September 22, 2020 / by Pieter Verstraete

Returning to China in times of corona: “One step out of my hotel room and my quarantine counter goes back to zero”​ Knack

Pieter Verstraete published his book Forging Smart Deals with China in 2019.  In this column for the Belgian political and business news magazine Knack, Pieter writes from his compulsory quarantine hotel about his return to China, the country that he has called his second home for 12 years. This is a translation of  a column that was originally published in Dutch. 

Just before dawn, the Boeing 747-8 from Frankfurt lands in Shanghai. I’m groggy and tired, like the other passengers, what with a flight of nearly eleven hours, with the cabin lights coming on every four hours and the flight crew going around to take your temperature. “In order to comply with the rules of the People’s Republic of China,” said the captain.” “All passengers should write their temperature on the back of their boarding pass.” I know roughly what to expect when I am one of the first to get off in Shanghai.

Extensive paperwork

Friends who have taken this trip before had warned me about the complex procedure when returning to China, and I want to get started quickly. I jog towards the welcome committee that consists of hundreds of people waiting for us, all in a protective suit from head to toe, mask and splash shield included.

Packed lightly with only a backpack, I stop at one of the many tables with officials. He scans a QR code in my WeChat app (think of a combination of WhatsApp and Facebook but Chinese). He reviews my health statement that I have submitted online in advance. Where I live, whether I visited bars in recent weeks or if I went to public events without a face mask, and so on, with a note at the bottom of the form reminding me that providing false information is a criminal offense. China doesn’t joke around.

“Oh, departed from Brussels.” A first grimace appears on the border guard’s face. “Recently been on a trip to Portugal.” Second frown follows. I am classified in the highest risk category and at the next stop, I have to pick up two test tubes for mandatory testing.

The 3 Ts: testing, tracing, treating

Anyone who thinks China is alone in its stringent approach and portrays their measures as typical of a communist, authoritarian state is mistaken. South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Singapore, among others, have also implemented systems of mandatory hotel quarantine. The (East) Asian approach to this crisis is driven by the wanting to reduce the number of Covid19 cases to zero. Any potential infection cluster must be suppressed immediately. Their strategy is based on the three Ts: testing, tracing and treating. A military-based decision-making process and implementation must seamlessly integrate these three Ts. After all, testing without monitoring through accurate tracing makes little sense.

The recent experiences with outbreaks such as SARS and MERS meant that East Asian countries were better prepared for the corona pandemic, but other included a decision-making policy without endless debates (for example about the efficacy of face masks), a government headed by technocrats (the vice president of Taiwan is an epidemiologist himself), the early closure of their borders, or their strategic stocks of protective equipment.

All these elements have led to a successful approach. Or as Chen Chien-Jen, the vice president of Taiwan, sums up the situation, contrasting the Western vision with the Asian mentality: “There is no other realistic way out of Covid19 by building ‘herd immunity’ through vaccinations and infections, which I think is the western herd immunity mentality. It’s a way of framing the discussion. An alternative framing is that there is simply no realistic way out other than reducing the number of viral transmissions to zero. That’s how people see things in Asia.”

360 ° skateboard tricks in my nose

And if you want to go infection rate to zero, the border is an important first line of defence in stopping the virus. I continue my way to a large-scale test battery, which consists of dozens of tables in a row, with men and women in biohazard suits, and with fans behind them. I am assigned to table number 34. Two swabs in the nose, one swab in my throat. A swab is deeply inserted into the nasal cavity. Intuitively, it feels twice as deep as during the test in Belgium, and its four 360° rotations remind me of one of Tony Hawk’s skateboard tricks. When the official pulls the swabs out and breaks them off into the testing tube, my eyes are filled with tears. But the keys to the kingdom don’t come cheap.

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The welcome committee

What kingdom? Why do I want to return to China during these times so bad? My decision to go back was not only driven by private reasons – such as seeing my beloved, my friends and returning to the life I have built there over the last 12 years – but business motives also played a role: my consulting assignments for Chinese investors from China have dried up. After Covid19 broke out, Chinese private capital returned to its own market and now eyes the economic future of the “Old Continent” that seems to be unable to control Covid19 with suspicion.

Exchanging those Chinese assignments for consulting assignments at Belgian companies turned out to be no easy task. Over the last decade, I’ve completed a cartload of assignments in China, in industries ranging from fashion to real estate and mobile technology. The result is that I have become a Jack of all trades with a broad knowledge, but master of no speciality except for closing deals with the Chinese. “A mile wide and an inch deep,” as the Americans say. And that clashes with the hyper-specialism that characterizes the Belgian interim management and consulting industry.

