Tuesday, May 23, 2023

China's Zero Covid policy: a summing up

Half a year has passed since China's Zero Covid policy ended, and it already feels like a distant dream. Just like everywhere else, people in China are keen to move on and forget the pandemic and the lockdowns. Never mind that there's a new wave of Covid happening; the worst is over, and the majority don't want to think about it anymore. 

It's no longer in the Communist Party's interest to talk about it either: much of Chinese society considers the Covid policies of 2022 to have been a complete disaster, from the months and months of extreme lockdowns to the sudden and complete reversal that led to a deadly exit wave and overwhelmed the hospitals. At this point, any further rhetoric about how much better China is at protecting its people would only be counterproductive. 

We are unlikely to ever see Chinese films or TV shows that deal with the initial Covid outbreak in Wuhan, or the unprecedented lockdown of Shanghai last year. Even in the rest of the world, to be fair, there are very few films, books or other works of art dealing with the traumatic two years of Covid lockdowns everyone went through. People want to forget, even without the government pushing them do so. It's easy now to see how the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 disappeared from the popular consciousness. Wars may be written about and remembered for decades, but apparently pandemics aren't the same. 

All over the world, the Covid pandemic tested the relationship of trust between the government and the governed, as well as between different components of society. In the West it was the populist right that made a show of not taking Covid seriously and pursuing "mass immunity" at a time when this meant mass death. In the countries where they were in power, like the US and Brazil, the cost in lives was massive.

In China the ruling regime decided to take Covid very, very seriously, starting in late January 2020 (some might argue things would have gone differently if they had started caring a few weeks earlier, but I'll leave that debate aside). The people had no choice but to follow, and for about two years the Chinese approach worked rather well. In fact, for a while it seemed like the pandemic had only made the Chinese people more convinced than ever that being run by a competent dictatorship with unlimited powers was in their best interests. But the reckoning came in the end, and it was dramatic and painful.

For those of us who live in China, 2022 is a year we won't be forgetting fast. We lived most of it under the iron fist of a bureaucracy that was given one task, and pursued it with incredible single-mindedness and thoroughness: to eradicate Covid wherever it showed up. The comfort, dignity and in extreme cases even the lives of the public were deemed less important than this ultimate goal (and if you think this is hyperbolic, go and read about the numerous documented cases of people with serious illnesses being denied entry into hospitals because they had no evidence of a negative Covid test).

In some cases, this huge public health drive descended into utter, surreal madness: fish and vegetables swabbed for Covid, armies of workers in hazmat suits spraying empty streets with disinfectant, crowds storming out of buildings before they could be locked inside because someone had been identified as a "close contact" of a Covid case.

At the time, it wasn't uncommon to hear people in China compare Zero Covid to the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. To some this may seem ridiculous: Zero Covid didn't lead to millions dying of hunger, or to millions more being subjected to struggle sessions and sometimes execution. It started off with the reasonable enough goal of keeping China free from a dangerous virus.

But in other ways the comparison is a good one, especially when you look at the Great Leap Forward and its "scientifically-based" campaigns that brought misery to millions. A good example is the campaign to eradicate the "four pests", and specifically sparrows, which started in 1958. Sparrows were considered to be a pest because they ate large quantities of grain and fruit. 

The campaign resulted in millions of people all over China banging pots and pans to prevent sparrows from resting in their nests. The sparrows would fly from tree to tree until they dropped dead from exhaustion. In Beijing, many sparrows found refuge in diplomatic missions. The Polish embassy refused to allow the mobs to enter its grounds and it was surrounded by people banging drums for two days, until the sparrows all dropped dead. 

The campaign was very successful in achieving its goal, and sparrows almost became extinct. When the entire Chinese bureaucracy and population are mobilised to achieve a goal it usually gets done, even before the times of smartphones and "digital surveillance". The technology used is a detail; it's the Party's ability to mobilise the country and its reach into every neighbourhood that matters. 

The only problem was that sparrows turned out to play an important role in the ecosystem, and when they were gone populations of locusts started rising exponentially, since there were no sparrows left to eat them. This exacerbated the famines associated with the Great Leap Forward, and in the end China had to import sparrows from the USSR to replenish their numbers.

Especially looking at the last year of Zero Covid policy, it's easy to see the same impulse to control nature itself with mass campaigns, even when it goes beyond all reasonableness and demands huge sacrifices of the population. Of course, what those who were making the comparison with Mao's campaigns really sought to imply was that such disasters are the result of one-man rule, then and now.

There are those who justify China's Zero Covid policy as a well-meaning attempt to protect the public, which bought time while vaccines were developed and the virus mutated to become less dangerous. There is truth to this. We'll never know China's true death toll from Covid, given the way deaths from the virus are (not) counted, but it would have been far, far higher if Covid had been allowed to spread from the start. India probably lost around 5 million people to Covid; I doubt the toll would have been any lower in China, which has slightly better hospitals but far more elderly people.

If there was an obvious mistake the Chinese leadership (or the leader) made, it was to continue the Zero Covid policy in 2022, when the virus became milder but more contagious. Instead of giving up they doubled down, turning China into a theatre of the absurd and squandering most of the goodwill they had accumulated with their own people. This can only be considered a case of terribly policymaking.

