes after I had
posted my call to action thousands of users had changed
their profile picture and shared my post. The Internet police got wind
of it and sent me a warning: “The content you posted will be
deleted as it could lead to unrest. If you refuse to cooperate, your
account will be permanently deleted.” In China everything
functions via social media: payment systems, communication,
smart ticketing for public transport. If you don’t have an
account, you’re down and out. At first Caixin and Sanlian Lifeweek
reported very actively on the situation. Then state television sent
300 reporters to Wuhan – with the aim of steering public
opinion and quashing other reports. The regime now
rules with a hard hand. The media has also
been placed in quarantine. China‘s citizens are not just
effectively incarcerated at home, they only have access to
information permitted by the regime. The two bloggers are
suffering the consequences. So, here we are: no internet! Our apps are no longer online. The software tools that they used to
dodge the censors and gain access to banned websites such as
Twitter have also been blocked. Week two of our quarantine. The barricades at the
entrances of our housing complex have now been reinforced with
two-meter high green wire fencing. Though it’s not as if anyone could
have got through the cordon as it was. Every day is like the next: A never-ending stream of suppliers
provides us with the essentials. But collecting the water containers
is getting more and more difficult. We feel a little more locked
in with every day that passes. Lulu rings her cousin to find
out how her daughter is doing. The seven-year-old hasn’t left the
family apartment for several weeks now. Wait. I’ll get her. She’s
just getting dressed. Her school is closed, of course. Remote learning is
the order of the day. How does it work with classes? Tell your aunt! I sit down at the table and
switch on the television. I learn my lessons there
and when I’m finished the teacher gives
me my homework. Do you speak to one other
via Skype, like we are now? No, it was like that at first. The teacher could see us. But now it’s all on television and
the teacher can’t see us anymore. Lulu‘s cousin shows us what
daily life is like for her daughter. Tong Tong is an only child. Her daily routine under
quarantine is carefully planned. She gets up at 8am,
then it’s time for breakfast. The rest of the morning
is devoted to learning. And the day starts with an
exercise class just like at school. Two days ago, we started having to
pass through this large military tent. The monitoring system has
become more tightly organized. The color of the
passes now change to reflect the number of
sick people in the vicinity. Ours are pistachio green
– no idea what that means. We film secretly using
our mobile phones. Cameras are not welcome
in the monitoring zones. Outside it’s worse than ever. The streets are almost empty. The only people we meet are
either wearing a red armband, or are there to take
our temperature. It’s so empty… The basketball players
have disappeared, too. The court is now
closed until further notice. Can I have my pass! On our way back through
the tent we get stopped again. How long have you had this pass? Sorry? Did you leave Beijing? No, no. You’re going to get new passes. We’ll make you two new ones. These are too old. Why are we getting new ones? Because they’re better.
They’re valid longer. Okay. We only have two passes for three
family members and now they’re white. Is that a good or a bad
sign? I have no idea! But we don’t complain. Others only have one pass and are only allowed to leave
their homes every two or three days. Week four of the quarantine. The barricade’s now too high to
pass over any water containers.