Coronavirus in China | DW Documentary

by birtanpublished on June 30, 2020

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: 321 degrees Celsius

All subway entrances are
now fitted with infrared cameras

If your temperature
tops 373 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


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?


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


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

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