Why did they do this? The idea that the pandemic was a convenient "excuse" to track everyone's movements and close China off from the world was always misguided. The Party has long known everything that goes on in China, and the country has always been just as closed off as they deem necessary. Making it all so obvious was if anything counterproductive. It is probable they believed in predictions that Covid was going to cause mass disability and immune suppression in countries that chose to live with it, and thought it was worth waiting and seeing.

On top of that, they seem to have done rather little to prepare for an eventual reopening, failing to mandate vaccinations for the elderly or stock up sufficiently on antivirals and ventilators. Perhaps they believed they could carry on with Zero Covid for a long time, and overestimated how far they could push their people's patience. 

Because make no mistake: Zero Covid was abandoned when the Chinese people made it clear they wouldn't take it anymore. Many now claim that the U-turn had already been planned during the 20th Party Congress, in October, because the economy could take the lockdowns no longer. But when had the economy taken priority in the past? And why then were proclamations still being made about how China's Covid policy had demonstrated its correctness and should be followed "unswervingly"?

It is true that by this point the authorities clearly acknowledged that the lockdowns were exasperating people. But the 20 new measures on Covid prevention they passed in early November seemed like an attempt to have your cake and eat it too: loosen up a bit, make it easier for people to live and work like normal, but continue to contain Covid at the same time. When cases inevitably started rising in Beijing and other cities, they went back to the old playbook. 

At the end of November 2022, things finally came to a head. Faced with an endless campaign that had descended into grim absurdity and was making normal life impossible, Chinese society reached its breaking point. In what seems like a different era, but was actually just a few months ago, people all over China started physically refusing to be locked down in their homes, and took to the streets in large numbers. Unsurprisingly, this was the point at which Zero Covid was abandoned with breath-taking speed. 

The peak of the protests was reached over the weekend of 26-27 November, spurred by the fire in Urumqi that killed 10 people on November 24. It may or may not be true that the city's strict lockdown prevented the victims from leaving the building, and the firefighters from entering the neighbourhood. The authorities have denied it, but it doesn't matter; the point is that it could have been true, and that's bad enough.

It was as if a dam had burst. I have never seen anything like it in China. At the time I was living as the only foreigner in an old residential building in central Beijing, which had been locked down for the weekend. Most of my neighbours were Beijingers of ordinary means. Even in my building's official WeChat group everyone was sharing subversive videos of the protests, demanding to be allowed outside again and raging at the local officials in the group. 

Clearly something had to give. This is why I am dubious about claims that the government had already decided to end Zero Covid after the 20th Party Congress, or that they did it because the economy was on its last feet or because the virus was already spreading unstoppably. No, they did it because the people spoke out very clearly, and said they wanted their lives back. 

Within two weeks of the protests, the entire architecture of Zero Covid had been dismantled. No more mass testing, no more health apps and QR codes, no more enforced quarantine, no more restrictions on travel, no more nothing. For people in China it was as exhilarating as it was bewildering. 

What was most striking to me at the time was the way that the disgust at the extreme anti-Covid policies lead to a wider political awakening among the middle classes and the young, with many asking subversive questions about the nature of state power in China. People who a year earlier would have been proud of their country's unity and sense of purpose and the capability of its leaders were now furious. 

The sense of betrayal was palpable. These were people who had understood China's "social contract" to be that in return for not challenging Party rule they would be allowed to make money and chase enjoyment in their private lives however they pleased. Living in fear of getting taken to a horrid quarantine camp by thugs dressed like astronauts wasn't part of the bargain. Unfortunately, the social contract isn't an actual contract and nobody will sanction a government that stops respecting it.

The openly political demonstrations in Beijing and Shanghai, where protestors shouted slogans against the Party and Xi (and later got detained), may have been small affairs. But people all over the country were making the connection between the draconian policies against Covid and the authoritarian one-party system, and weren't shy about saying so. 

I remember reading and hearing comments by Chinese saying that they now understood why the Taiwanese didn't want to reunify, or that they now believed the Western reports about mass internments in Xinjiang. I remember seeing a video of a woman in Chengdu speaking to a crowd, saying "in the past I didn't understand why foreigners claim China doesn't have human rights. Now I get it". 

As anyone who's lived in China a long time knows, most middle class Chinese do not normally perceive Communist Party rule as particularly oppressive, unreasonable or brutal. Of course, their rule is all of those things to Uyghurs, Tibetans and anyone who tries to challenge the Party's narratives, but many Chinese see their leaders as essentially reasonable people using only as much force as necessary to lead their unruly population in the right direction. The system's worst abuses are either not known about, or they are believed to be necessary to protect China. 

To some the draconian lockdowns, and the fear of getting taken by force to a horrible quarantine camp in the middle of the night, suddenly drove home the importance of having proper rule of law. I happen to know a woman from a small town in Northern China who works in Beijing as a journalist. She's never lived abroad, but could be considered broadly liberal by Mainland Chinese standards. When I met her for lunch one day in late 2021, she told me that China's successful handling of Covid had "almost" convinced her that authoritarianism is the superior system. 