During exploratory and introductory discussions at Belgian companies, I was always labelled the “China expert”. And China experts must maintain their links with the country and be in China. So I took the first opportunity to go back.

The ring road around Brussels in Shanghai

I pass through border control and can pick up my suitcase. The whole process takes only 35 minutes. I still don’t know where I will be staying for the next two weeks. I am waiting for a bus to take us to our quarantine hotel. A large QR code is attached to my passport, linking to my online profile. Officials keep our passports until we leave, so you don’t leave the airport on your own.

Outside, I see the driver in his protective suit, sitting on the sidewalk under a small awning. He is smoking. He has taken off the hood of his protective suit and sweat is pouring down his forehead. This is the first time I’m actually looking at something human on this trip so far. The bus leaves with an unknown destination, and whereas everything went very smoothly up to here, the slowness now sets in. It is drizzly weather in Shanghai and, just like on the Brussels’ ring road, that means traffic jams. The 70km drive through Shanghai to the suburbs takes over two hours.

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Transport to the quarantine hotel

We arrive at a hotel next to a construction site near an engineering campus. Foreigners are allowed get off the bus first. I hear other passengers muttering about why “foreigners” are given “preferential treatment”. Three Serbs, a Russian and I are taken to reception and there they help us fill out our check-in form, again via WeChat. There is only a Chinese form available. Employees are still in uniform – protective suits, masks and splash shields. The first line of the form where we have to enter our name already poses a challenge: only Chinese characters are allowed. We invent a Chinese name for the Serbian youth on the spot. Jele, a young Serbian woman in search of entertainment and a “normal life” in China, will henceforth be known as Xiaolong (“Little Dragon”). When China calls for pragmatic solutions, you create pragmatic solutions.

Corona in the toilet

The kindness of the servant, who himself is clearly bothered by all the red tape, contrast starkly with the Russian man in his forties who is getting cranky. It all takes too long, there is too much hassle, and when he is denied access to go back outside for a smoke, he blows his lid. We were disinfected on arrival, first our luggage, and then we were hosed down in person. So now we have to stay indoors, germ-free. The Russian man makes the painful mistake of not distinguishing between the people and the system.

We must all sign our agreement with the house rules. The most important passage: if you step outside the hotel room, you go back to square one, just like in a game of the goose, and your quarantine counter resets at zero, with fourteen days on the clock. We are also given a pack of disinfection pills, to be used with every toilet visit. At first I think it is to disinfect our hands with, but then the hotel staff makes it clear to me that it is to be thrown into the toilet bowl.

I remember reports stating that traces of the coronavirus have been detected in stool. I translate for the other foreigners, and the disbelief on their faces indicates they have lost all faith in my Chinese translation skills. I can hardly blame them.

Welcome to Hotel Quarantine

I want to settle the bill (€43 per night, all-in) but the system refused my Chinese bank card. I will probably have to do another personal verification check at the bank. If anyone wonders why fintech is doing so well in China and how the IPO of Ant Financial, Alibaba’s financial arm, was able to become the largest IPO ever, you should just look at the constant administrative headache of dealing with Chinese banks. Customers will of course opt for a digital, user-friendly and mobile way of payment and will want to avoid banks at all costs.

The accommodation the Shanghainese government randomly selected for me and my fellow passengers is an IU Hotel, a chain of theme hotels that, according to their website, strive for “a fun way of living”. IU Hotels are rather typical budget hotels for junior business reps and off-campus student romance. There is not much “fun” to be had here, but the hotel they succeed with flying colours at the “Quarantine Hotel ” theme. The hallways are bare, they’ve taken all the decoration off the walls, plastic covers the floors (and the walls, up to waist height) and the room furniture is gutted to the bare minimum.

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Hotel ‘Student Romance’ (picture from their booking.com page)  vs ‘Hotel Quarantine’

During the next few days, the staff comes by twice a day to have my temperature taken and I will get a meal three times a day at fixed times. I now use the first loud thumps at nine in the morning as an alarm clock.

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Receptionist/ healthcare worker wanted

Home sweet home, after all

Strangely enough, after the long trip from Brussels to the Shanghai suburbs, this still feels like coming home. Despite all the difficulties, I am genuinely happy to be back in China. I close the door behind me and the fortnight quarantine clock begins its countdown. The next two weeks will give me plenty of time to reflect on the corona measures in place, the economic and political struggles between the West and China, and the business opportunities. But first, I want to rest and take a long hot shower, while the scent of flower soap mixes with the pungent chlorine scent of the disinfection tablet doing its work.

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