French expats on China’s ‘zero Covid’ and its shocking reversal

The Chinese Communist Party’s reversal of the draconian “zero Covid” policy in December sparked an unprecedented epidemic across the country. But while the surging cases caused them a lot of worry, the end of brutal lockdowns was ultimately a big relief for the French expats FRANCE 24 spoke to.

Three years after Covid-19 first emerged from the central city of Wuhan, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has finally put an end to the stringent “zero Covid” policy, after tight lockdowns prompted unprecedented protests.

The euphoria over the end of zero Covid came before a vast outbreak across the country, with China’s largely unvaccinated elderly especially vulnerable to severe cases. Hospitals were overcrowded in a matter of days, with emergency rooms overwhelmed with patients, pharmacies overwhelmed with patients trying to buy anti-fever medication, and – most tragically – crematoriums overwhelmed by an influx of bodies.

In Shanghai, around 70 percent of the population – some 18 million people – are thought to have gotten Covid since early December. The situation has prompted much concern outside China, with scientists worrying about the development of new variants and several countries imposing travel restrictions.

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FRANCE 24 spoke to three French expatriates about what it was like to go through this extraordinary time in China – from the harsh effects of the “zero Covid” policy to the protests that surprised the world to the elation, then concern, that followed the CCP’s sudden U-turn.

  • Johanne, 40, finance manager for a French company

“I never thought I’d see – in an authoritarian country like China – protests like those we saw in November against ‘zero Covid’. Never in my 12 years in Shanghai have I heard such a direct challenge to [Chinese President] Xi Jinping and his policies. People were really fed up. I know a lot of people who lost their jobs after 2019 and now they’re unable to even put a single penny aside. People in China loved Xi Jinping because he represented the ‘Chinese dream’ – but then the zero Covid policy crushed their hope.

“I have to say that to start with I thought nothing would come of the protests. I didn’t believe it when the government announced they were lifting restrictions. People at work would say it’s a trap and that the authorities would backtrack. Ultimately, looking at how they’ve carried on with the reopening despite this huge surge in cases, it strikes me that they reacted to the demonstrations kind of childishly: like, ‘You’re questioning our policy? Ok, then, fine: you’re on your own.’ Because that’s exactly what happened. People woke up in the morning and suddenly there were no more restrictions at all – no more obligation to wear a mask. Nothing. The only instruction they gave was: ‘If you’re ill, you can get on with it. Just get on with it as well as you can – but don’t clog up the hospitals!’

“I wasn’t surprised by the wave of coronavirus cases. As soon as the zero Covid measures were lifted, I knew that going out entailed the risk of catching the virus. And, as expected, I caught it in mid-December – just like everyone else around me. My expat friends and I were so certain that we couldn’t avoid it that we were strangely almost relieved to get it. And with the Christmas period approaching, it meant that even if we had to sacrifice Christmas, we’d end up being all right for New Year’s Eve and then the Chinese New Year.

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“Nevertheless, I still felt really sick – I was really tired, I had this massive cough, and a fever. I actually had a lot more symptoms than my boyfriend; whereas I’d had Chinese vaccines, he’d got the Pfizer jab. Luckily, we weren’t affected by the shortages in pharmacies because we’d brought back a stock of medicines from our summer holidays in France. So we were really lucky compared to the locals.

“Now for the most part the big Covid wave seems to have gone in Shanghai. And while people might still feel frustrated at having endured months of restrictions only to face overwhelmed hospitals, it looks to me like everyone just wants to move on. After living for months in a form of terror, I get the feeling that the atmosphere is finally becoming more serene. For instance, a few days ago I coughed in the street. And for the first time in a long while, I didn’t worry about the consequences. It’s so liberating! You finally have the right to be sick after three years of feeling like catching Covid was the worst possible crime.

“Because all this time, it wasn’t being sick that scared me, it was the consequences of being sick. For example, I heard all sorts of horrible stories about how the pets of people who tested positive were put down because of fears they would transmit Covid. I’ve got two dogs, so I was very worried.

“In retrospect, I think 2022 was a real turning point for the Chinese people. They could see the difference between what they were experiencing and what the rest of the world was experiencing. We were all asking the same question: why are we still under this draconian zero Covid strategy? And that question made those restrictions seem all the more onerous. In this respect, the lockdown last April was the most difficult moment I encountered – even if I wasn’t badly off compared to many others, with a big flat and a good wage. It’s worth remembering that some locals went through that lockdown in small flats; in many cases with several generations packed together under one roof.