I spoke to her again in November 2022, and her mood had changed completely. All the residents of her block of flats in Beijing had been taken en masse to a quarantine facility because one person had tested positive for Covid. She'd been confined for eight days to a dingy little room with bad food and conditions. When I spoke to her, she'd just been released. 

She said she was truly disillusioned and wanted to leave China. "In the past I had illusions", she said, "but now I've seen the truth. They can do what they want with you. The legality of it and your rights don't matter one bit". When I suggested that China might drop Zero Covid soon, she said she didn't even care. She'd lost faith in the whole system, not just the policies on Covid. "Today they'll trample on the law because of Covid, tomorrow it'll be because of something else". 

Although the lockdowns of 2022 may have produced a political awakening of sorts among part of China's population, I don't know how long the effects will linger. The political, social, economic and cultural factors that drive the Communist Party's popularity and support have not disappeared. Assuming that less than a year of unpopular lockdowns could fundamentally change the relationship between the Party and the people is wishful thinking.

Certainly, the events of last year were not a success for the Party. But with their sudden U-turn, they have shown that they still know how to let go before the population really turns against them. What should be more troubling to them is the economic storm gathering on the horizon. The old growth model is now unsustainable, and nothing new is there to replace it. The Party used to promise its people growing standards of living, order and safety. Very soon only order and safety will be left. We shall see what happens then. 

Friday, April 14, 2023


Cambodia is not a country whose name necessarily conjures up positive, sunny images. Growing up, as an avid reader of books on world history, I first heard of Cambodia in connection with the Khmer Rouge genocide, one of the most notorious events of the 20th century, sitting alongside the Holocaust, Turkey's extermination of the Armenians and the Rwandan genocide as an example of the lows humanity can reach.

Years later, as I started travelling around Asia, I would sometimes hear bad reports about Cambodia from people who'd been there. Several of them said they'd noticed a sadness about the country, as if the terrible events of its recent history still hung in the air. Other travellers, perhaps less perceptive, just spoke about how desperately poor, corrupt and chaotic the country seemed. Everyone agreed, however, that the temples of Angkor Wat were amazing and worth visiting no matter what. 

During my years of studying Chinese affairs, I learnt that Cambodia had essentially become a Chinese client-state, run by a leader who depends on China for support and patronage. I read about how Cambodia vetoes any move by ASEAN to condemn China's actions in the South China Sea, and how many parts of the country have been taken over by Chinese developments, creating some resentment among ordinary Cambodians.

As I climbed onto a minivan in Bangkok's backpacker district on a blisteringly hot March afternoon, headed for Siem Reap, it was impossible to completely shake off this baggage of hearsay and negative images that I associated with Cambodia. The journey to Siem Reap, the modern town that sits next to the ruins of Angkor Wat, took a total of seven hours, including the border crossing at Poipet. 

After crossing the border, the difference in prosperity and infrastructure between Thailand and Cambodia immediately became apparent. Everything looked less affluent and more ramshackle on the Cambodian side. After entering the country my driver took me to a place where I could exchange money. I was surprised to learn that the US Dollar is accepted everywhere in Cambodia, just as much as the local Riel, and so I changed my Thai Baht into Dollars.

We drove into the night, through the provincial town of Sisophon (which looked frankly rather miserable) and on to Siem Reap. The place I had booked in Siem Reap turned out to be right in the middle of the bar street. The hotel cost very little, only 13 dollars a night for a room with a bathroom, balcony and AC. It even had a pool. When I booked it, I was struck by how cheap Cambodia is; in Thailand you would never find a room of your own for that price, especially in a major tourist destination.

It turned out that the hotel's cheapness was not without reason: in my room the wifi only really worked on the balcony, and what's more it was facing a bunch of bars with loud music, and the girl at the front desk warned me that the racket would go on until 1 AM. The hotel did have a pool, as advertised, but it was somewhat miserable and it faced the entrance to the main street, so it provided little privacy.

The following day I got up determined to go to Angkor Wat, but I soon realised that I'd already missed the opportunity, since the organised tours all leave early in the morning to catch the sunrise and avoid the hottest time of the day. It is possible to rent a tuk-tuk for the day and go to the temples alone, but the cost is similar to an organised tour and you won't have a guide.

I resolved to go Angkor Wat the following day, and for that afternoon I booked a tour to the so-called "floating villages" outside the city. About 30 kms South of Siem Reap lies the Tonlé Sap, the biggest lake in Southeast Asia. Along the banks of the lake there are a large number of fishing villages where the houses are built on very high stilts. During the tour I was bussed to one such village with a group of sightseers. 

The village was quite large, and all the houses were built high above ground, on stilts almost 10 meters in length. During the rainy season the village is submerged, and the water almost reaches the houses. Tours like the one I took have to reach the area by boat. This was the dry season, however, and there was no water in the area. The wooden houses looked simple, but decent. Many had boats parked underneath them in preparation for the rainy season. 

