Life in Beijing 50 Days and Counting During the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic Part 2

Dark days here, but perhaps we’re approaching the light at the end of the tunnel soon. Photo of my front gate the other evening.

Individual Community Efforts

Beijing’s swift response was soon after the dragon awoke to fight off the COVID-19 virus. Part 1 of my experiences in China during the past 50+ days since the beginning of the outbreak focused on the initial outbreak response and the view and response from my little apartment. Next, I’ll expand my focus to describe many noteworthy responses I observed in my immediate vicinity in the eastern part of the city. In this part 2 of my account, I’ll focus on my specific apartment community block. Part 3 will expand further to the activities in the 2 or 3 block radius around me.

Beijing Metro Area. Route in corner is between my apartment community (white dot) and the international high school I work for (red arrow).

Specifically, my neighborhood is the area between the Changying and Caofang metro stops on Line 6 in Chaoyang district.

Borders of my community in red, subway stops in green. It’s like a 10 minute or less walk to either. Most supermarkets and stores we frequent are along the street on Metro Line 6, seen in yellow.

Apart from one taxi trip into the downtown area, I have not ventured beyond this two or three block radius (note that street blocks in China are designed rather large compared to what’s expected in the US). My own apartment community is located approximately halfway between the two subway stops. As for the timing for exactly when each individual measure took place, I’ll try to be as accurate as I can but much of it was implemented while we were isolating ourselves and we didn’t always observe the exact change.

It is my hope that this description aids your understanding of the effectiveness of efforts around China in slowing the endemic spread that had been proliferating for weeks across the country. Additionally, I hope it provides you with reflections about the imminent challenges in your own community as well as sparks some brainstorming about what efforts would be successful wherever you live. It goes without saying that America’s and Western responses generally are going to look different, but this examination is still useful. By contemplating the reality we’ve been experiencing over here, hopefully something about your own country and surroundings will gain a little more clarity in these uncertain times.

ChangXinYuan 畅心园 Apartment Community

First, my apartment block responded to local Beijing government directives in the same way as every other similar large apartment block complex. ChangXinYuan, like many of these other blocks, is fenced the entire way around except for two main gates and one small pedestrian gate. The main gates have a gatehouse occupied by at least one security personnel 24/7 and ‘tollbooth’ gates for vehicle entry. There’s also a side opening for foot traffic alongside the security booth. In normal times, all of the gates allow access largely uninhibited. The structure is just there to provide a ‘watchman’ level of minor security around the clock and perhaps be a resource to help residents.

It should also be noted that the high fences surrounding the community are spiked with sharp metal edges. This is almost entirely the case for housing that I’ve seen here. For an American mentality, that might raise a few eyebrows. As it should, just as much as it can be a formidable ‘fort’ to keep people out, it can also become like a prison at the drop of a hat. This was among my early fears that prodded me to go out and prepare supplies as soon as possible.

A neighboring community’s fence of the same design. Sign is some announcement unrelated to the pandemic, according to Natalie.

Inside the gates are nine high-rise apartment buildings. Mine is in a row of three that are basically conjoined, but distinct from one another. Each building is roughly the same size and dimensions with a dull ‘brutalist’ architectural feel. Mine is 29 stories with two basement levels accessing an underground garage. Each floor has several apartment units of varying sizes. Two elevators and two sets of stairways are positioned in the middle of two branches of dusty concrete hallways. Residents, including myself, often keep bikes and motor-scooters stored here. Hallways also have a small balcony.

My building entrance. Off to the right would be the community’s western gate.

These buildings and the road lanes connecting them outline the edges of the block. Inside there is a large courtyard with some pretty typical park features. Trees, rock walking paths, benches, light exercise implements and the like.

Overall in normal times it’s a fairly calm and quiet little community. Personally, I don’t think each building is filled to the brim with residents because that doesn’t seem indicated by the foot traffic and lights at night in the windows. There is a notable amount of elderly residents, often seen passing their time outside in the courtyard socializing or people watching. I don’t often interact with other residents, but when I do my sparse Chinese is usually enough to answer the basic series of questions I’ve come to expect from a curious native encountering a foreigner. They’ve always been polite interactions.

[Well, except one particularly grating kerfuffle when the little old lady next door took a running shoe I had left on the hallway’s balcony to dry from cleaning and put it at the dumpster area downstairs. She could’ve been slyly getting back at us for when I’m loud too late at night because of my music practicing. The shoe was recovered. Anyhow.]