“All that said, there are also positive things to take away from that period. In this country, where people don’t talk to each other on the street, where people rarely know their neighbors, I’ve seen an incredible amount of mutual support and many social barriers going away.

“In a few weeks, at the end of February, my partner and I will move to Finland. I’m of Chinese origin. I know I’ll come back here someday. But the last few months have made us want to make a fresh start and reconnect with nature. And clearly, the last three years have had a lot to do with it. But at least, before we leave, we’ll be able to enjoy a few days of holiday and see China coming back to life. It’s the end of quite a rollercoaster ride!”

  • Jeanne, 39, French teacher

“I feel like I’ve been living in a weird dystopian situation for three years, and now the future is finally coming into focus. I live in Zhuhai, which is sort of like the Chinese equivalent of Nice – it’s a coastal city, it’s quite wealthy, and rather quiet. Unlike the big metropolises like Shanghai and Beijing, we didn’t have big, very strict, all-encompassing lockdowns. Nevertheless, I spent three years living with the threat of suddenly being confined to my building or forced to quarantine. At the university where I work, I was even asked to pack a bag containing pyjamas, a change of clothes and toiletries in case I couldn’t leave the building after someone there tested positive. And like everyone else in China, we had to get tested every 24 or 48 hours and use the QR code to enter public places.

“My boyfriend, who is from Hong Kong, and I have been seriously considering leaving China, although I love living here. I went so far as to apply to several universities in London and Australia. Nothing came of it, so we stayed. But if we’d had the chance, we would have left.

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“In the end, I caught Covid two days after the announcement that the zero Covid measures had been lifted. It’s amazing how quickly it happened, so much so that I suspect the virus had been circulating a lot more than people thought. The government abandoned zero Covid on December 7. The next day, all the testing tents had disappeared and the QR code you’d previously absolutely needed was no longer working. Two days later, everyone around me was ill. The university even decided to let the students go home before the end of term and postpone exams.

“My boyfriend’s whole family also lives in Zhuhai – and they got Covid as well, including his very elderly grandparents and aunts. We were very worried about this but luckily everyone was ok in the end. The problem is that in China, there’s not much in the way of healthcare outside of hospitals – so if you’re sick, you have no choice but to go there. So it’s hardly surprising that the epidemic has overwhelmed hospitals.

“I had planned to go back to France for the Christmas period anyway, so I was ready to be quarantined upon my return. I missed my family; I hadn’t seen them since 2019. Ironically, it was the lifting of the restrictions that prevented me from traveling as I’d tested positive for Covid just before. Luckily, though, I got well again in time to fly.

“Now my biggest worry is that some countries will go beyond requiring negative tests and completely ban travelers from China from entering their territory, effectively closing the borders. I think it’s totally normal that we’re asked to take a test ourselves, but I wouldn’t want the country to be completely isolated again.”

  • Thibault, 29, computer scientist

“When I got back to Europe this summer, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to China. After four months of traveling and thinking about it, I decided to go back. What was the point of enduring months and months of lockdowns – the absolute hardest thing – just to give up now?

“And then there were the protests. I went to one in Shanghai. I’d never seen anything like it in China: the protesters were genuinely prepared to fight with the police. Their anger was all too palpable. I think that was a real wake-up call for the authorities.

“I was so relieved when the government finally announced it was lifting the restrictions. My friends and I partied all night. But we didn’t escape the wave of Covid that was unleashed. In the days that followed, all my colleagues – who’d had Chinese vaccines – caught Covid. That wasn’t really a problem in the company I work for. Because everyone was ill at the same time, we just decided to postpone everything by 10 days. I’d had the Pfizer jab and I’d already had Covid – so I was lucky.

“For several days, I walked around the streets of Shanghai and they were completely empty – just like during the lockdowns. People stayed at home – either because they were already sick or because they were afraid of becoming sick. It was incredible. Now the surge in cases looks like it’s starting to subside and things are slowly returning to normal.

“At long last, we’re going to get back to everything we love about living in China. Above all, economic growth will be able to get going again and – along with it – professional opportunities will certainly emerge. Many expats have left this summer, so it’s for those of us who’ve stayed to help the economy.

“And we’ll finally be able to start traveling again. Even though some countries have reintroduced tests on departure or arrival – which is quite understandable – the borders are finally open again. The first thing I did when I heard the restrictions were lifted was to book a plane ticket so I could go skiing for Chinese New Year. I could see everyone around me was enjoying that same sense of liberation. After it was impossible for three years, most of my Chinese friends will now be able to go and spend time with their families.”

This article was translated from the original in French.

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