There was a Buddhist temple (which was not on stilts) and a school in the middle of the village. The brown, parched landscape and the features of the local people reminded me more of India than Thailand. At some point a group of children appeared, accompanied by a couple of women who asked us if we wanted to donate some money to buy textbooks for the kids. The initiative was apparently supported by an educational NGO, and quite genuine. I declined to donate, not wanting to feed into a cycle where children depend on foreign tourists to buy their textbooks. 

Further down there was a local wedding going on under a canvas, with extremely loud music played on loudspeakers. Some of the tourists in my group stood right next to the seated guests and filmed the wedding or took photos, but I felt uncomfortable intruding on a private ceremony in this way. After this we were taken to a river and put on a boat which drove us to the Tonlé Sap Lake. As we approached the boat, somewhat outside the village proper, local children gathered to ask us for money. Unfortunately, local children begging from tourists was something I encountered several times in Siem Reap.

The boat took us to a floating restaurant in the middle of a lake, which was clearly a tourist trap, so the majority of us wisely decided to just get drinks and no food. There was also a live crocodile in a cage in the middle of the restaurant. Crocodile meat is part of the diet in Cambodia. 

Images of a floating village near Siem Reap

The following morning I woke up at 5 to join a sunrise tour to Angkor Wat. Almost everyone else in the minivan was English, including a loud and boisterous group of students from London, about 20 years old, many of whom were still nursing hangovers from the previous night. 

Angkor Wat did not disappoint. The temples are undeniably amazing in their size, number and exquisite architecture. This is perhaps the most impressive historical site I have seen anywhere in Asia. There were throngs of tourists, but it didn't spoil the atmosphere. We were taken to the precise spot where Angelina Jolie filmed the most famous scene in Tomb Raiders, and in fact the guide mentioned Angelina Jolie several times over the course of the tour, as if this amazing historical site needed to latch on to her for added glory, or as if only the association with a Hollywood blockbuster could truly impress Westerners. 

Angkor Wat is the world's largest religious structure. But more than that, it was the centre of the great city of Angkor, the capital of the Khmer Empire. Angkor flourished for six centuries, and it came to cover an area of 1000 square kilometres, larger than modern Paris, making it by far the most extended pre-industrial city in the world. At its peak it may have housed a million people. The city was held together by a complicated water management system, the likes of which the world had never seen. 

In the end, Angkor collapsed under the weight of its own success, as the system became unmanageable, the climate changed and the population became exhausted by the constant forced labour needed to maintain the city. The downfall of the Khmer Empire, and of the Khmer people, was truly striking. For centuries their empire extended over most of continental Southeast Asia, and the capital was the most advanced in the world. 

And yet, after their empire collapsed, the Khmer people found themselves hemmed in between the Siamese (the modern Thais) and the Vietnamese, who had become far more powerful. For centuries they were only able to survive as stagnating vassals of one of these two powers, while more and more of their territory was grabbed by their neighbours, particularly the Vietnamese. It was only the establishment of the French Protectorate, in the 19th century, that may have saved Cambodia from complete disappearance. For once a European protectorate really did protect, even if it was by accident. 

The 20th century has also been unkind to the Khmer people and Cambodia. After getting dragged into the Vietnam War, suffering American carpet bombings, the four-year nightmare of the Khmer Rouge, and further years of Vietnamese tutelage and simmering conflict, Cambodia is now a scarred and traumatised nation. 

Until this day the Khmer are unfortunately looked down upon by many of their neighbours as backwards and lazy, and not even a hint of their former glory is in sight. I got an inkling of this when I told a girl from Bangkok that I was going to Cambodia. She told me that all the beggars in Bangkok are Cambodian. I asked her if Bangkok also gets Burmese beggars (Thailand sees massive Burmese immigration) and she replied "no, the Burmese are hardworking people".

Given their country's troubled present, it is hardly surprising that Cambodians take the huge pride they do in the temples of Angkor Wat. Even the blue and red national flag has a depiction of Angkor Wat at its centre, the equivalent of the Italian flag having a picture of the Coliseum or the Chinese flag a silhouette of the Great Wall running down the middle. All Cambodian flags have displayed Angkor Wat on them since 1850, as if to tell the world "yes, we may be poor and powerless, but our ancestors built something incredible". Even Pol Pot, in spite of wanting to completely destroy the country's old culture, kept the depiction of Angkor Wat on the flag of his "Democratic Kampuchea". In this way he was still a Khmer. 

Our tour of the ruins of Angkor Wat started at 5, and by the time it finished at 1 pm we were all drained from the humid heat. This was, after all, the hottest time of the year. The temples are incredible, but half a day was enough for me to get the idea. Many visitors go back over several days, but I'm not that kind of traveller (the tickets for foreigners also aren't cheap, costing 37 dollars for a day and 63 for three days).

That evening I went to a slightly different area of Siem Reap to visit the Peace Cafe, a place that offers Khmer and yoga class and nice meals. The area was less touristy and more quiet than the one around my hotel, and I walked around a bit by the river, while young locals sat and chatted on the banks. I can't say I liked Siem Reap very much, or at least, I didn't like the touristy area I was staying in. It struck me as a Southeast Asian tourist trap with none of the charm of a place like Chiang Mai, and plenty of seediness and squalor.

