Members of the College’s Chinese community describe experiences under China’s Zero-COVID policy

Katie Lu

Members of the College’s Chinese community told the Record about their experiences with China’s Zero-COVID policy and its recent rollback. (Ashley Shan/The Williams Record)

In December 2022, China began to roll back its COVID-19 restrictions, moving away from mass P.C.R. testing in areas not considered “high risk” and relaxing quarantine and isolation requirements for symptomatic individuals and international travelers. This policy change came in the wake of sweeping protests in major cities, including Shanghai, Beijing, and Nanjing, last November. These protests signaled an outpouring of residents’ discontent with unpredictable longterm lockdowns, a frustration that reached its peak after lockdown measures left 10 dead during an apartment fire in Ürümqi.

After China’s rollback of restrictions, the nation has seen a rapid increase in cases. Between Dec. 12 and Jan. 8, the nation reported nearly 60,000 COVID deaths, and public health officials have stated that over 800 million people could be infected over the next few months.

Since the initial outbreak in 2019, China has maintained a stringent approach of controlling COVID’s spread, termed the “Zero-COVID” or “Dynamic Zero-COVID Policy,” centered around the pillars of prevention and containment.

Prevention has taken the form of mass testing and the use of contract tracing apps to monitor people’s movements. Containment has entailed the use of government quarantine facilities to house infected people and their close contacts, as well as the imposition of lockdowns in neighborhoods — and sometimes entire cities — where COVID cases were detected.

The Record spoke with members of the College’s Chinese community who experienced these policies for themselves. The Record granted interviewees in this article anonymity due to their fear of retribution from the Chinese government.

One student, who was born and raised in China, was at home when the government locked down the city for three consecutive months in March 2022. “The Chinese government told us that it was only going to last, maybe, at maximum, two weeks, and they were going to let us out. They kept delaying it, and they didn’t really give us any information,” they said. “I’m pretty lucky to come from a more affluent family where we had access to more food and whatnot, but I do know a lot of families where they literally suffered from food insecurity because they couldn’t go to the supermarket to get food. They had to rely on government rations that sometimes came moldy or [were insufficient or] expired.”

The Zero-COVID policy made it difficult for a Chinese staff member at the College to leave China for Williamstown due to the large amount of required paperwork and limited transportation options. Without a U.S. Embassy in their home city, they had to apply for their visa in another city, which is eight hours away from Nanjing by high speed train.

Once their visa was approved, the challenges continued. The Zero-COVID policy resulted in fewer flights and higher ticket prices. “I had to book a ticket [around] half a year before,” they said.

Although the staff member said that their first year away from home has been tolerable, they sympathized with those who have not been able to go home since before the Zero-COVID policy was put in place. “That’s maybe more … socially and culturally isolating,” they said. “If you go back to your home country and then come back to university, it’s like you’re re-charging, and then you have full energy to do other things and study.”

In an email to the Record, a second student described how difficult it was to be away from their home province during its lockdown. “During the periods of lockdown back home, unfortunate news came one by one, and it was heartbreaking at times,” they wrote. “I remember at certain times my friend and I found it hard to concentrate on work or simply the life we have here at Williams while knowing what’s happening back home.”

The second student, who returned to China over Winter Study — their first time back home since leaving for their first year at the College remains hopeful about traveling being easier in the future.

The first student does not know when they will be able to return to China. They and their parents were planning for them to return home in the spring, but their plans have become uncertain given the high number of COVID cases reported since the government lifted the Zero-COVID policy.

“We’ll have to see,” they said. “Zero-COVID is really messing everything up because we haven’t had COVID cases in so long, … so everyone’s getting it. [China]’s kind of not a good place to be in right now, so it’s kind of hard for me to go see my family, but we’ll have to see how it goes.”

The first student and the staff member articulated different opinions on the end of the Zero-COVID policy and the recent protests. The staff member said that most of the protesters were university students, alleging the existence of a generational gap, which they said they also observed on social media.

“A lot of people say that the university students [protesting] do not care about the old people — they only care about their own interests,” they said, attributing this sentiment to the shortages of medical supplies that ensued once restrictions were lifted. “A lot of young people, they can buy Advil online, but older people, they cannot — they don’t know how to buy things online, or don’t know what time … the government will send some Advil out from certain websites.”

The first student offered a different take on the protests. “It was kind of inspiring to me… There are probably physical repercussions for them for doing that action,” they said. “And I’m here, where there’s nothing stopping me from doing anything to advocate for anything. Like, maybe I should be doing the same things they are, or trying to aspire to be like them as well.”

They, however, remained wary about those government repercussions, voicing rumors they had heard about government retaliation against protesters. “This is by word of mouth, so I don’t know how true this is, but I heard that the Chinese government employed secret police to be in the streets and check people’s phone[s] to see if they have any contraband like VPNs … and also try to stop the protests from within,” they said.

“We’re pretty careful, I would say — not trying to piss off the government,” they continued.

The first student’s mother reminded them over text to “cover” for themself because they still need to go back to China. “I think that the Chinese government is good here in terms of its intentions — like, it was trying to prevent COVID from spreading,” they said. “I think the problem is that it tends to have a habit of being very, very short-term in terms of its approach towards things.”

On campus, the staff member and first student expressed appreciation for the College’s efforts to support international students from China. When applying for their visa, the staff member needed to provide proof that they had been accepted to study abroad. The College sent them a letter via international mail — and after it was retained and disinfected by the government, they successfully received their visa. The first student had a similar experience, and they said that they have continued to feel supported by Director of International Student Services Ninah T. Pretto.

The first student, however, said that they wished there was greater student awareness of Zero-COVID and the subsequent protests. In December, students at the College organized a vigil for those who died in the Ürümqi apartment fire, which they believed increased some awareness. “I still think it’s a little sad somebody has to die in the process … before people start realizing this is such a horrible thing,” they said.