On the eve of Chinese New Year, I set off from Beijing for my grandparents’ home in northern China. It is the day after the city of Wuhan has in effect been placed under quarantine. I am headed some 600km from Wuhan, but this New Year holiday is very different: almost everyone on the train from Beijing is wearing a face mask. I take mine off when I arrive at my grandparents’ crowded flat, where they, along with a total of seven aunts, uncles and cousins, are already folding dumplings for the pot.
They are chatting about the virus outbreak, but the mood is still calm: everyone is busy dealing with a more immediate concern: making dinner for a large family. So far, only Wuhan has taken city-wide preventive measures, but we are now discussing our own. To some relief, my grandparents announce they are cancelling our usual visits to relatives.
Traditionally, the eve and first day of the New Year holiday are reserved for immediate family: parents, children, grandparents. Then, on the subsequent days of the week-long break, the elders stay at home while the younger generations visit more distant relatives.
In my case these are the great-aunts, the second cousins twice removed, whom I might see once a year. I know very few of their names, but that is normal: in Chinese families, everyone is addressed according to what relation they are. If you can’t remember the exact relation, then “auntie” or “uncle” will do. Fei Xiaotong, an anthropologist of rural China, famously argued that using names was an urban invention, only necessary for those who had not grown up in the same village.
There are dozens to pay respects to. In my father’s generation, before China’s one-child policy was enforced in the 1980s, rural families were large — all the better to help on the farm. Nearly everyone has since left the farm. At New Year I meet my uncles, the university-educated bureaucrats working in big cities, and my father’s cousins, who are construction workers and truck drivers flung across China. Almost everyone in my father’s generation left to pursue work in the cities, and so this is the one time in the year they gather together.
Some families, like mine, are ambitious in their itineraries: on the second day of the holiday, my father and uncles would usually pack in visits to six aunts’ and uncles’ homes and be back at my grandparents’ in time for lunch. This year, there were to be no such visits.
Like me, some travellers managed to reach home before transport links started shutting down, and are at least holed up with loved ones. But for late travellers, those who cancelled travel plans out of fear of contagion and transport disruption, let alone the 9m people stuck in Wuhan, the situation is far worse. For many in China, the New Year is the only time in the year they see their parents and even their children.
China is a country of long-distance internal migrants: go back one or two generations, and most people’s families were subsistence farmers living in the countryside. Over the past 50 years, a vast rural-urban migration has spread those families across the country. Those who are lucky enough to go to university often settle down in the big cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and smaller provincial capitals. Those who don’t settle in the cities go everywhere as migrant workers fuelling the low-paid casual labour of China’s economic development. Because the government makes it very difficult for migrant workers to access education in the cities, many leave their children with relatives in the countryside, and visit them at New Year.
So Chinese New Year is a crucial annual migration that is easier for some than for others. Rail tickets sell out quickly, and those with the money might buy plane tickets instead. Many migrant workers travel by long-distance bus — the same services that multiple provinces have since suspended in the wake of the virus outbreak. One of my father’s cousins drives for three days or more, covering 4,000km each way.
My journey from Beijing was made simpler 15 years ago, after my grandparents left their old farmstead in favour of an apartment in the nearby town with hot water and the company of my urbanised aunt and uncles. On the first day of the holiday, we make plans to visit the old farmstead the next day, to sweep my great-grandma’s grave and light firecrackers for her.
I like visiting the old village, but it is increasingly deserted. The old farmsteads are as they were in my father’s childhood: a square courtyard surrounded by single-storey rooms on each side, without any heating. By law, my father’s relatives are entitled to a portion of the farmland in the village, but they have mostly leased their plots to companies, which farm on a mass scale. One of my father’s few cousins who stayed in the countryside used to make his living not from farming, but from making traps: when I visited his cold farmhouse on a previous New Year holiday, he pulled a live Siberian weasel out of a sack.
On the evening we are making plans to visit the village, Beijing announces it will stop long-distance buses going into the city. The next morning, we wake to the news that our county has started asking its villages to block their road entrances, and that public bus services from the city are being suspended. Across China, other friends tell me of villages and townships embarking on self-quarantine in the national spirit of viral defence.
Much of it may be over-zealous, as there is an ongoing debate over the effectiveness of government-imposed city-level quarantines: borders are always leaky, and quarantines give possible viral carriers a reason to lie about their whereabouts. In my grandparents’ old village of some 500 people, there have been no coronavirus victims to date, and some 70 detected infections in a province of 80m people.
As the news landscape shifts, my relatives now discuss preventive measures with more urgency than before.
But news of spurious quality proliferates both online and offline. One of my uncles recommends that we all chew garlic to stave off the virus. As he describes the idea, I recognise it as coming from a much-shared article on WeChat, China’s main social-messaging platform and incubator of various unreliable articles over the viral outbreak. There are a few peer-reviewed studies on the possible antiviral properties of garlic, but I doubt the author or sharers of that article had gone to the trouble of looking them up. More pernicious rumours floated on the Chinese internet, such as the old rumour that Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) had been manufactured by the US to specifically target Chinese people.
The English-language internet is hardly much better: an old video of a street protest is recirculated as if happening now in Wuhan (untrue), and a video of Wuhan with firecrackers going off in the background is flaunted as evidence of police shooting people trying to leave (also untrue). Much social media commentary is overlaid with disgust at Chinese people as a racial group and over their eating habits.