The next day I took a minivan to Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. This time all the other passengers were Cambodian. The trip took about five hours. The dusty towns we passed along the way looked relatively poor, with no sidewalks and plenty of children cycling to school on bicycles. There were no malls or supermarkets, but plenty of little shops selling all kinds of goods.

I was surprised by how much I didn't dislike Phnom Penh. Cambodia's capital is fairly small and compact, sitting mostly on the left bank of the Mekong. It lacks the overwhelming size and bustle of many other capital cities in the region. The centre is quite cosmopolitan and, rarely for Southeast Asia, walkable. Getting around with tuk-tuks is cheap and easy. While it is the capital of a poor country, Phnom Penh itself doesn't look desperately poor, and it has two or three modern shopping malls of the kind you expect to find in any Asian city. 

What struck me the most was the openness and friendliness of the people. Even compared to Thailand, where people tend to be pleasant and smiley but also rather reserved, the friendliness of Cambodians was striking. I never personally encountered the guarded, suspicious or downright bizarre behaviour you often find in countries that have had a traumatic recent history, starting with China. Almost every Cambodian I dealt with was polite, helpful and friendly, and I did not encounter venal behaviour, scamming or insistent pushing of wares.

I was warned by long-term residents that Phnom Penh has a theft problem, and that people on motorbikes might snatch my phone out of my hands while I walk or take a tuk-tuk. I'm sure this is true, but I never felt any less safe in Phnom Penh than I did in Bangkok, Jakarta, Beijing or any other big Asian city, in other words I felt quite safe. I behaved with the same carelessness towards personal safety that I always do when in Asia, including walking around alone after dark, and suffered no problems because of it. 

Riverside view, Phnom Penh

Inside the royal palace complex

I also found Cambodians' skill with foreign languages rather striking. A working knowledge of English is quite widespread in Phnom Penh, even among tuk-tuk drivers and security guards. In neighbouring countries like Vietnam or Thailand it is considerably harder to find English-speakers, in my experience. This is probably explained by the fact that Cambodia is a small country with a small language unrelated to any other, and it is used to depending on foreign powers. After learning French during colonial times, many Cambodians found it useful to learn Vietnamese or even Russian during the Vietnamese occupation of the eighties, while nowadays the useful languages to learn are English and, increasingly, Chinese. 

This brings me to another thing about Phnom Penh that hit me immediately: the massive Chinese presence. I'm talking here about recent arrivals from Mainland China, not the traditional Cambodian-Chinese minority. The city is packed with businesses and restaurants opened by and catering to Mainland Chinese. Hearing residents speak Mandarin on the streets is quite normal, and you see the language everywhere. A lot of signs in Cambodian banks and businesses are translated into Chinese. Even Cambodia's prerecorded phone messages saying you dialled the wrong number are in Chinese, as well as Cambodian and English.  

On at least a couple of occasions, I found myself communicating with Cambodians in Chinese. On my last evening in the country, in Kampot, a group of friendly Cambodians invited me over to their table. They had come from Phnom Penh on business. The men were all shirtless and drinking beer. They spoke incredibly limited English, although we managed to bond over one of them being a Juventus supporter. It then turned out that two of the group spoke rather good Chinese (one claimed his father was, in fact, from China), and we managed to have an actual conversation in Chinese. 

I spent my last two nights in Phnom Penh in a serviced apartment on Diamond Island, an island on the Mekong which fifteen years ago used to be mostly slums and farmland. It is now full of new buildings and it seems to be populated primarily by Chinese. Most of the residents in my building were Chinese, and the Cambodian staff spoke to them in Chinese with no difficulty. The streets outside could have been those of any new neighbourhood in Tianjin or Changsha.

Street market, Phnom Penh

While in Phnom Penh I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It is perhaps the most disturbing museum I have ever visited. It is located in a building that used to be a high school, and was then turned into a high-security prison under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. The building sits right in the middle of the city, surrounded by bustling streets. 

What went on in that building between 1975 and 1979 is beyond description. Around 20,000 people were imprisoned there because they were accused of being in some way connected to the former regime, including plenty of former teachers and professionals whose only real crime was being educated. Later on, purged Khmer Rouge cadres also ended up there. Only a literal handful of prisoners ever survived, mainly because they made themselves useful to their captors in some way. The almost totality of those imprisoned there were tortured to death or killed. Some of the rare survivors of the prison now sit in the courtyard all day, selling books on their experiences, translated into several languages, to the tourists. I wonder how it must feel for them to still be sitting right in front of the place where they were tortured, decades later.

When the invading Vietnamese liberated Tuol Sleng, they found the bodies of the last detainees, who'd been bludgeoned to death by the fleeing guards. The building has been preserved in the same state it was found in 1979. Walking around it is an affecting experience. Some of the school's classrooms are still divided into lots of little cells, the size of pig pens, made out of rudimentary walls of wood and brick. Seeing these tiny cells made me think about the people locked up there day and night, sleeping on the hard floor with only the prospect of torture and death ahead of them. The corridors were laced with barbed wire, to stop the inmates from jumping to their deaths in the yard below.

