The Yangtze is the world’s busiest inland river, a marine artery that carries 2.5 billion tonnes of cargo a year, nearly triple what moves through the Suez Canal.
On any normal day, a flotilla of commercial ships, wooden fishing boats, ore carriers, passenger hydrofoils and cruise ships cut wakes across its long stretches.
These are not normal days.
The ghostly streets in China’s megacities have become a familiar image of the virus crisis that has swept the country, leaving tens of millions under a form of medically imposed house arrest, and hundreds of millions in self-imposed isolation.
So it should be no surprise that the Yangtze, too, has gone quiet. The river flows past Wuhan, the city at the epicentre of the outbreak, and the spread of the epidemic coincided with the Lunar New Year, the festive season when China’s normal commercial activity always grinds to a halt.
Even so, seeing China’s best-known waters in a state of near-dead stillness makes for a striking confirmation of how thoroughly the world’s most populous country, and its second-largest economic power, has been placed into a state of virus-induced suspension.
The lifeless Yangtze formed the backdrop to my trip this weekend through the western reaches of Chongqing, the city-state with 30-million people in an area slightly larger than New Brunswick. In a day of travel over and alongside the river, I saw just two boats on the move – one speedboat and one container carrier.
I came to Chongqing because it borders Hubei, the province at the heart of the viral outbreak, with Wuhan as its capital. Parts of Chongqing have some of the highest per-capita rates of infection outside of Hubei, but the region has not formally been placed under the kind of lockdown that makes entry difficult for an outsider, in particular a foreign journalist. That made Chongqing a good place to observe the response to the virus and, I hoped, to see the defences set in place on the frontier with Hubei.
Those defences, I discovered, involve extending the lockdown zone far from Hubei. More than 50 kilometres from the provincial boundary, authorities stopped all cars exiting the freeway. Officials with forehead thermometers and registration books barred non-residents, including me, from entry to Shizhu, the Chongqing district that adjoins Hubei.
A sign at the health checkpoint revealed the extent of measures taken inside the region to lock down movement, including restrictions on fuel sales to frustrate travel, a description of “eight-layer control” that involved regulating movement corridors down to the level of courtyard walkways and threat to treat anyone not wearing a mask as a suspected infection case.
Unable to proceed farther, there was no way to see some of the most extreme measures employed to fight the virus, which have included the forced quarantine of suspected cases in mass isolation centres in Hubei, or the chaining of people into their apartments with no regard to the risks in case of fire. Nor was I able to see the desperation of ill people struggling to get adequate care in an overstretched system, which has led to heart-wrenching social-media videos of people screaming and begging for care.
But it was nonetheless a window into the immensity of the state security response that has been mobilized to severely restrict the mobility of large segments of the Chinese population in service of slowing the spread of the virus. State media has extolled the sacrifice of those under lockdown, and the unilateral imposition of such measures that is uniquely possible in a place such as China, where authoritarian leaders preside over a highly functional security and bureaucratic apparatus.
The medical controls in place have dire implications for China’s economy and even the basic ability of its people to carry out their daily lives. Yet those measures have an ancillary benefit: they can be used to silence dissent (as appears to have happened with lawyer and journalist Chen Qiushi, whose mother told CNN he has been placed in forced quarantine) and keep away unwelcome eyes.
That included me. In one small village, I spoke with a family for a few moments before a man arrived, told me the area was closed and said I was not welcome. Soon after, a senior propaganda official called my cellphone.
“We prohibit any kind of human movement, so please go back to where you come from,” he said. “Go back to Beijing. For your sake and for everybody.”
The lockdown is imperfect. My colleague, Alexandra Li, watched as checkpoint officials in Shizhu fell into a panic when they realized they had accidentally let into their district a single person from Hubei. China’s surveillance and security state is so imposing, it’s not likely that person remained undetected for long.
The virus has nonetheless posed a challenge to China’s leadership, in particular President Xi Jinping. The death last week of Li Wenliang, a doctor forced by police to confess wrongdoing for telling friends his worries about a new virus, galvanized a national fury against the unwillingness of China’s Communist Party to countenance anything but officially approved narratives, even when the unsanctioned truth revealed the outset of a deadly contagion.
Still, in Chongqing those willing to describe their frustrations expressed confidence that nothing but the Party’s way could secure China’s health again.
“The biggest impact is that we can’t go to work and therefore can’t make money,” a man who gave his name only as Mr. Liu told me. Behind him, anchored ships sat unmoving on the Yangtze.
But, he said, “these measures make sense. Our country has its own logic. They do everything to protect the health and safety of our citizens, and we must give this issue our full attention.”