Kunming, China (CNN) – Beijing is partially locking down to control a Covid outbreak that could completely shutter the Chinese capital. But just as the government is tightening controls in the city — testing 21 million residents, shutting schools and some shopping malls — I’m trying to get in.
Flights from Tokyo to Beijing this week were impossible to find — the closest available flight was to Kunming, southern Yunnan province, around 1,600 miles (2,600 kilometers) away. There, I’ll spend 21 days in quarantine, and even then, there’s no guarantee I’ll be allowed into the Chinese capital.
China’s strategy of strict border controls, snap lockdowns, and mass testing worked in the early days of the pandemic to contain the spread of Covid-19, but the highly transmissible Omicron variant has posed a much harder challenge.
Since mid-December, China’s average daily case count has surged from double-digits to more than 20,000. At least 27 cities across the country are under full or partial lockdown, impacting around 180 million people, according to CNN’s calculations.
Some of the strictest measures are in force in the country’s financial powerhouse, Shanghai, where many of its 25 million residents have been sealed inside their residential compounds for more than a month, creating discontent that has flooded China’s heavily policed internet.
Government censors have been racing to keep up with a torrent of anger over food shortages, lack of medical access, and — for those who test positive — poor conditions at makeshift quarantine camps. Protests have even broken out — a rare sight in authoritarian China — and residents have clashed with the police.
The number of cases in Beijing remains low compared to Shanghai — 34 new cases were reported in the capital Friday, taking the total number of cases to 228 during this outbreak.
But China is taking no chances as it seeks to stop the virus from spreading inside its political hub.
Traveling into China
My journey into China this week was even harder than when I traveled to Beijing in February for the Winter Olympics, held under the world’s strictest Covid countermeasures. Then, officials, media and athletes were separated from the Chinese public by an extensive network of physical barriers, quarantine periods and regular Covid testing.
Now, to enter China, I had to provide three negative PCR tests from government-approved clinics, taken seven days before departure, then two more within 48 hours of the flight.
On the plane, all the flight attendants wore hazmat suits, as did the staff at Kunming Airport. Upon landing, all the passengers on my flight were immediately directed to take another Covid test, an eye-watering nasal and throat swab.
Most of the passengers on my flight appeared to be holding Chinese passports.
Foreigners can only enter under very limited circumstances, and it’s exceptionally difficult for American journalists to get a China visas due to deteriorating US-China relations. Both countries agreed to relax visa restrictions for the others’ journalists after a meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping last November. I was granted a visa earlier this year after several rounds of interviews.
But still, when I handed over my American passport, the immigration officer spent several minutes flipping through the pages, then called over a group of workers with “police” written on their hazmat suits. It seemed I was the only one from the flight pulled aside.
They took me to a private room for questioning, and after a lengthy police interrogation about my professional and personal life, I was allowed to continue through immigration and customs.
After clearing immigration, I struck up a conversation with the man standing beside me as we waited to board the bus to the quarantine hotel. He’s from Shanghai, but had been living in Japan for the past 30 years. He hadn’t been back to China since the pandemic started, but eventually decided the 21-day quarantine to enter the country was worth it to visit his elderly mother in Shanghai. The city is now under a weekslong Covid lockdown, so his only option was to fly to Yunnan and wait until the situation improved.
China’s National Health Commission said Friday the “zero Covid-19 policy” had shown initial results in Shanghai, and the situation across the country is showing a downward trend.
21 days in hotel quarantine
Not a single seat was empty on the bus, and our luggage was piled in the aisles. From the bus window, I watched Kunming, a city of 6.6 million people, pass by in the night — bright lights illuminating the buildings and highways.
After a two- to three-hour drive, we arrived at our quarantine location: a hotspring hotel converted into a quarantine facility. Workers in hazmat suits escorted me to my room.
The next morning, I realized my room overlooks a breathtaking view of Kunming — an expanse of green trees and mountains dotting the horizon. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, a popular tourist destination, famous for its beautiful landscape and tea producing regions.
There’s a balcony, but I can’t step outside. But I’m grateful for the view, and more importantly, the ability to open the window for fresh air — in some quarantine facilities that’s banned.
I can’t open my door, except for health checkups and food pick up. I get two temperature checks a day and regular Covid tests, sometimes twice daily.
Food deliveries aren’t allowed, but breakfast, lunch and dinner are included in the quarantine fees, which vary depending on which hotel you’re taken to — there’s no choice where to go.
Meals come in plastic containers, placed in a chair outside the door three times a day — typically rice, soup, and stir fried meats and vegetables. I supplement the meals with snacks I brought from Tokyo, after hearing about the subpar food at the quarantine hotels. Luckily, I don’t mind the food at mine.
In my room, there’s no refrigerator, microwave, or laundry services. Only one towel is distributed for the entire 21 days. I packed my own yoga mat, jump rope and weights for exercise. Despite the hot weather — it’s about 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) — the hotel won’t turn the air conditioning on because of concerns about Covid transmission.
Assuming I continue to test negative, I still may not make it to Beijing. If the capital goes into a full lockdown, all flights are likely to be canceled.
Even before this latest outbreak, arrivals from parts of China deemed “high risk” were required to spend another 14 days in government quarantine in Beijing. Fortunately, Yunnan isn’t one of them at the moment. Incoming domestic travelers from lower risk destinations have to spend at least seven days sealed in their homes for health monitoring.
China’s authorities have doubled down on the zero-Covid policy, reasoning that it has allowed the country to avoid the explosion of deaths in other parts of the world and will buy time to vaccinate vulnerable groups like the elderly and children.
“If we lose the Covid control measures, a large number of people will be infected with many critical patients and deaths, causing the overwhelming of (the) medical system,” National Health Commission Vice Director Li Bin said Friday.
But critics say the policy is more about politics than science.
President Xi has put his personal stamp on “zero-Covid,” and officials have frequently used the low death rate to argue that China’s system is superior to the West, where restrictions have eased to reflect rising vaccination rates.
But in China, there’s no sign of change, and people are growing fatigued.
In year three of the pandemic, China still refuses to live with Covid. No case is tolerated, no matter the cost.