In one room there were graphic pictures of the tortures detainees were subjected to, along with some of the original torture tools the guards used; in another room there were piles of skulls and collarbones of the victims. The audio tour included the testimony of one of the survivors. He said that when he first arrived in Tuol Sleng, in a bus with a group of other prisoners, the teenage Khmer Rouge guards looked at the new arrivals in the same manner animals of prey might look at their next meal. 

I have never visited a Nazi concentration camp, but the emotional effect would probably be similar. Tuol Sleng is a powerful testament to the evil that human beings can do to each other when the right circumstances arise. 

Tuol Sleng prison today

The corridors of the prison, laced with barbed wire so prisoners wouldn't try and jump to their deaths

The classes of the high school turned into a prison block, with holes punched through the walls and little cells built of brick to house the prisoners

Photos of some of the victims

A letter from a hospitalised Khmer Rouge official to his daughter, showcasing the movement's fanatical mindset. Notice the ranting against the CIA, the "Vietnamese expansionists" and the KGB

Collarbones of the victims, Tuol Sleng Prison

Skulls of the victims

What happened to the broad mass of the Cambodian population under Pol Pot was quite unparalleled. Phnom Penh and all the other towns were evacuated, and the inhabitants were forced into communes in the countryside. These communes were ruled by terror, with people forced to work from dawn to dusk for starvation rations, and murdered at the merest hint of suspicion. About a quarter of Cambodians are thought to have died during the four years of Pol Pot's rule. A French author once called it an "auto-genocide", a genocide done by Cambodians against Cambodians, which seems like an apt description.

After the Vietnamese invaded and liberated most of the country, the Khmer Rouge retreated to a small patch of land on the border with Thailand, where they fought on for two more decades. Their movement was provided with a shameful amount of international support. Their biggest supporters were the People's Republic of China, which funded and supported Pol Pot and his movement at every step of the way, and even attacked Vietnam in retaliation for their invasion of Cambodia.

But the US also have to take a share of the blame, and not only for dragging Cambodia into the Vietnam War to begin with: since this was the time of the Sino-Soviet split, and Vietnam was a solid Soviet ally, the US also preferred to see Pol Pot rule over Cambodia than the Vietnamese. Even after 1979, the US and many Western countries continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia until 1993.

Then there is Hun Sen, the current president of Cambodia, who has ruled the country in one form or another for four decades. He started his political career in the Khmer Rouge, but defected to Vietnam when he was 24, when the movement began to cannibalise itself, and then rolled into Phnom Penh with the Vietnamese. After presiding over a "socialist regime" under Vietnamese oversight in the eighties, Hun Sen continued ruling in the nineties as Vietnam retreated, Cambodia officially became capitalist, the monarchy was reinstated and Buddhism was made the official religion again. 

Hun Sen now runs a regime that is close to being a one-party state (although it is not yet). When Western NGOs and international organisations provided much of the country's foreign funding, there was a need to at least pretend to adopt the trappings of liberal democracy. Now that China has become Cambodia's main sponsor, there is no need to play along with that game. All over Cambodia I saw the blue banners of the ruling "Cambodian People's Party" with Hun Sen's face on them. At least on one occasion, to be fair, I did see an office of the Candlelight Party, the country's most serious liberal opposition party.

Perhaps I wasn't in Cambodia long enough, but I never really felt the sadness and trauma in the air that many claim to have noticed. Of course any Cambodian over 50 lived through a genocide under the Khmer Rouge, and it is often claimed that large numbers of them suffer from PTSD and have passed the trauma on to their children. This may well be true, and it fits in with what I know about Holocaust survivors. Still, to an outsider like me there were no obvious signs of generalised trauma. If I didn't know what had happened there during the 70s, Cambodia would have struck me as just a relatively poor and traditional country, no more troubled than many others in Asia and around the world.

One of the placards of the ruling Cambodian People's Party that seem to dot every town and village in Cambodia

The Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument in Phnom Penh

While in Phnom Penh I also took a day trip to the "Silk Island", actually two islands sitting in the Mekong River. The islands are known for their traditional silk production, and as a rural getaway from Phnom Penh. They are a stone's throw away from the city's Northern' suburbs, and looking at the map I could not believe they could be all that rural.  

The islands are reached by taking a ferry across the Mekong. The ferry ride lasts about two minutes. Although the ferry leaves from a suburb of the city, once you get to the islands you are indeed in the countryside, a world away from the capital's hustle and bustle. As soon as you get off the ferry there is a place that rents bicycles, and I paid 3 dollars to use an old bicycle for the day. 

The island's inhabitants mostly live in traditional houses on 2-3 meter stilts, and spend their days under the stilts, in the shade, during the dry season. There were plenty of people, mostly women, making silk on sewing machines. In the first village I crossed I ended up buying a silk scarf from a woman who convinced me to come to her home and see her work. No one else tried to sell me any silk while I was there.

I ended up finding a little rustic cafe' on the banks of the Mekong, and lying in a hammock while I looked at the river, a favourite Cambodian activity. A group of young Cambodians on a weekend trip happily waded into the river with their clothes on.

