Picture credit: DALE DE LA REY / AFP

Seven years in China

COVID, nationalism and Beijing walls

Artillery Row

Seven years after I first stepped off a plane in Shanghai, I was finally preparing to go home.  During that time, I had experienced a lot. I had worked near the border of Burma, Siberia, and Afghanistan; I had lived in the countryside and the cities; I had taught some of China’s richest and poorest students; I had been expelled from Xinjiang, had escaped quarantine in Tibet, and (most challenging of all) had learnt to speak the Chinese language.

But by 2022, China had become an impossible place to live. China’s initial COVID response was admirable, but it had descended into a mad authoritarian nightmare. The Chinese have always been nationalist, but under Xi Jinping their nationalism has become aggressive and ubiquitous. Post-COVID China felt like a place where it was impossible to escape politics, and that politics was becoming extremely ugly.

I first heard of COVID on New Year’s Eve in 2019, whilst celebrating with my neighbours in Urumqi.  One of them commented that there were rumours of a strange and mysterious illness working its way through Wuhan. Two weeks later I flew to Sanya, a Chinese seaside resort just off the coast of Vietnam. I had planned to travel by train all the way across China and back to Urumqi.  About one week into my journey, my colleagues started messaging me, telling me that I should fly back to Urumqi. I ignored them. The subways started becoming emptier. National parks were closed. I considered buying masks, but decided not to. It seemed unnecessary. The fatality rate for COVID was low, and this was all going to be over in a few weeks. All of my friends, whether they were foreigners or Chinese, all agreed on one thing: the government was overreacting horribly. COVID was nothing: why were they taking it so seriously?

Of course, I was wrong. Everybody was wrong. It is remarkable in retrospect that the Chinese government realized the threat that COVID posed so quickly. There was a lot of controversy over the silencing of the doctor Li Wenliang, but there is little evidence that it seriously delayed the response to the pandemic. The measures that the Chinese government took were unprecedented in their scale and speed.

The initial lockdowns were not widely resisted as they were in the West, and they did not generally last very long. In Urumqi, schools were up and running within a few weeks. There were restrictions, but none of them were especially intrusive or irksome. Every day I had to have my temperature taken on the way into the school. Each morning an unappetizing brown diarrhea bag of Chinese medicine was placed on my desk. The office was disinfected three times a day.  Between classes, instead of a bell, a song played reminding students to wear masks and wash their hands. Travel was sometimes difficult, but it was certainly not impossible.

By the time I moved to Beijing in March 2021, it felt like COVID was completely over. China was vaccinating its population quickly, and it seemed just a matter of time before life would go back to being completely normal. I was mistaken.

Most people assumed that the COVID restrictions were being held in place in preparation for the Winter Olympics in 2022. Once that was over, the restrictions would start being lifted. The Winter Olympics came and went. The main stadium was just up the road from where I lived, but the whole event was kept so clinically separate from the rest of Beijing that it might as well have not been in China at all. After the Olympics, the restrictions were not lifted. Omicron arrived in China.

The lockdown in Shanghai was the real turning point

2022 is the year public opinion turned against the government. The first lockdowns of 2022 were in Shenzhen and in Jilin, but the Shenzhen lockdown was short, and the lockdown in Jilin was largely ignored on social media. The lockdown in Shanghai was the real turning point. Shanghai locals have long had a reputation for being rebellious and arrogant. When Shanghai was first locked down, most people did not have much sympathy. Many seemed to get a sense of schadenfreude at seeing them get their comeuppance. But the lockdown quickly became a public relations catastrophe for the government. People knew that Omicron was not a serious threat. They knew that zero COVID was not working. Some of the stories that came out of Shanghai were deeply upsetting. In one video, a hazmat-clad COVID worker takes out somebody’s pet dog onto the street and then beats it to death with a shovel. Videos of police brutality circulated widely. I talked to former students of mine in Shanghai. One of them told me about food rations being sold off by corrupt officials. Another worried about her grandparents, left alone and unable to get essential medications and supplies.

Within a few weeks the lockdown had reached Beijing. We could not leave school. Tests would be taken daily at 7am.  The desire to be seen to be doing something reached new heights. Every morning, cleaning staff would burst into our dormitories without knocking to disinfect the floor. We were told to open our windows twice a day and log the times on a ventilation sheet. We were given thermometers and instructed to send our temperatures online every morning. The kitchen had tape placed on the ground every one meter to enforce distancing. Every time we used the kitchen, we had to sign our name. Anything we ordered had to be received by a guard and then hosed down with disinfectant. Of course, nobody ever actually took their temperature. You made up a slightly different number each day. The ventilation sheets and kitchen use sheets remained empty.

