Ruili, a city on China’s border with Myanmar, has become a prison for its 260,000 residents.
Even as the rest of the country has enjoyed a year of relative normality, with few COVID-19 cases or restrictions to worry about, Ruili has experienced almost 200 days under lockdown. No other city has more painfully borne the brunt of China’s zero COVID-19 strategy, which aims to speedily suppress any suspected outbreak.
Since a new outbreak began on Oct. 17, some 270 domestic cases have been recorded, high for China but minuscule compared with most countries in the West. Canada recorded more than 2,500 cases on Wednesday alone.
Air travellers arriving in China are subject to stringent testing and quarantines, so almost all the cases that make it into the country are doing so by crossing land borders, which is why the government has been pressing local authorities to do more to prevent smugglers and illegal crossings. Since the new wave began, more than four million people in Lanzhou, in northern Gansu province, have been placed under lockdown after six cases were detected there, while cities on the border with Mongolia have also faced new restrictions.
For Ruili, which abuts the Myanmarese city of Muse, new cases detected in surrounding Yunnan province mean more months of the restrictions that have turned this once-vibrant border crossing into a virtual ghost town.
“I have no income, and I’m worried about the future,” said one local resident, whom The Globe and Mail is identifying solely by her surname, Chen, because there can be consequences in China for speaking to foreign media. “It almost feels like the lockdown will never end.”
Ms. Chen’s family runs a small restaurant on the outskirts of town that has been closed since July, leaving them without any source of income. She said there are checkpoints manned 24 hours a day at the edge of every village.
“Online, many people think the epidemic in Ruili is over, but we have been fighting it for the past six months,” Ms. Chen said. “People do not know how difficult it is to defend the border. They don’t know how hard we have worked to keep the epidemic under control and keep it from spreading to the rest of the country.”
Yunnan shares a 4,000-kilometre border with Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam and has long fought to contain illegal crossings, which have increased as neighbouring countries continue to struggle with the pandemic. There has been a surge in crossings from Myanmar since April, when a military coup plunged much of the country into renewed civil war and caused chaos within the health care system.
According to state media, a 100-strong police task force now patrols the Ruili River, which forms the border with Myanmar, looking for people attempting to cross illegally. This month, the team seized 47 vessels and detained 40 illegal immigrants, while a further 35 were turned back, according to the state-run China Daily.
“We cannot relax for one moment, because there is always hidden danger,” Zhang Juntian, deputy head of the team, told the paper.
But without a light at the end of the tunnel, many Ruili residents have become increasingly desperate. When a video of a man singing the Chinese national anthem as he threw himself from the roof of a hotel in the city went viral this month, many sympathized, though the authorities later said the man had financial difficulties.
In response to a growing online backlash this week, Ruili officials said they would provide additional support to unemployed residents who cannot afford to pay for the quarantine necessary to leave the city to seek work.
But messages of anger and desperation continued to go viral on social media Wednesday, as well as accusations that some posts were being censored.
Also shared widely was an essay by the town’s deputy mayor, Dai Rongli, posted first to his personal WeChat page and later shared by Chinese media.
“The epidemic has ruthlessly looted [Ruili] over and over again, draining the city’s last trace of life and devouring the hope of its residents,” Mr. Dai wrote. “Please save this hero city! Please pay attention to this beautiful border town!”
Ms. Chen said she was somewhat encouraged by the attention Ruili has received this week.
“I want the outside world to see what’s really going on with Ruili,” she told The Globe. “I hope that people’s living conditions will be noticed by society.”
Alexandra Li contributed to this report
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