On January 31 I received a knock at the door of my Beijing apartment. It was the manager of lease renewals clutching a stack of flyers.
“Mr. Zhang, you’re feeling well?” she asked, using my Chinese surname.
“No fever yet.”
She laughed—foreigners and their comments.
“I know you don’t have the illness, but we want everyone to be safe. Here.” She handed me two copies of the flyer, one in Chinese and the other in English.
They were written by the Beijing municipal government and offered practical tips on how to protect oneself from the coronavirus. It had been eight days since the city of Wuhan had gone into full lockdown and seven since Beijing and other cities across China had declared a public health emergency. The flyers advised which government websites and social media accounts had the latest, most authoritative information and how to take basic precautions (wear a face mask, stay at home if possible), and they listed more than one hundred hospitals in greater Beijing that were designated to handle fevers. In case anything was unclear, the authorities had set up a new hotline with information in eight foreign languages. Unlike Wuhan, Beijing wasn’t locked down, but they were making sure that everyone was well informed.
The manager was diligent. She checked with me about my neighbors, confirming her information that they had left town for the Chinese New Year holiday, and asked me if I had a mask. After a few minutes she cheerfully left to carry on with her rounds.
At the time, this incident didn’t strike me as all that important. If anything it was annoying: yet another pointless, paternalistic measure by Chinese authorities for what probably wasn’t going to be a big deal. Couldn’t they ever be relaxed about anything? Always this angst, followed by the inevitable knee-jerk mobilization. How ridiculous.
But since then I’ve come to see that small incident differently. The coronavirus was a big deal; it was something that I (and many other smug foreigners) misjudged but that the Chinese authorities accurately saw as a public health crisis. The thought and effort that went into the flyer were especially impressive in hindsight: organizing the hospitals and the hotline, the quick consensus on measures like face masks that many other countries, such as the United States, grudgingly adopted only much later. Rather than viewing the Chinese government’s reaction as a sign of its love of a lockdown, I now think of it as emblematic of the bureaucratic élan that underlies much of China’s rise over the past few decades, from the largely successful economic policies that went counter to the shock treatment advocated by many Western experts to its rolling out a national highway and high-speed rail network—public engineering feats that Western countries used to…