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Beijing Diary: Great Hall awaits master's return

Nikkei's China bureau chief offers snapshots of the fight against coronavirus

All is quiet at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, as the country awaits a decision on this year's congress. (Photo by Tetsushi Takahashi)

The Chinese government is battling to contain the coronavirus outbreak that has infected tens of thousands and killed more than a thousand people, while spreading worldwide. Nikkei's bureau chief in China, Tetsushi Takahashi, is on the ground in the capital and is filing dispatches on what he sees.

Tuesday, February 18

With no end to the coronavirus outbreak in sight, China's biggest political event is now in doubt -- the annual session of the National People's Congress scheduled to open on March 5.

On Monday, the NPC Standing Committee, similar to a parliament, decided to deliberate in one week the possibility of postponing the gathering of around 3,000 delegates.

The Great Hall of the People, where the congress convenes, is located to the west of Tiananmen Square. The building, an imposing example of socialist architecture, was built over just 10 months in 1958 and 1959 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. Inside, the Great Auditorium is said to have the capacity for 10,000 people.

On Monday afternoon, I drove past the front of the Great Hall. A lone police officer in a surgical mask stood where there would normally be crowds of tourists snapping pictures. Similarly, in Tiananmen Square, I saw only armed officers on security duty. A tense atmosphere had befallen the area.

Postponing the congress would push back the start of China's political calendar, dealing a major blow to President Xi Jinping's ability to set policy for the year ahead. When will the delegates return to the hall? The fact that the answer is unclear underscores the gravity of the coronavirus crisis.

Monday, February 17: In search of face masks

I left my apartment without wearing a mask again today. I realized this as soon as I reached the first floor of the building, because neighbors gave me strange looks and tried to avoid me. I went back up to get one.

You cannot go anywhere in Beijing without a mask these days. Signs and posters at the entrances of buildings say, "Please wear a mask before entering." Just about everyone in the city is masked -- except diners at the few restaurants that are open.

Yet, it is virtually impossible to find masks in stores, even online. Where do ordinary citizens buy them? I wonder.

"I ran out of the masks I bought when I traveled to Japan in January," said Zhu Kexin, a 25-year-old saleswoman at a shopping mall in Beijing. "I come to work wearing a mask the shop gives me every day."

Some are not so fortunate. Li Dan, a 30-year-old teacher, said she is stuck at home because the school is closed and she does not have a mask.

When President Xi Jinping inspected the city last Monday, he smiled at residents from behind a mask. "Where did President Xi get the mask?" one resident said bitterly.

Saturday, February 15: New quarantine rule unsettles foreign residents

The snow has stopped and the sun has come out, with a wintry wind blasting smog away from the city. But while the air has cleared, fear of the coronavirus persists. Few people are out in the streets.

An announcement by the authorities has caused a stir among foreign residents. Arrivals in Beijing from outside the city will be obliged to quarantine themselves for 14 days or undergo "intensive observation" for that period. Anyone who does not comply will be held legally liable, the announcement said.

It is uncertain whether this order applies to foreign residents who return from their home countries. If so, it will be very difficult for them to go home, since doing so would mean isolating themselves upon return. Some worry that once they leave Beijing, they will not be able to come back.

The restrictions are likely part of the "defensive battles" to protect Beijing -- the Chinese Communist Party's seat of power. But state media have repeatedly stressed a downtrend in newly confirmed coronavirus infections, stoking optimism among the people.

If the authorities are building walls around the capital higher and higher, I cannot help thinking the situation is getting worse.

Barricades have sprung up around the city as authorities struggle to contain the coronavirus. (Photo by Tetsushi Takahashi)

Friday, February 14: Enduring the 'special period' with a brave smile

Sleet and snow are falling as Beijing remains on high alert due to the outbreak. It is the second snowy day since Feb. 5. I have been here for more than eight years, but I have never experienced such a snowy winter. It is probably related to climate change.

My biggest problem right now is food. There are said to be about 90,000 restaurants in Beijing, but most are closed as a precautionary measure. In Guomao, one of the capital's core business districts, only around a fifth of the restaurants are open -- even after some companies returned to work on Monday. Since I rarely cook for myself, I end up going to the same restaurants.

