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A China affairs correspondent's long road to get back to 'zero-COVID' China

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to take another look at China's zero-COVID policy. That's an effort to do exactly what it says - keep COVID cases in the country to a minimum. That policy has promoted the government to impose some tough measures on its citizens, including a lockdown in Shanghai, which is going into its third month. But the country's attempts to snuff out COVID-19 within its borders has meant that those very borders have become much harder to cross. NPR's China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch finally made it into China a few days ago, and we wanted to hear more about what that was like. So to tell us more, he's with us now from the city of Shenzhen. Hi, John. Thanks for joining us.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hey, happy to be here.

MARTIN: OK, so where did it start? Where did the journey begin?

RUWITCH: Well, I was in Northern California, and I looked into flying directly to Shanghai from San Francisco because normally, that's an easy thing to do. But China's civil aviation authority has piled restrictions on air travel into the country, so the number of flights that are available has been slashed dramatically. You know, there are just a few dozen flights from the U.S. to China now from hundreds before. And you can only take direct flights into China, so you can't transit in any third country. And what that's meant is that prices have just gone through the roof. So under normal circumstances, maybe you'd pay $800, $1,200 for an economy-class, round-trip ticket to a place like Shanghai. Now, we were looking at $8,000, $12,000 $15,000 one way. And that's if you can get a seat. They're booked solid for weeks.

MARTIN: What did you do? I assume you didn't stow away in the luggage compartment, so what did you do?

RUWITCH: I flew to Hong Kong first. They opened up for the first time in two years to visitors, and I jumped at that. I flew to Hong Kong. And entering Hong Kong required a PCR test 48 hours before flying and a PCR test upon arrival. And then everyone who comes into the territory has to spend a week in a specially designated quarantine hotel. Demand exceeds supply there, so they're really tough to get. And so here's a health department agent at the airport explaining it to me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I remind you, warning - don't leave the hotel room. The CCTV monitor the corridor. OK.

RUWITCH: A little hard to hear, but he's saying basically, you can't leave the hotel room. There's TV cameras in the hallway. You can't have guests. You can't pass luggage to anyone. And by the way, there's a $3,200 fine or possible six-month imprisonment for breaking the rules. So after that, I was bussed to this hotel. I went in. I opened the door to get in. I closed the door, and then I only opened and closed it ever after that to pick up food or drop trash outside the door.

That is the sound of the door closing behind me. I'm in here for seven days now.

MARTIN: You know, that doesn't sound as fun as it could be, John. Do you mind if I ask like, what was that like? Were you going stir-crazy? Or what did you do to pass the time?

RUWITCH: I'll be honest with you, it was pouring rain. It was air-conditioned indoors. The food was decent, and if it wasn't good on a certain day, there's ways to order food in, so I found it doable.

MARTIN: OK. So then crossing the border is your next step. And how are officials controlling the border checkpoints now?

RUWITCH: Well, they've closed them all, except for one. And that one border point is called Shenzhen Bay. And you have to book a spot online to be able to cross through on a specific day. And get this - there are only 800 spots a day that they allow.

MARTIN: Once you made it across, was that the last step in your journey?

RUWITCH: Well, I had my booking. I had to get up to the border crossing. And the first thing the Hong Kong authorities made me do on the Hong Kong side of the border was take another PCR test with a swab that, I have to say, went deeper than any I've ever experienced. And they handed me a buzzer, like at a restaurant when you're waiting for your table, and told me to wait for the results. I couldn't go across the border without the results. It finally buzzed. They gave me a green wristband, and then I was allowed to exit Hong Kong through passport control.

On the China side of the checkpoint, a man in a hazmat suit with a face shield put me in another line for, you guessed it, another PCR test before they stamped my passport. So I've just come out the arrival hall on the Chinese side of the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. I left my hotel 6 1/2 hours ago, roughly, this morning, and I entered on the Hong Kong side 5 hours and 15 minutes ago. So that's what it's taken. I feel like I've come through the gauntlet. Yeah. Then I waited a couple of hours on the outside, on the Chinese side, for a bus that took me to a random quarantine hotel, which is where I'm sitting right now.

MARTIN: For people trying to travel to China, do we have any idea when this will end? I mean, has the government shared any information about if or when people won't have to go through this anymore?

RUWITCH: In short, no. I mean, my quarantine is going to end in a couple of weeks. That's nothing compared to what people in Shanghai have been through and other cities. When these border controls will end is just another question altogether. You know, the COVID prevention measures, taken together, are taking a big toll in the Chinese economy, and the Chinese government gets that. They're pulling out all the stops to bolster growth, but they have a problem on their hands, right? They - despite overall high vaccination rates, the vaccination rates among elderly are not that high. And the fear is that if COVID runs wild in the population, there'll be a lot of old people that will die.

MARTIN: Well, John, we're glad you made it. That's NPR's John Ruwitch. John, thank you so much for going through all that and telling us about it.

RUWITCH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCK D'S "CRAZY MACHINES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.