While I'm sure the islanders are wealthier than most rural Cambodians, with their proximity to the capital and their silk industry, the islands mostly lacked new buildings and life still seemed pretty simple, although on the bank facing the city a few fancy boutique hotels are now springing up.

Children cycling, Silk Island

After a week in Phnom Penh I made my way to Kampot, a small town near the sea, known for its old town built by the French and its riverine location. It now has quite a developed tourist industry, with plenty of guesthouses, bars and restaurants opened by foreigners. I was surprised to see bars for backpackers openly advertising that they sell hashish joints. Unlike Thailand, Cambodia has not yet legalised hashish, but the law is widely ignored and the drug is sold openly in tourist hotspots. 

There was little to no presence of Chinese tourists in Kampot, but the town has an important historical presence of Khmer-Chinese, and I did notice quite a few Chinese altars in shops, 对联 on the doors and even a Chinese temple. On the other hand, I saw little in terms of Buddhist worship while I was in Cambodia. There are Wats and I saw the odd monk here and there, but Buddhist rituals and monks didn't seem to be nearly as widespread or visible as they are in Thailand, even though 97% of the population is considered to be Buddhist. Although this is obviously just my outsiders' impression, I do wonder if this might be another consequence of the iconoclasm of the Khmer Rouge.

Evening dancing on the riverside, Kampot

A monument to the durian fruit in the middle of Kampot. Durians are the local specialty.

Kampot is still a sleepy place, where cab-hailing apps don't work and the only way to get around is to rent a scooter for 5 dollars a day, as I did. The roads are in quite a bad state, with potholes everywhere. My hotel, which included some lovely bungalows facing the river, was run in the carefree local fashion. The wifi was weak and unreliable in my room, as it seems to be in many mid-range hotels in Cambodia, and the restaurant was inexplicably closed for two days in a row.

After spending four days in Kampot, I decided to return to Bangkok. I chose to do the whole trip by bus, which was good for my wallet and for the planet, but certainly tested my patience. The journey took hours longer than it was supposed to. Our minivan carried several local passengers, as well as another three foreign backpackers, two from Turkey and one from Australia. The driver kept stopping to pick up bags of unidentified stuff, and we even had a bag with a live chicken inside squawking in the back. 

The road from Kampot to Sihanoukville was in a horrible condition, with a large tract that had no asphalt and was just a dirt road. We bumped up and down for an hour at extremely slow speeds, on what is supposed to be a national highway. This highlighted the dire state of some of Cambodia's infrastructure, Chinese investment notwithstanding.

The state of the national highway between Kampot and Sihanoukville

Even though we were taking the route next to the coast, the scenery was some of the most bucolic and underdeveloped I'd seen in Cambodia, with tracts of rainforest and plenty of raised wooden houses on stilts, with the inhabitants lying on hammocks underneath their houses, in the shade. People rocking back and forth in hammocks is a common sight everywhere in Cambodia, as if to symbolise the unhurried way of life. The road had no proper rest stops, but we stopped at a little restaurant run by a friendly family of Cambodian Muslims, who lived in a house on stilts just behind it. There was a mosque nearby, so it was clearly a Cham Muslim area. 

Once we crossed the border into Thailand, everything changed. The roads were in pristine condition, and there were modern chain stores and proper rest stations along the way. I felt like I was back in a country comparable to China in terms of economic development and infrastructure.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

A Vipassana retreat in Chiang Mai

I recently went on a six-day Vipassana retreat in a Buddhist monastery in Northern Thailand.

The experience was a good one, if rather different from what I was expecting. Vipassana retreats have a reputation for being extremely strict environments, where you wake up at the crack of dawn, meditate for hours a day and aren't allowed to speak, read or use digital devices. 

The particular monastery I went to, Wat Sopharam, takes a far more relaxed approach. The monastery and temple have existed for 250 years, but the "International Vipassana Meditation Centre" was only established in 2018. Outsiders can come and stay for as long as they wish, as long as they ask in advance and there are rooms available. The stay is free, as is the case with most Vipassana retreats in Thai monasteries. You can leave a donation, but there is no pressure to do so. 

The monastery is located in a rural area on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. I took a taxi there from the city, which took about an hour. The taxi dropped me off next to the monastery's living quarters, at the bottom of a hill. On my arrival, a young man who seemed to be in charge of the logistics came and greeted me. He showed me to my room, which was fairly basic, including just a bed with a thin mattress, a plastic chair and a mat for meditation. It was, however, equipped with an air conditioning unit. There appeared to be no concern about leaving the room unlocked, although I eventually requested and received a key.

After leaving my things in the room, I was taken to meet a monk in saffron robes. The monk didn't look at all Thai, and he turned out to be Russian. The monastery houses at least two foreign monks, this Russian and an Iranian, as well as dozens of Thai monks. It is apparently possible for foreigners who choose so to stay and become monks without too much difficulty. The Russian monk led me up the hill, on the two-minute walk from the dorms to the monastery proper. The area at the top of the hill contained a temple, a chedi (the Thai word for a stupa) and a pavilion where monks gather to chant and perform ceremonies. 