The worst part of the outbreak, for many of my friends, is the terrifying headlines they feel compelled to consume about it, which leave you feeling powerless and panicked. On social media, some share tips of varying helpfulness for staying safe, while others share a petition to extend the national holiday, or even lists of places in Beijing where virus victims are said to be staying. Some simply wish their friends were well, and hope we stay calm. Out of the dozens of articles I’ve read about the virus, I can only condense one helpful piece of advice: wash your hands properly and dry them on clean towels.
On my second morning at my grandparents’, my uncle suggests that I go back to Beijing early, fearing more transport options would be shut down as the holiday went on. I pack my suitcase quickly, glad that the load is lightened by the presents I’ve offloaded.
But I have forgotten to reckon with the customary food parcels from my aunt. The next morning, as I leave for Beijing, she hands me a heavy bag packed with northern Chinese staples: steamed buns stuffed with sweet bean paste, salted duck eggs, breaded cabbage, deep-fried meatballs, and an entire cooked rooster. She thrusts on me another bag filled with a dozen pink apples and a dozen oranges, saying I can eat them on the way. I am running out of hands to carry it all.
“It’s a three-hour train ride,” I reply, laughing, “I can’t eat that many oranges in three hours.”
“Well, you can eat them in Beijing!”
“Beijing is a big city. Beijing has oranges,” I say, leaving the second bag behind.
My uncle’s friend drives us to the railway station, as the local buses have been suspended. As we pull in to the station, he reminds us: “Put on your masks — I hear they’re not letting people in without them.”
On the way home, I message friends on WeChat, telling them I’m returning early. The responses I get back range from anxiety to boredom. Two ask me if any of the attendees of a group hiking trip I organised a week ago had recently been to Wuhan. A few more, also unexpectedly stuck in Beijing, urge me to organise another hiking trip to relieve the holiday humdrum. Two others invite me to their dinner parties, joking that Chinese grain liquor will help disinfect our throats.
I hesitate for hours before replying, wondering whether a yes or no would be overly cautious, rude or irresponsible. How are you meant to assess the risk of going to see friends, when you’re probably more likely to be killed from a traffic accident on the way there than from the coronavirus, yet people around you are panicking?
Back in Beijing, the city streets are emptier than they usually are in the new year’s holiday week. But there are reassuring signs of normal life: I brush past green-coated guards still marching in formation around the embassy district, now with face masks on. Through a restaurant window, I see a few people eating Beijing barbeque skewers. And on the streets, the city’s migrant workers are still busy: delivering, cleaning, hurrying everywhere.
When I arrive at my apartment block, the guard at the gate to the compound hands me a pink slip of paper from the local district government. It tells us to register ourselves if we have been to coronavirus-infected areas, to wear masks outside and to keep warm. “We can’t cut corners on preventive measures,” the paper reads, “but we also don’t need to panic.”
The next morning, I venture out for groceries. In the cramped convenience store on my block, I am the only customer, but there are bags filled with other people’s groceries standing on the till. As I enter, a delivery man dressed in blue electric-scooter gear is leaving.
“I’m afraid we’re mostly out of fresh vegetables,” the shopkeeper says, seeing me enter. I’ll have to walk a bit further to a larger supermarket to get mine. “We’ve had very few customers in person, but we’re getting all these delivery requests,” she adds. As she explains, her smartphone’s loudspeaker blares out another order. This shop, like most small shops in big cities, has understocked for the New Year holiday, expecting a dearth of customers.
“We plan to restock in a week, but really, I don’t think the shipments will come through for another two weeks,” she says.
“Where do you get your food from?” I ask, thinking of the farmland around Beijing and the villages that have sealed off their roads.
“Where it’s produced,” she replies, flatly, as if speaking of places that do not need to be spoken of.
Development economists have theorised that urbanisation can happen only when agricultural productivity rises above subsistence levels — that is, when there is surplus food being produced in the countryside that can be sent to the cities. Cities do not support their own life; farms do. For every farmer’s son who leaves for the city, a problem arises: how do you send them their lunch? After her youngest brothers went to secondary school, my aunt would sometimes walk the five kilometres into town to deliver them steamed buns made from homegrown wheat.
When my father left the countryside for university in the early 1980s, 20 per cent of China’s population lived in cities, according to government figures. That has now reached roughly 60 per cent. China’s highways and food logistics networks have developed accordingly. The food is mostly driven and delivered by migrant workers from the countryside — a class of people likely to be unable or unwilling to return to work because now they can’t get back to the cities. They are also more likely to be in poor health and to lack access to healthcare.
Back in the convenience store, another blue-jacketed delivery man runs in to pick up a bag of groceries. I consider trying to stop him for a quick interview on how online delivery services are enjoying a peak in demand, but I decide against it: delivery people work one of the most high-pressure jobs in the digital economy, rushing from door to door, and their performance is timed to the second by the apps that dictate their schedules. If I want to speak to them, I’ll have to catch them off shift.
I fish out a couple of apples from a small crate on the shop floor. I wish I had taken my aunt’s oranges.
Yuan Yang is the FT’s China tech correspondent in Beijing
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