ChangXinYuan’s Response to the Outbreak

The first tangible response came literally knocking at our door one day not long after we had decided to isolate ourselves. In the late morning a group of little old mask-wearing ladies with clipboards and information fliers came by. They were mostly asking if we had exited and re-entered Beijing any time recently. Natalie informed them we had stayed put and had been in Beijing since mid-October. I don’t know why local authorities couldn’t have that info already, since we foreigners must comply with strict police registration procedures. Around the city it seemed they were trying to gather data and confirm it regarding about who had traveled and when. This augmented efforts at viral contact tracing and potential exposure concerns.

Not long after, there was a day when we came downstairs to make a small grocery run at small convenience stores. At our building entrance and around the western gate area was a flurry of activity. A few people at a small folding table got our attention and we were informed we’d have to bring them our identification to get registered with the building community in response to tracking movements and quarantining.

I believe at this point some people were beginning to return from Spring Festival travels, or there was an inkling that this was coming and they had to get out ahead of it. Those people would be asked to quarantine for 2 weeks inside their apartments and the community would arrange ways to provide access to necessities.

We went back upstairs to retrieve my passport and Natalie’s national ID card. It could have been a different day, but sometime around then I also started smelling a bleach odor from inside the elevators every so often and tissue packages were taped next to the elevator buttons to avoid surface contact. We gave our individual mobile phone numbers and our names were added to the list. I learned later from Natalie that the local authorities were using this to track our movements through the phones to catch disallowed entries and exits to the city.

A possible outcome of this tracking and tracing that Beijing had ramped up was one day learning of the precise location of a new COVID case a couple blocks away from our apartment. We may have been getting a bit unguarded when that popped up on Natalie’s app. Afterward, we decided to at least stop the supermarket trips regardless of precautions.

Green dot is us, Yellow the location of the person with COVID-19
That map expanded to the rest of the city. Colors indicate different degrees of seriousness/response.
It also gives exactly where to go for concerns and treatment.

All of this, certainly a loss of liberty and an uneasy sacrifice, was unavoidable if we were to be given the card that would allow us to exit and re-enter the gates of our communities. Those gates by now had been incrementally constricting.

My little card. Mostly I keep it within my clear phone case so it’s easy to display.

Gate Activity

I say incrementally because it wasn’t all at once. One day early on it was like normal. Then the eastern gate was closed off along with the small pedestrian gate, delivery people couldn’t go straight to your door, and temperature checks were starting up. Then on the ‘card day’ we walked out to find this, which persists as is to this day:

It was a shock to see the first time, both unsettling but also encouraging. On the subject of the ‘little old lady’ community members active here: I encountered speculation by other foreigner netizens that their generation is of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guard of Chinese youths from that time, hence their patriotic attitude towards duty. Obviously unconfirmed, but interesting to consider nonetheless.

All side paths and little openings among areas of the western gate are blocked off with temporary barriers. This funnels foot traffic solely through the side pedestrian path next to the security booth. This could also be locked tight if needed. The car traffic also only could come through this main gate with the ‘tollbooth’ gate. Before exiting the gate, a little old lady volunteer from the community asks to see the card we were given in order to be allowed to leave. Exiting through the small pedestrian side gate, a border-less tent is setup with some seats. Temperature checkers would be there ready to check you on your way back inside. Beside the border-less tent, an enclosed blue tent with tables and various signs and equipment is set up. I presume the community members manning this gate through the day are volunteers of some type or at least paid a small sum, but Natalie wasn’t sure.

This gate is all under the watchful eye of at least one local policeman. You should note that these types of officers are unarmed, as the theory of police-work varies from US expectations. They are at the gate in addition to the lower community security personnel mentioned before. Certainly there are armed police, but they’re rarely seen or encountered. Those ones more resemble SWAT members. I’ve noticed them mostly at crowded train station plazas perched on rises behind a rope barrier. Instead, these local guys are usually older men there to be a watchful eye most times and serve in limited police capacities. I’ve never been harassed or approached by them in any of my five years.

Re-entering back inside the gate, the process is simple. Hold out your wrist for a quick temperature check and show your card, maybe notice they’re judging your desperation purchase of booze from the liquor store a block over. Likely not for the booze itself, but because it’s just foreigner beer and not their preferred choice of ridiculousness-level proof liquor ‘baijiu’.

On a few different days I noticed people with suitcases who had returned from travel being stopped and given the once-over, but I don’t know the details of how those went. Seemed like a lot of light questioning. I’m sure they had to accept a 14 day in-home quarantine gracefully, since there isn’t any other recourse.

Later on, I discovered I could still exit the community if I wished later on in the night. Later one night I watched and observed patiently what would happen if some natives tried exiting, because I was assuming past a certain point in the night they’d just deny exit since the usual daytime activity was done and closed up. But no, the lower level security guy was still there for the night shift and he’d do the card check and cursory temp check upon return. So, it was allowable to squeeze through a smaller gap between his gate house and the ‘toll booth’ gate. Not that there’s much reason to go out at all past about 8pm. I’ll get to that in my third post about the radius around my community.

