Bin Zhang recalls first hearing the rumours in early January 2020 about a dangerous, SARS-like virus that was spreading like wildfire. His wife’s relatives worked in a hospital in Wuhan, China.
It was “basically a friendly warning at the time,” Zhang explained. “They said, ‘Just be careful. Don’t go to places where it’s too crowded.’”
Zhang grew up in Wuhan but now lives in Calgary with his wife and two young children. He was scheduled to fly to China on Jan. 22, 2020, to reunite with his family, who had arrived in Wuhan a few weeks earlier to celebrate Chinese New Year with his parents.
But as he was preparing to board his flight to China, everything changed.
“While I was in Vancouver for my transfer flight to Beijing, I heard the news that they were going to lock the whole city down within seven to eight hours,” he told Global News’ The New Reality.
He scrambled to contact his wife, at 2:30 a.m. local time in China, to tell her and the children to get out of the city as soon as possible, so that he could meet-up with them before Wuhan was sealed off from the rest of the world. “That’s the most intense thing that I’ve ever done — waking up my family in the middle of the night so they can escape the city, and so that I can meet them somewhere else,” he recounted.
After a stressful flight, Zhang was finally able to meet his family in his wife’s hometown several hours’ drive from Wuhan. After a few days hunkering down there, the family was lucky enough to snag four seats on a repatriation flight, which the Canadian government had organized for Canadian citizens and permanent residents stuck in China.
“I was happier than winning a lottery,” he says. “We were just completely relieved that we’re finally on home soil.”
A city on edge
But the scenes of eerie emptiness he witnessed in a once-teeming city were relatively tame compared to what others came across in Wuhan. In one instance, an elderly man wearing a face mask collapsed and died right on the street, near a hospital in the city.
Various bloggers and citizen journalists, some of whom have since been jailed by Chinese authorities, captured tense scenes at hospitals in the city, including bodies piling up, and crowded hospital scenes — all images that would be splashed across TV screens in Canada or the U.S., but that are forbidden in China.
Now, one year later, hardly anyone is talking about death and dying in Wuhan. Instead, Chinese governments at all levels are focusing on narratives of heroism and persistence that led to the city’s purported “victory” over COVID-19.
A six-part documentary on Chinese state TV lionizes Chinese President Xi Jinping in the fight against the pandemic. There have been operas and countless propaganda-style news reports extolling China’s success at stamping out COVID-19 in Wuhan.
At one of the city’s convention halls, a glitzy exhibition called “People above all, life above all” celebrates the nurses, doctors and other emergency frontline officials who scrambled to seal the city off and contain the virus with military precision.
The nationalistic tone is unmistakable — with hardly any references to whistleblowers like Li Wenliang, the Wuhan-based opthalmologist who had issued a warning, against official orders, about the virus spreading between humans, and whose death from COVID-19 sparked a period of nationwide grieving.
In recent weeks, COVID-19 has re-emerged in China, but far from Wuhan, where life is largely back to normal. Businesses are open and the nightlife has been back in full swing for months — from beer festivals to massive rave-style pool parties.
New cases are popping up in Hebei Province, which neighbours Beijing, and further away, in Northeast China. In Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei, crews built a sprawling quarantine centre with over 4,000 rooms, with the same breakneck speed two field hospitals went up near Wuhan when the virus first emerged there last year.
The government is strongly discouraging people from travelling to their hometowns for the Chinese New Year, and a sweeping system of digital monitoring — which would raise serious privacy concerns in Canada — is being used to identify those at higher risk of spreading the virus.
Health officials are also monitoring frozen food imports, as Beijing promotes the narrative that the virus may have emerged from overseas seafood. That theory, echoed in various news reports on Chinese TV, is not seen as credible by scientists, said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist affiliated with the Georgetown Center for Global Health, Science and Security. “There’s nothing really to support that (theory),” she told Global News. “Nobody (who is) credible believes that this could have been acquired through imported seafood.”
A team from the World Health Organization, which was accused of not acting fast enough to warn the world of COVID-19, has been in China since Jan. 14, visiting hospitals, labs and markets, to try and trace the source of the virus. However, the WHO, along with virologists such as Rasmussen, are cautioning that tracing the origins of the virus, known officially as SARS-CoV-2, is long, arduous work — and that the source of the virus may never be known. The process takes time, Rasmussen said.
“This type of work normally takes years. It can take decades, and sometimes it never happens.”
Finding where a virus came from, she said, involves a tremendous amount of “epidemiological detective work” to try and identify, among other things, the first people who contracted the virus, what they were doing, and with whom they interacted, Rasmussen added. “This is not easy work to do. It’s not quick work to do, and some of it may just not be doable.”
Over the course of a year that saw the entire world turned upside down, China’s economy actually expanded.
Last month, Beijing announced GDP growth of 2.3 per cent in 2020. That was the first slowdown in nearly half a century, but still a rare sign of economic growth at a time when other major economies around the world pulled back.
