In February 2020, Beijing Capital Airport’s glass walls gleamed; its walkways pulsed with passengers filtering through stern but efficient immigration checkpoints. Although the world did not yet know it the microscopic threat of COVID-19 was spreading. Many in China did know and were leaving – I was one of them. It took four flights and a seven-day trip via Moscow to return to London.
This week I returned, taking a Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong. In the U.K. COVID-19 is firmly in the rearview mirror, the concern of vaccine critics, those with political grudges against lockdown, and government accountants who will struggle to balance the books for decades to come. I had had my fourth Pfizer shot recently administered in a small clinic, under the bemused eyes of a few elderly residents from my market town.
My reception in China would be far less gentile.
It took an age to deplane the Boeing. Immigration wanted to interview several passengers who had filed incorrect health reports before anyone could deplane. My fellow passengers were almost all Chinese; I’m one of the few foreigners. With practiced resignation they returned as instructed to their seats, reversing the rush to fill the aisles and empty overhead lockers.
The airport was seemingly deserted apart from our flight. The afternoon sky was bright blue and clear, but from inside the airport it looked opaque; the great sheets of glass had not been cleaned in over a year.
“Be quick,” hissed my wife, who is Chinese. “We need to be in the front seats when they allocate quarantine accommodation.”
The airport looked broken. Corridors were strewn with electrical cable hanging from the ceiling through ripped away tiles and then taped across the floor, transit areas were partitioned with sagging plastic tenting, and everywhere hastily hand-written and re-scribbled notices gave directions. Dozens of arrival airways were sealed and unused and unused equipment lay in abandoned piles. The dust was half-an-inch thick in places. I have spent time in airports ruined by conflict: Sarajevo, Kabul, Pristina, Nicosia. This had the same dilapidated feel.
In the arrivals hall we were nowhere near the front seats, soundly beaten by the headlong rush of returning streetwise Chinese. Then I saw some people who had sat near us on the flight. “Not too bad,” I said positively.
“We’re done for,” said my wife.
A Chinese official – completely wrapped and taped into his PPE and standing next to a stockpile of decontamination barrels and spray equipment – was shouting and gesticulating. He sounded exhausted, his voice rasping with thirst. People weren’t filling in the outbound health data properly, my wife whispered, it’s causing delays.
“He sounds angry,” I noted. I felt I was back in some military airfield hanger waiting to board a transport flight. Where was the friendly NHS staff nurse with her congenial sympathy for inconveniencing me?
“China,” said my wife, uninterested.
I looked outside. Across the vast apron and runways were dozens of parked planes. But none were taking off or landing. There were no winking amber lights from crisscrossing airport vehicles.
My wife was also unsettled. “It’s dystopian,” she said glumly.
After my third COVID-19 test in 12 hours we passed through to immigration. Gone were the huge queues and smart uniforms. Instead there were a few sad-looking booths was sweaty, harassed officials inside. Covered in PPE, they dragged fingers across their eye masks to read the passports.
Eventually we were free to collect our baggage – only there was no fast transit system to the baggage hall, just broken lines of incident tape that caused us to become lost. We took a lift upstairs and wandered along a deserted upper level, meeting no one among the cathedral rows of dusty chairs and closed shops. Finally, by chance we peered outside and saw a long line of buses below. We rode a sick-sounding escalator to join the unhappy crowd collecting luggage from a curbside pile before being herded aboard a bus.
Escorted at slow speed by a police cruiser, our buses made an undignified exit from the airport via a back emergency entrance.
We had no idea where we were going, only that quarantine would last for 10 days, three of them in our apartment, if the authorities agreed. We stopped after 40 minutes on a wide empty road. Above us were 15 30-story tower blocks, which occupied a vast patch of ugly scrubland. Around them nature was clawing back the land, reclaiming the communal areas, climbing over the walkways, fences and children’s play areas. In the gloom we all waited as the PPE-protected reception party slowly marshalled us along the weed-strewn pathways to be processed into our allocated building.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“Abandoned government housing project,”’ my wife said. “No one would live here. Thank God. It could have been portacabins.”
I did a quick calculation. There must be 1,900-2,000 apartments on this site. There were no lights; all appeared empty.
More PPE suited officials appeared, one of them with a credit card terminal. “We pay to be imprisoned?” I asked, as my wife handed over a card. We did: 380 yuan a day plus 200 for food.
A heavily suited official used a spray container to decontaminate where we had all been standing in line. I wanted to remind him that in the last two days I had had 10 COVID-19 tests.
The apartment was dusty and cramped. A case of water stood in the center of the tiny living area. A single chair, small flat-screen, and two iron bedsteads greeted us. “Jesus. This is basic,” I breathed.
“You were in the army, get over it,” my wife replied with a shrug and began to clean surfaces with a cloth thoughtfully packed for this eventuality.
Later, I looked out into the darkness and wondered how many Westerners saw this side of China. Huge housing complexes, dark and empty, stood as lifeless islands marooned on useless land no longer under development. The concrete community facilities were crumbling without maintenance, surrounded by four-lane roads with off-ramps that went nowhere.
I tried the television. The channels were full of news from the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party that had started that morning. Successive items proclaimed China’s economic success. COVID-19 was mentioned only to say that the zero-COVID strategy would remain until the virus was defeated. I went to bed.
“How was the news?” asked my wife, roused from slumber.
I told her.
She mumbled an obscenity and went back to sleep.