In Beijing, the Covid rebels let off steam

published on Thursday, May 26, 2022 at 07:23

Toddlers wading in a canal, mahjong players who don’t care about distances and young people who find themselves in secret to drink a beer: faced with the noose of zero Covid, Beijingers find a way to decompress.

The Chinese capital has been on the edge since the beginning of May in the face of an epidemic outbreak which exceeds 1,600 cases of contamination – a high figure for China which applies a strict zero Covid policy.

Although the outbreak has officially caused no deaths in the city of 22 million inhabitants, schools, restaurants, non-essential businesses and several parks are closed. The inhabitants, tested daily or almost, are invited to work from home.

Those who live in residences where cases of contagion have been recorded are confined.

But many residents are playing cat and mouse with the authorities, in defiance of the instructions of the ruling Communist Party, which has made its anti-Covid policy a marker of its legitimacy.

“Everything is closed: cinemas, museums, even football fields are closed until further notice”, lists Eric Ma, a young computer scientist who came to empty a few beers with friends on the edge of a downtown canal, after a day of work at home.

“I get claustrophobic. It takes imagination to figure out how to have fun.”

– “Be patient” –

Barriers now prevent landing on the lawn near the canal, the place of large picnics in recent weeks. Access to the banks is always possible, but it is regulated and guards take care to prevent the formation of too large groups.

“Be patient: you will enjoy the sun after the epidemic is over”, can we read on large blue signs placed at regular intervals along the water.

But the instructions do not prevent dozens of Pekingese from crowding the quay and even, for some, from taking a dip on a hot spring afternoon.

In the water, a middle-aged man takes the opportunity to sing a tune from a traditional opera.

Other walkers brought folding chairs and tables and even a small gas stove, for an enhanced picnic.

“Sometimes guards come to make us leave,” said Reiner Zhang, a stylist who spread out her picnic tablecloth on a street corner near the Liangmahe Canal, in a leafy embassy district.

“But we don’t care. People are fed up with layoffs and pay cuts and we need to get together to let off steam,” she explains.

A little further on, mothers enjoy a watermelon while their kids splash around.

“It makes them stir a little,” observes Niu Honglin, whose seven-year-old child descends the canal with his armbands.

“As the parks are closed, they have nowhere to go to have fun. The children fly into a rage when they stay at home all day with school at a distance”, laments this mother of a family.

– Screening and palisade –

In the alleys of old Beijing, rickshaw pullers are on technical unemployment, tourists being prohibited from entering certain areas.

But a newlywed couple pose for the photo in front of the ancient Drum Tower, whose forecourt has been transformed into an anti-Covid screening area.

Nearby, around Lake Houhai, the quays filled with bars and cafes are now hidden behind a palisade.

“It is to prevent people from gathering, because the epidemic situation is serious”, explains a worker busy installing the palisade.

“We work at night, to avoid catching the virus,” he explains.

But during the day, retirees from the neighborhood meet to play cards, Chinese checkers, chess or mahjong, without worrying about the rules of distancing.

“We come here every day after lunch and play until sunset,” said a retired civil servant named Zao. “We’ve been doing this for years. The pandemic isn’t going to stop us.”

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