I am reasonably sure that no outside guests are allowed into the community whatsoever. Natalie wasn’t certain.

Obtaining Necessities From Within

In normal times, access to delivery personnel is uninhibited entirely. Whether it’s a package off of Taobao (the Amazon here) or a meal delivery from a nearby restaurant. These delivery guys can drive their motor-scooters or narrow carts right past the gate, enter the buildings, and deliver directly to your door. It’s all exceptionally convenient.

A narrow cart and delivery motor scooter. They’re everywhere, a bona fide army of supply chain action.

This did not last long at all. We never tested trying to order a meal from a local restaurant and probably will refrain from that for a while yet. For the more important Taobao package deliveries, a new system got up and running and is still in place.

I estimate there were hiccups at first. Those narrow carts initially began setting up right outside of the main western gate, the only access point for residents. The sidewalk space there probably couldn’t handle it and they must have had some issues. So, those type of package pickups were moved to the closed eastern gate. This gate was for a while closed completely to any traffic, but recently residents’ cars have been allowed through. As you can’t go out this gate as a pedestrian, you have to call out to one of a few package deliver company carts to get their attention. Then tell your address and they’ll pass the packages over the gate or between the fence bars. They wait around throughout the day until about 5 pm and call to notify availability.

Among the many heroes throughout all this.
Eastern gate is to the left, more delivery guys awaiting resident pickup to the right.

Another package delivery system is the ‘hive box’ devices inside the community. Usage of this is relatively sparse though. Here you can use your apps to open a little door to retrieve the package that had been stored there earlier.

We initially went out to the bigger supermarkets, but after deciding against that we stuck solely with grocery delivery apps. We’re finding that the selection on those is plenty for our needs and so other purchases while out can be smaller and at less crowded little stores. The motor-scooter delivery guy calls ahead and meets you at the western gate for a quick drop-off. The amount of goods they can fit is quite impressive.

Today’s haul, including our bag of rice that will top up on the one we burned through the past 50 days.

For drinking water, inside the community are stations for cheap refills of water cooler bottles. We never use those because Natalie doesn’t trust it. So, I pick up multiple 5 liter bottles from nearby convenience stores and use our little pull-cart to drag those back. Normally, we get the large jugs delivered directly to our door and exchange out empties. However, that store-owner is still stuck somewhere in Hubei it seems, along with Natalie’s family near Jingzhou.

Lastly, there are multiple large vending machines within the community. They were running low and inconsistently for a stretch, but now seem regularly restocked. It’s not just little junk food snacks and drinks you can buy here using your phone apps. It’s majestic. Shelves have a variety including small packages of fresh fruit and veggies, dairy products, instant noodles, face mask packages, (crappy last resort) beer, decent bread items, hygiene products, and more. Side note, the robotic mechanism delivering the items is quite nifty. It’ll even provide a bag if you want.

Each side has a conveyor belt contraption that raises and lowers on a track.

Conclusion of Part 2

That is everything notable about my apartment community’s responses. All of those measures are still currently being utilized 50+ days after the response began. Although the densely packed manner of city life here is likely more ripe for viral outbreak compared to the comparatively spacious nature of American society, the design has proven to be a modicum of deterrence.

The residents here have not been unruly or obstinant. A cynical US viewpoint would have the kneejerk reaction that attributes this entirely to fear of a horridly scary tyrannical government. The Chinese I know well, including my fiance Natalie, would push back adamantly against any of talk like that. These are just my observations, I don’t want to stoke political flames. All I know is that during this unprecedented challenge to their society, there seemed to be rarely any conditions that deteriorated to the point of warranting a panicked or rebellious reaction. Perhaps that was the case sometimes in harder hit parts, but certainly not in my neck of the woods. Steady resilience best describes ChangXinYuan’s community efforts against the predator of COVID-19. No matter the specific model of your community’s response, I hope that it develops an attitude of steady resilience.

Thomas Funfsinn

March 18, 2020

As said earlier, I will write a third post that widens the scope a little more to my surrounding 2-3 block radius. After that, if response is still interested, I have more ideas brainstormed for my ongoing account. Any feedback is appreciated if it is earnest and in good faith. Typo corrections, also. Take care of yourself and those around you.

3 thoughts on “Life in Beijing 50 Days and Counting During the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic Part 2”

  1. Tom, This is well written and interesting. Keep it up and you could have a large blog audience of “students” looking to learn more about regular life in China. I did see several typos, such as “The” should be “They” and “their” should be “there”. I didn’t note the page numbers but you will see them if you read it carefully. Good Job! Dad.

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