17 Feb 2023

China after the end of 'zero Covid'

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 17 February 2023

Expat Chinese can finally visit home after the end of the 'zero Covid' policy - what's changed and how worried are people now about Covid-19?

Chen Liu standing on the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. It is a clear, cold day.

Chen Liu on the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. Photo: Supplied/Chen Liu

It's only been four years since Chen Liu was in China, but she could barely recognise parts of her hometown when she returned a few weeks ago.

Journalist Chen is one of millions of expat Chinese who are finally back home after years of strict Covid-19 lockdowns. She's seen some stark changes, from the ultra fast highspeed trains to the boom in new apartments and digital-only payments, right down to the little tea shop.

But there's one thing no one wants to talk about: Covid-19 and the government's handling of it. People are focused on the future and making their fortunes, says Chen, who has lived in New Zealand for seven years.

China reopened its borders in January, after three years of strict controls, allowing people to return home for their most important family time, Lunar New Year.

"I was in a car driving home, but I felt like I couldn't recognise some areas because there are so many more high-rise apartment buildings and so many more private cars on the road," she says.

That was only the beginning of the surprises for Chen, who is speaking to The Detail from her home in Hubei near Wuhan. No one uses cash or even bank cards anymore, and QR codes are everywhere "even for the milk tea shop".

E-commerce platforms such as Pinduoduo and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok are more popular than ever, she says.

But it was the ride on the highspeed train from Wuhan to Beijing that really impressed her - a journey of more than 1000km took less than four hours.

They are all signs of a thriving economy, but Chen says she also hears of failed projects, employees made redundant, and small businesses that are here today and gone tomorrow.

"People are talking about how shops can shut down after operating for a short period of time, as they can't sustain themselves due to the poor economy, and then new shops come up and the same thing would happen to them," she says.

"There's also talk that people have to work really hard and overtime is commonplace and you could be called into work when you're on holiday."

Despite the progress in peoples' lives and the rebounding economy, Chen reckons Chinese people "don't laugh as lightheartedly as New Zealanders do".

She tells The Detail that people seem to have forgotten about Covid-19 and the trauma of the early stages of the pandemic - and they don't discuss the protests late last year that led to the government spiking its 'zero-Covid' strategy.

Chen also reflects on her own personal dilemma and where her future is, New Zealand or China.

Hear more about Chen Liu's return to China in the full podcast episode.

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