Weeks before the corona virus became a national health crisis in China, authorities threatened a doctor, Li Wenliang, who warned of early cases. State media reported that Li was illegally spreading rumors.
That was a red flag for Bob Huang.
“People here tend to believe the government. Not me, ”said Huang, 50, who lives with his mother Zhang Wanrong and their caretaker in Zhichang, a city of 300,000 in northern Zhejiang Province. “I’ve watched too many episodes of” The X-Files “.”
Huang is not like other people in Zhichang. He is an American born in China and, as he put it, does not think like his neighbors. When Zhichang barricaded himself from the outside world, he watched with the confusion of an outsider, even if he shares his neighbor’s dry sense of humor about the situation.
Human interaction can be difficult to find in a city barricaded by the rest of the world. Huang takes what he can get.
It starts with the volunteer guards outside his residential complex when he leaves the house to buy groceries. Many wear red jackets with “volunteers” on the back. Some are his neighbors. One of them is his dentist.
Sometimes this colorful group of guards calls for reinforcements – police officers in protective gear with tasers. Huang calls her the “SWAT team”.
They don’t have a lot of useful information, said Huang, but they have a lot of conspiracy theories.
One day a guard stopped to look at Huang’s passport, then looked up and scowled. “This pandemic is definitely caused by you American imperialists!” The security guard told Huang. The virus was obviously a new biochemical weapon, the guard argued. He was only partially joking.
“He doesn’t like the United States or the Americans,” said Huang.
The next day the guard apologized. His facts were wrong. Greedy and ruthless Chinese scientists in a high-security biochemical laboratory in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, were behind the spread, the guard said. They had sold an infected test monkey to the living market, where the authorities believe the virus is spreading. As far as Huang could tell, the security guard believed the story.
Another guard told Huang that he had seen a memo from the same laboratory that had been put online. The Wuhan laboratory also had a cure, the second guard argued, and scientists planned to sell it and make a lot of money.
Huang has to pass several provisional checkpoints to enter the market. At each checkpoint, Huang has to write down his personal information and have his temperature checked. He goes through the same routine when he returns home. A 10-minute drive now takes three times as long.
The guards may be ad hoc, but they take their job seriously. One day, a drunk neighbor returned to Huang’s complex and refused to explain why he was away for more than a day. The guards called eight policemen to subdue the man.
“Yes, I was rubbernecking there,” said Huang. “But I wasn’t allowed to take photos. Sorry.”
Sure, the checkpoints and lockout may seem extreme, said Huang, but they’re not infallible. He has a friend in a nearby town who sneaks to the river every day to swim.
One day last week, a man from a neighboring province came into town after a four-day hike on smaller streets that were not subjected to road controls. “There are many cracks to be found,” he said.
The biggest problem, said Huang, is the deep combination of listlessness and loneliness in the city. Interactions between people are becoming increasingly rare as local officials change the rules to try to contain the virus. Now each family can only send out one member every two days to buy food.
“Everyone here is so bored,” said Huang with a sigh.
As a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, Huang married in the United States and became a naturalized citizen. When his father died in 2003, he and his wife moved back to China to look after his mother and chose Zhicheng as their base.
In 2012, his mother was paralyzed due to brain hemorrhage and a caretaker moved in. Since Huang’s wife died of colorectal cancer two years ago, it has only been him, his mother and her caretaker.
Huang would prefer not to be in China now. He told foreign friends in cities like Shanghai and Beijing to leave China if they can.
“There is something my father told me a long time ago,” said Huang. His father was a member of the Communist Party and a local official, and described the corruption he witnessed. “He told me that there is no socialism or communism in China. He called it “elite-controlled capitalism”.
For now, Huang will stay with his mother. “But at some point when I retire,” he said, “I don’t want to live in a country that has all of this.”
This article originally appeared in the New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company