Take A Rare Glimpse Inside China's Zero-Covid Madhouse

Hale was sentenced to live here for 10 days, only because he allegedly was in loosely-defined "contact" with some unknown person who tested positive
Hale was sentenced to live here for 10 days, only because he allegedly was in loosely-defined "contact" with some unknown person who tested positive (Thomas Hale/Financial Times)

The western world has been given a rare, intimate look inside the confines of a Chinese Covid-19 concentration camp, after Financial Times Shanghai correspondent Thomas Hale was ensnared by the President Xi Jinping's zero-Covid regime.  

It's not that Hale had tested positive. Merely being designated as a "close contact" was enough to sentence him to 10 days of confinement on a secret island camp identified only as "P7."

Hale provides a primer on framework of China's system works: 

"PCR testing in China is an almost daily ritual and testing booths are common on many street corners. They look vaguely like food stalls, except they’re larger and cube-shaped and a worker inside sits behind Plexiglas cut with two arm holes.

They are merely the surface machinery of a vast monitoring system. China’s digital Covid pass resembles track-and-trace programmes elsewhere, except it’s mandatory and it works. Using Alipay or WeChat, the country’s two major apps, a QR code is linked to each person’s most recent test results. The code must be scanned to get in anywhere, thereby tracking your location. Green means you can enter; red means you have a problem."

Hale's journey into Covid madness started with an innocent outing at a Shanghai bar. Apparently, someone who'd also been at the bar tested positive. Via the tracking system, the authorities knew Hale had been there too.

Hale had "won" some kind of terrible lottery: On the day he was in the bar, there were only 18 cases in all of Shanghai that day -- a city of 26 million people.

A few days after his bar outing, authorities called to confirm he'd been at the bar. The next day, a caller from the Shanghai Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention alerted him that authorities were on their way. Hale was about to be "taken away" -- an expression Chinese use when describing the phenomenon.

Next, a hotel staffer called to say he couldn't leave, and that the hotel was in lockdown due to his mere presence in it. Then came the men in hazmat suits, who escorted him down a deserted hallway to a staff elevator and out through the cordoned-off hotel entrance. He was directed to board a small bus driven by another man in a hazmat suit. 

Hale joined the other condemned passengers -- none of whom had actually tested positive. His hopes that he'd be taken to a quarantine hotel were dashed. A drive of more than an hour ended on a small road in the middle of a field, with several large buses queued up ahead of his.

The driver got out, locked the bus behind him and wandered off. A fellow passenger was surprised to hear that Hale was from the UK: "They brought you here? With a foreign passport?" Hours of waiting on the increasingly chilly bus went by, until it finally moved again at 2 am. 

As he was trudging along to his assigned quarters, a fellow detainee pointed to three rows of wire above the perimeter fences, beyond which were only tall trees.

Hale counted 10 alleyways, each with some 26 cabins
Hale counted 10 alleyways, each with some 26 cabins (Thomas Hale/Financial Times)

Hale's new home was a box similar to a shipping container, elevated by short stilts. His and every door was monitored by a camera. There was no hot water. 

"Inside my 196-sq-ft cabin there were two single beds, a kettle, an air-conditioning unit, a desk, a chair, a bowl, two small cloths, one bar of soap, an unopened duvet, a small pillow, a toothbrush, one tube of toothpaste and a roll-up mattress roughly the thickness of an oven glove

The floor was covered in dust and grime. The whole place shook when you walked around, which I soon stopped noticing. The window was barred, though you could still lean out. There was no shower.

...The bed was made of an iron frame and six planks of wood, and the mattress was so thin you had to lie completely flat. The bed frame, meanwhile, was impossible to lean against." 

Hale was sentenced to live here for 10 days, only because he allegedly was in loosely-defined "contact" with some unknown person who tested positive
Hale was sentenced to live here for 10 days, only because he allegedly was in loosely-defined "contact" with some unknown person who tested positive (Thomas Hale/Financial Times)

He was pleasantly surprised, however, to find the internet connection was 24 times speedier than what he had at his hotel. Like Hale, the camp staff were prohibited from leaving or receiving deliveries there. A worker said he earned the equivalent of about $32 a day.

A camp staffer in hazmat gear walks by Hale's cabin
A camp staffer in hazmat gear walks by Hale's cabin (Thomas Hale/Financial Times)

Hale tried to see if his status as a foreign journalist might spring him from detention. The worker he approached with that question was baffled by the mere premise...but we can't blame Hale for trying. 

Hale describes key aspects of daily life in Covid detention: 

  • Every morning, he was awakened by a "lawnmower-like noise," as an industrial-grade machine sprayed the cabin windows and front steps with disinfectant
  • Around 9 am, two workers came to administer PCR tests. A positive result would have meant being taken to a different type of detention  
  • Meals were delivered at 8 am, noon and 5 pm
  • Hale pursued a strict routine of language study, writing, exercise, music, online chess, and then reading or watching Amazon Prime entertainment

The routine served him well. Over time, he noticed his neighbors stopped eating breakfast, while some could be heard pacing their shaky boxes at night. 

He did endure some psychological discomfort, in the form of not knowing when he'd get out. He was originally told seven days but it ended up being 10. 

Upon his release and return to civilization, Hale savored the hot water of the hotel's shower and the softness of its bed. When he went out for a celebratory meal, however, he faltered -- pacing the street as he contemplated the fact that entering China's contact-tracing matrix brought the peril of a return to confinement. 

He settled on takeout from a steak restaurant, where an employee said there'd be no need for his code to be swiped -- if he ordered takeout. 

* * *

Check out Hale's full tale at the Financial Times (subscription required) 

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