When I went to a Japanese restaurant for the second time this week to have lunch, I encountered a policy change. Not only did they take my temperature, but they also asked me to fill out my name and phone number.

The information might be used to track down customers if someone becomes infected. When I told a young female staff member that "things are becoming more and more strict," she smiled and answered that this is a "teshu shiqi" -- a "special period." The phrase has become a slogan for citizens enduring life in the time of the coronavirus.

After going through the procedure and entering the restaurant, I found I was the only customer. The "special period" is far from over in Beijing.

Thursday, February 13: Bicycle alarms cut through silence in business district

On Thursday morning, I awoke to the news that the number of new coronavirus infections in Hubei Province had suddenly soared by nearly 15,000, approaching 60,000.

This was a bewildering development. In previous days, the case total had been rising at a pace of about 2,000 per day. Even though Hubei authorities stressed that they merely changed the diagnostic criteria, distrust of this country's statistics is not confined to economic data.

As I absorbed the jump in cases, I heard a familiar refrain on TV: "General Secretary Xi Jinping is personally commanding and personally taking measures."

In its reports on the coronavirus containment effort, the state-run China Central Television inserts a "commercial" designed to boost morale. This can be interpreted as an order to concentrate power in Xi's hands to fight the battle.

As a shroud of air pollution settled over the capital on Thursday, the business district remained deserted. Only beeping alarms rang out from countless shared bicycles that had been abandoned.

The alarms reminded me of the cries of thousands of virus sufferers across the nation.

Wednesday, February 12: Tiananmen closure keeps tourists and thieves away

I drove in front of Tiananmen Square for the first time in weeks. Normally, the square is packed with tourists from all over China, but it was closed due to the coronavirus outbreak. The only people I saw were police officers; the portrait of Mao Zedong looked sad, somehow.

The last time I passed through Tiananmen Square had been around noon on Jan. 25, the first day of the Lunar New Year holidays. While riding a bus, I saw that visitors had flocked to the square, in part because the Forbidden City to the north and other tourist spots were already closed.

In a picture I snapped hastily from the bus that day, only half the people were wearing masks. Maybe some tourists from outside Beijing were unaware that a new virus was spreading. There was still a degree of normalcy in Beijing.

But around the same time, Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top Chinese Communist Party leaders were holding an emergency meeting in Zhongnanhai, west of the square. Everything changed in the capital after that meeting.

Now the city's Wangfujing Street, east of Tiananmen, is empty. The street is known for pickpockets. Come to think of it, I got my compact camera stolen there 10 years ago. I wonder what happened to the thief.

Tuesday, February 11: Empty trains and deserted streets

Spooky ghost towns were a frequent setting for the manga stories this reporter read growing up in Japan. They have now become reality across urban China, including the usually bustling capital.

Empty streets languish below Beijing's soaring skyscrapers. Hardly anyone can be seen on subways and buses. Even as businesses restarted operations Monday after an extended Lunar New Year holiday, few people entered and exited buildings in the Guomao central business district.

The national leadership is determined to shield Beijing, the seat of the Communist Party, from the epidemic. It has stopped all long-haul bus service linking the city to the rest of the country. All group tours, domestic and overseas, have been canceled.

It's as if an invisible wall has gone up around the city, limiting people's movement and hopefully shutting out the virus.

Subways in Beijing remain virtually deserted, although some businesses have reopened following an extended Lunar New Year declared after the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by Tetsushi Takahashi)

"I have told our staff to work from home this week," said one senior official at a Japanese-affiliated company in the area. Beijing authorities have recommended that companies instruct their staff to work from home.

The Monday traffic on the subway was smaller than on Sunday. "Everyone feels that the situation is worse than during the SARS epidemic," said a woman in her 60s, referring to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003. "Nobody wants to go out, for fear of contracting the virus."

As of Sunday, there were 337 coronavirus cases and two deaths in Beijing attributed to the disease. The situation is not as critical as in Wuhan, where about 17,000 people have contracted the virus and some 700 people have died. Yet Beijing's 20 million residents mostly remain shut up at home.

