The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Despite China’s appeal for a return to work, it’s business as unusual in Beijing

A woman wearing a protective face mask sits in a cafe in an almost-empty Solana shopping mall in Beijing on Feb. 12, 2020. (Roman Pilipey/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

BEIJING — Most workers in China were supposed to get back on the job this week — despite a steady increase in people infected with the new coronavirus — as jittery leaders in Beijing try to minimize the economic impact of the outbreak.

But come Wednesday, on what should have been the third day of business as usual, nothing was usual.

“Normally thousands of subway passengers from the nearby station would drop by to buy something,” said Nancy Cao, a 25-year-old clerk who was wearing a face mask and gloves as she worked in a convenience store in Beijing’s Capital Mall. “It’s usually packed, but now we’re lucky to see more than 20 people in an hour.”

Worried about the toll the epidemic will take on China’s growth rate, which the government has been toiling to keep at 6 percent, officials have told businesses across the country to return to work after a Lunar New Year holiday that was extended by a week.

Provincial and municipal authorities in the most-affected areas have discretion about when business should resume — ruling out the epicenter of Hubei province, and large parts of Zhejiang and Guangdong, both provinces that are industrial powerhouses but are the worst-affected after Hubei.

But in the capital Beijing, a city of 22 million people that has 352 confirmed cases of coronavirus, the streets and office buildings and stores were remarkably empty Wednesday.

Sanlitun, a glitzy shopping area usually jampacked with people at lunchtime, was a concrete wasteland. The Apple store was closed. Uniqlo and Starbucks each had only one door open, and staff were constantly disinfecting the handle. The H&M was as empty as Gucci in a recession.

Temperature checks

In fact, the only bustle was at a desk where would-be shoppers had to have their temperature tested before entering the shopping complex. (This reporter failed three times because her temperature was too low, suggesting the equipment might be less than reliable.)

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As if trying to will the economy back into gear, state media have exhaustively reported the number of business resuming operations: 2,100 companies in the Beijing Economic-Technological Development Area in Yizhuang; 7,000 in the Zhongguancun Science Park, Beijing’s answer to Silicon Valley; 80 percent of businesses in Beijing’s largest produce market.

“The important areas of the national economy and people’s livelihoods should be resumed immediately and production should be restarted,” said Cong Liang, secretary general of China’s top economic planning agency. “Major projects should be returned to work and started as soon as possible.”

Despite the exhortations to return to work and the breathless state media reports of a mass return to the grindstone, the scenes across Beijing this week tell a different story.

Most banks are closed — they are public places, said one grumpy worker at the ATMs of a bank branch in Dongcheng district — and office buildings are almost entirely empty. A guard at a neighboring building, who was not authorized to talk to the media, said the 12 floors were all empty, save for the occasional worker coming in to get a computer.

Only 400 people entered the Gemdale Plaza office tower in the central business district in Beijing’s east on Monday, less than 10 percent of the usual number, a property manager told the Jiemian business news site. 

The situation was almost as bad in the financial district in the west of the city. Zhou Yahui from CBRE, the commercial real estate company, said 20 to 25 percent of people had returned.

Only the supermarket

As I took my dog for a walk at lunchtime on this surprisingly warm Wednesday — I, too, am working from home — I noted that the little businesses in my neighborhood were all still shuttered. The fruit store. The little noodle shop that once lent me a flour-covered bike pump. The donkey burger joint. The hardware guy. The nail salon. Everything but the supermarket was closed.

Later on, driving to places across the area took half the usual time, since there was no one on the roads. Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, two usually packed places in the dead center of Beijing, were empty except for the guards.

Everywhere, there were street cleaners blasting the pavements and ride-on sidewalk scrubbing machines. The signature scent of Beijing — usually oil and chili with whiffs of sewer — is 100 percent bleach these days.

“I have disinfectant, and I disinfect my broom and my cart,” said Xu Changfu, a street cleaner from Inner Mongolia who is tasked with keeping the capital’s roads shipshape. “How can I not be worried? Everyone’s worried, everyone’s afraid.”

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For many people caught in this coronavirus limbo — not directly affected, but not able to get back to ordinary life — the continued closures are annoying if not yet crippling.

“I’ve been in a bad mood, of course, because I have nothing to do right now,” said Zhang Yi, the assistant director on a film project being shot in Beijing that has been suspended. “But I have no choice.”

He said he understood the authorities’ decision to try to prevent infection, but he fears the impact on his film — and on films in the future.

The coronavirus could inflict a “a devastating blow” on China’s film industry, he said. China’s 70,000 movie theaters have been closed for more than three weeks, including over the Lunar New Year, the most lucrative time at the box office.

Fear factor

Reports came in from around the country of a populace still very much in fear of being near other humans.

In Shanghai on Wednesday, both the 2020 Chinese Grand Prix and Shanghai Fashion Week were postponed as a result of the coronavirus.

Guangzhou, a city of 13 million people that is home to huge automotive and electronics factories, has banned eating-in at all restaurants except company cafeterias until further notice.

In the nearby manufacturing hub of Shenzhen, many high-tech industrial parks, which are reliant on migrant workers, are not allowed to reopen until Feb. 17. As such, the 187-acre Nanshan Science and Technology Park was largely empty Wednesday.

“I worry about the virus like everyone else,” said the owner of the Hexing Printing and Advertising Shop, who gave only his family name of Wu, adding he had already lost one month’s income.

“It’s pretty scary, and I heard from news that there are confirmed cases around here,” said Wu, who came back early after Lunar New Year. “So for now, we’d better lay low and try to stay alive and healthy: That is the most important thing.”

Still, with many people still in their hometowns instead of heading back to their workplaces after the holiday, some policymakers are warning of the impact of restricting people’s movement even as the virus remains unchecked.

“We should be worrying about the factories disappearing along with the epidemic,” Huang Qifan, vice chairman of the National People’s Congress Financial and Economic Affairs Committee, said this week. “The discontinuation of a machine that supplies new blood is more scary than the disease itself.”

Lyric Li, Wang Yuan and Liu Yang contributed to this report.

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