Even those normally sympathetic to the CCP struggled to make sense of it all. The official reason for the lockdowns was that many of China’s elderly people had not been vaccinated, but the lockdowns meant that vaccination rates for the elderly dropped sharply. There just weren’t enough health workers left over to administer vaccines. Furthermore, old people were particularly badly affected by the lockdowns.  Many of them were alone. Others could not get treatment at hospitals that they needed. For a lot of them, using smartphones and health codes was difficult and stressful. But more importantly: why had the Chinese government spent the last two years patting itself on the back and mocking the incompetence of other countries instead of preparing for the inevitability of living with COVID? Pragmatism will probably win out eventually. It may even win quite soon. But it is concerning how long it has taken and the cost it has come at. In the meantime, I had spent two months in a tiny room without any interaction with the outside world.

China is a very different place to the country I arrived in seven years ago. Some of the changes have been good: air pollution has been reduced dramatically; China’s high speed train network is wonderful. Other changes I am not so sure about.

The most obvious change has been the increase in nationalism. In Beijing, every week I would set my students a writing assignment. I did my best to avoid political and sensitive issues. Somehow, the students always found a way to make their writing political. What would you do if you had 24 hours left to live? I would bomb America and kill as many Americans as possible. What do you hope to be doing ten years in the future? Fighting in the army to liberate Taiwan. What are the main differences between Chinese people and foreigners? Foreigners are the bourgeoisie and the Chinese are the industrial proletariat. An innocuous writing assignment on trees turned into a violent anti-Japanese rant. I tried not to take these too seriously. These students were 14 year old boys, and 14 year old boys like writing about guns and bombs and killing people.

Yet there definitely was a genuine hatred of America and Japan behind it.  My students in Xinjiang would often choose political topics for their speaking competitions. Usually it was about how America wanted to keep China down and spread lies. It all culminated in a very unpleasant incident, which made me quite sad.

Every morning I taught a class called 3A. They were always noisy and boisterous, but in the beginning I enjoyed a good relationship with them. I always avoid political and sensitive issues in my class — not so much because I fear getting into any trouble, but rather because politics is divisive and you can easily find yourself dealing with an angry and unpleasant scene. There was a particular moment, however, when their behavior suddenly changed.  They refused to pay attention in class; they refused to hand in assignments; they would not make any effort on anything I asked them to do. Often, they would openly defy me. The situation eventually became impossible and the director had to be called in to find out what was going on.

Apparently, during the Nanjing Massacre Memorial day a student thought she spotted me rolling my eyes. I admit that I do not like the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Day. I feel it has very little to do with the actual victims of the massacre, and a great deal more with drumming up hatred towards the Japanese and other foreigners, and inculcating a love of the military and the Party. But of course I would never say any of this to my students, and any reaction I would have had would have been subtle. The student who thought she saw me doing this told the other students, and I suspect the story got exaggerated along the way, causing more and more outrage. Collectively they decided they would defy me as a class and make my job as difficult as possible.

The director wanted me to apologize to them. I refused. I was tired, and irritated, and fed up of having to deal with an increasingly nationalist environment. For years I had used the Animaniacs song: Nations of the World as a fun intro to learning the names of countries. In 2022 I was told not to use it again: it listed Taiwan separately from China. I tried to teach the history of Guy Fawkes night, but got in trouble for mentioning the existence of Catholics and Protestants. In the end, the class was given over to another teacher, leaving both of us annoyed and angry.

The whole culture of China feels like it is becoming increasingly nationalist

The whole culture of China feels like it is becoming increasingly nationalist. People no longer watch Titanic; they watch Wolf Warrior and endless movies about heroically killing the Japanese. It is true that my students in Anhui and Yunnan (who I taught in 2015) loved their country. Many of my students in Anhui proudly told me of joining the Communist Party in the hope of serving their country. But this love for their country was not defined by a need to set themselves against America and everything America stands for. These days, whatever happens in the world it is America’s fault. If Russia invades Ukraine it is America’s fault. If Taiwanese people vote for Tsai Ing-wen, it is America’s fault. Chinese nationalism feels less about values like loyalty and increasingly has become an obsessive fear, insecurity and hatred towards the West.

Other changes in China have also been frustrating.  When I first moved to China, it was still possible to read Wikipedia, the BBC, or any other news website.  VPNs, if you did need them, were freely available in Chinese app stores. Now, it is hard to find any major English language websites that are accessible in China.  China now no longer has an internet so much as an intranet.

Leaving China was not easy. My flight was cancelled so many times that my visa expired and I faced possible legal trouble. On my last night in Beijing, I went for a walk around my neighborhood. More and more people in China are living in gated communities. Around where I lived, the only place you could walk was along motorway sized roads. It was a pity, as the gated communities were very beautiful. But China has always been a country of walls. It is very fitting that the symbol of China is the Great Wall. Chinese families had traditionally lived behind walls in courtyard houses. The character for wall 城 is also the character for city. The character for country 国 is naturally encased inside four secure walls.

The physical walls of the past have now been supplemented with virtual walls.  The Great Firewall of China is the most extensive in the world. Now, COVID has made these walls higher than ever, and China more isolated than it has been in decades.

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