Walking the deserted streets, I'm struck by the capital's countless surveillance cameras, which seem more numerous than people. Occasionally, the cameras detect something and light the eerie flashbulb.

But while China's 200 million or so electronic eyes keep close tabs on citizens, they cannot spot, let alone halt, the spread of the virus.

This isn't how things were supposed to go. When the government placed a draconian lockdown on the central Chinese city of Wuhan on Jan. 23, Beijingers still considered it a far-off event.

Some famous tourist spots such as the National Palace Museum and the Great Wall were closed, but shopping malls were filled with the usual crowds ahead of the Lunar New Year holidays, which began the following day.

The festive mood came to an abrupt halt on New Year's Day, Jan. 25. As I tried to enter a subway station that evening, I was stopped by two employees in white protective clothing. When I asked if there were infected people in the station, they replied that they were checking the body temperatures of all passengers to ensure safety.

By then the authorities had installed thermal monitors at busy locations around Beijing. Those running a fever of 37.3 C or higher were denied entry and directed to seek treatment at a hospital.

When I went home, I had to go through a thermal scanner again before I could enter the building. If I had developed a fever while I was out, I was not going to be allowed inside my house. I would be taken straight to a hospital and quarantined.

Security cameras scan an empty street in central Beijing. (Photo by Tetsushi Takahashi)

Why had the alert level been raised so abruptly? The answer soon became clear.

On the night of Jan. 25, state-run China Central Television broadcast footage of the Politburo Standing Committee, the country's highest decision-making body, holding a meeting. President Xi Jinping was there.

The CCTV announcer read out a directive from Xi ordering that the "centralized and unified leadership" of the party's Central Committee be strengthened, as the country faced a "grave situation" due to the accelerating spread of the coronavirus.

Xi's remarks to the standing committee marked the start of a "people's war," in Communist parlance, one that will mobilize all Chinese people in a life-or-death struggle against the virus. Once word comes down from the top, things move quickly in China: a complete halt to long-haul bus service linking Beijing with the rest of the country was declared; all group tours, domestic and overseas, were canceled.

The idea is to assert total control over the flow of people, preventing the spread of the coronavirus across the country. The authorities are also trying to enclose Beijing, the nerve center of the government and the Communist Party, in a protective bubble.

The effect was apparent the next day, Jan. 26. Pedestrian traffic declined sharply. Barricades went up here and there, along with notices stating: "Access sealed off to prevent infection," making it impossible for people to pass through. Barriers were erected at the entrances of housing complexes and city districts. The sidewalk I use almost every day was blocked.

On orders from the authorities, supermarkets and convenience stores have remained open. There is no sign of food shortages, and the government has promised repeatedly to "guarantee the supply of vegetables and meat."

But many stores have two notices posted at their entrances. One says: "Please wear a mask when entering the store, for your safety and that of others." The other declares: "Masks and disinfection products are out of stock."

People not wearing masks are not allowed in. But with masks sold out, it makes one think how the people without masks are managing to buy their essential supplies.

Red dots on a map of Beijing indicate new locations where the virus has been detected. (Photo by Tetsushi Takahashi)

The outbreak should be a boon to China's home-delivery services, which boast world-beating information technology. But while they appear to be flooded with orders, there are few people to deliver the goods. People say that even those fortunate enough to receive an order often have their items placed far from their homes to limit the risk of catching the virus from a courier.

A foreign-diplomat friend recently wrote to me on WeChat: "I will return home quickly at the behest of my home country. I am very sorry."

Countries including the U.S. are starting to pull diplomats out of China. I see foreigners leaving my condominium complex on a daily basis, heavy suitcases in tow. The exodus of foreign nationals from Beijing continues.

Every day, the municipal authorities update a map of places where new coronavirus cases have been detected. More and more red dots note new locations.

Rumors are also increasing. Information about this area or that being closed off, regardless of its accuracy, quickly spreads through social media. Some talk of infected people found at central government agencies.

With no end to the public health crisis in sight, fear grips the city.

As if to symbolize the brewing danger to the Communist Party, the red dots have begun popping up not far from the Zhongnanhai district, where Xi and other Politburo Standing Committee members have offices.

Tetsushi Takahashi is Nikkei's bureau chief in China.

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