One reason for that sustained growth is manufacturing. Even before the pandemic, China was a manufacturing powerhouse for medical equipment and personal protective equipment, or PPE. In the early days of the pandemic, China scrambled to source PPE from around the world, in order to protect its citizens from the virus. Those imports, however, pale in comparison to the massive shipments of masks and other medical supplies China ships to the rest of the world.
In 2019, Canada imported about $2.7 million worth of face masks from China, according to Statistics Canada data obtained by Global News. In 2020, by contrast, Canada imported over $1.5 billion of the same product — 600 times more in terms of dollar value. Last year, 95 per cent of Canada’s imported face masks came from China. Those purchases from China have also resulted in a laundry list of recalls involving millions of Chinese masks. Those imports, according to some Canadian manufacturers, are a missed opportunity for Canada’s economic recovery.
Mark Rose, the president of Layfield Group, a Richmond, B.C.-based manufacturer of medical and environmental products, blamed ‘red tape’ for preventing his firm from supplying masks and other medical supplies to deal with COVID-19.
“We were getting contacted by all sorts of different people requesting different types of PPE,” he told Global News. “We’re ready to go.”
But regulatory hurdles, notably the lack of a recognized Canadian standard for high-quality face masks, has prevented his firm from shifting production to highly sought-after masks, Rose said. The U.S. government agency that certifies medical-grade N-95 masks is dealing with a backlog. And without that certification, Rose said his firm has struggled to sell to local health authorities.
“We just can’t get (face masks) to market, and the government seems to be buying materials from other markets,” he said. “Meanwhile, our products are collecting dust on the shelves.”
Rose’s firm has had to lay off staff who otherwise would be manufacturing masks for Canadian health care workers. “We should be bursting at the seams, running 24/7. I’ve got the raw materials and have the finished goods, but I just can’t produce stock and it’s not going to go anywhere.”
Meanwhile, millions of masks purchased from China have been recalled after failing to meet specifications.
Made in Canada strategy
Margaret McCuaig-Johnston is an unlikely voice among the growing chorus of those calling for Canada to adopt a new approach in its dealings with Beijing.
McCuaig-Johnston is a senior fellow at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa. For four decades, she worked closely with partners in China to promote science and trade partnerships between Ottawa and Beijing.
She described herself as “a friend of China for 40 years,” before a recent and sudden change of heart. On her last visit to China in December 2018, she said she arrived in her Shanghai hotel to discover her suitcases had been opened and searched. During that same trip, Chinese authorities detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. McCuaig-Johnston said that move “put it over the edge.”
“It’s really been tragic, personally, to see how China has changed under (President) Xi Jinping and the dramatic shutdown of rights in China,” she said.
“And people like myself who have been friends of China for many years are now saying that China has changed. China is no longer the country that we once fell in love with.”
Since those high-profile arrests, which are widely seen as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, McCuaig-Johnston has become a vocal critic of China. She is one of a handful of China experts in Canada who is publicly speaking out against the communist regime. She said she knows the risks involved in doing so, adding that China’s recently passed national security law means anyone who dares to speak out against Beijing could be blacklisted.
As a former member of the Canada-China Science and Technology Joint Committee, McCuaig-Johnston also helped to foster collaboration between Canada and China on vaccine research. Last year, a shipment of vaccine seeds destined for a research lab in Canada was held up in China. That delay ended the partnership between vaccine researchers in both countries.
“The more points of engagement you have with China, the more places you have that they can take action against you,” she told Global News.
“Canadians are really looking at all of these things with the interpretation of China in a new light,” she says, pointing to public opinion polls last year that showed Canadians’ views of China are plummeting.
The ‘greater good’
Geopolitics aside, Bin Zhang, the Calgary resident who grew up in Wuhan, believes there are lessons to be learned from China’s remarkable efforts in slowing the spread of COVID-19 — pointing to the country’s strong “team spirit” attitude.
Zhang said that contrary to the perception that Wuhan residents were forced to stay at home against their will for fear of persecution or imprisonment, everyone he knows in Wuhan willingly accepted the challenge of combating COVID-19, stemming from a sense of responsibility for the greater good.
“I do hear about people saying that, you know, the Chinese people do it because of fear,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s the case (in Wuhan), because out of all the people that I’ve talked to, my friends and family back in Wuhan basically support (the lockdown) and encourage it.”
“They never had any anti-mask protests. Everybody buys into these ideas of masking and social distancing,” Zhang said. “And so they were able to eliminate the virus in a very short period of time,” he added.
Zhang says that attitude reflects cultural differences between China and the West. “In the Western world, we are known for individualism — compared to China, where everybody has that team spirit, group mentality — and they all buy into the idea that, ‘If it’s good for the public, it’s good for me.’”
Today, Wuhan is busy and bustling once again — and people have resumed their normal lives. The city has not registered a single case of COVID-19 since last April.
“They’re exactly where we want to be, but can’t get to,” he said.
See this and other original stories about our world on The New Reality airing Saturday nights on Global TV, and online.