I was taken to the room used to teach the "international meditators", as foreign guests are called. I noticed that the room had a DIY air purifier, the only one I saw anywhere in Chiang Mai. This was welcome, because the air quality was quite poor the whole time I was there. Unfortunately January to April is the "burning season" in Northern Thailand, when farmers burn their crops, and it is also the dry season so there is no precipitation to clean up the air. The AQI on most days hovered close to 200, like a polluted day in Beijing.

The monk then gave me an initial introduction to Vipassana meditation, during which he told me about the distinction between Samatha and Vipassana. While Vipassana is an ancient concept, the modern Vipassana movement started among Buddhists in Burma in the 19th century as an attempt to modernise Buddhism. In Vipassana retreats you generally practice two forms of meditation, one walking and one sitting, during which you respectively focus on your steps and on your breath. The walking meditation also ensures that people get some form of exercise, rather than sitting still all day. The monk lead me through five minutes of each kind of meditation.

While most Vipassana retreats include hours of group meditation a day, in this particular monastery everything is quite lax. There is normally group meditation at 4 pm, but the person who leads it was not around while I was there, so it did not take place. The only scheduled activity while I was there was a class on meditation at 10.30 am every day, which usually started around 15-20 minutes late. The first day I missed the class, because I arrived exactly on time and found no one there, so I supposed it had been cancelled. 

The monastery was very Thai in this way: things tended to start late, and everything was unpredictable and subject to unannounced changes. The Russian monk had warned me of this on the first day. He said visitors from certain nationalities find it hard to get used to the chaos, but eventually people learn to live with the uncertainty and go with the flow.

The classes were all given in English by the monastery's abbot, a youthful man of about 40. While his English was not incredibly fluent, he always managed to get his point across. Given that the international meditators kept coming and going, there was always a mix of new students and ones who had already sat through many of the abbot's classes. Somehow the abbot managed to give a different class every day, covering exactly the same content but from a different angle each time.  

I could see why the man was the abbot; he was witty, personable, and exuded an air of authority. He appeared to be highly revered by everyone at the monastery. He encouraged us to seek him and ask him any questions we had at any time. I approached him one day during lunch, telling him that I still had some trouble understanding the principles of Vipassana meditation. He beckoned me to sit at his table, and did his best to answer my questions while the other monks listened.

Unlike what you might expect at a Vipassana retreat, there was no prohibition on talking at the monastery. We had badges in our rooms saying "silent" in English and Thai, which we could wear if we wanted to let people know that we didn't want to be spoken to, but I only ever saw one person wear one. The orientation guide encouraged us not to enter each other's rooms and reminded us that we weren't here to socialise, but there were no strictly enforced prohibitions.

In practice, I only really talked to people at mealtimes. In the canteen, the "international meditators" all sat at one table. The food was not vegetarian, as those who have spent time in temples in India might assume. It was simple Thai food, nutritious and appetising enough. The monks only ate at breakfast and lunch, since they follow the Buddhist injunction not to eat from noon until dawn of the next day. The rest of us ate in the evenings too. Some tables were reserved for the monks, and some of the best food was also set aside for them. The rest went to us and to the monastery's children, who often come from troubled families and have been sent there to study as monks. Only some of them actually go on to become monks, apparently, while many return to the lay world when they get older.

The other international meditators were an interesting bunch. They came and went, some only staying a handful of days and some staying for weeks or longer. Among others, I met an older French man who's spent ten years in Thailand and speaks good Thai, an American girl who was volunteering at the monastery teaching English to the kids, a slightly neurotic Ukrainian young man, a friendly Australian hippy who believed Covid to be a conspiracy and told me that the hardest thing about being in the monastery was not being able to smoke hash, and a guy from Novosibirsk who had heard about the monastery from the Russian monk and spoke virtually no English or Thai. There were travellers from Brazil, Israel and Europe spending short spells at the monastery while they took a break from their globetrotting. There were also a few Thais retreating there.

Outside of mealtimes, there was little to do but meditate, read and go to class in the mornings. I tried to increase the amount of time I meditated by the day, but as a beginner I could not manage more than a couple of hours without break. I did go for a few walks in the local area, but the presence of unfriendly dogs made this seem rather risky. Electronic devices were not prohibited, like they are in stricter Vipassana retreats; in fact the monastery had wi-fi, although it did not reach my room. But in any case I did not open my laptop or read the news while I was there, which I found quite liberating. I did use my phone, but I made a rule of not initiating conversations with anyone and only replying to messages in the morning after waking up, and I generally stuck to it. 

Photos of the living quarters

Life in the monastery was fairly spartan, but not uncomfortable once you got used to it. The bathrooms were in outdoor sheds, and there was no hot water in the showers (in Thailand this is considered a luxury), but I found that taking cold showers in the heat of the afternoon was quite bearable.

At night I went to bed no later than 10, since there was nothing to do, and getting up in time for breakfast at 7.30 was never a problem. The monastery's bells ring at 4.45 am every morning, and the monks meet at 5 to chant, but fortunately we were not expected to join. At 6.30 the monks go on their morning alms round, walking around the local area and receiving donations of food from the residents. On my first day at the monastery I joined them, beckoned by the friendly Iranian monk.

The alms round I joined worked like this: three monks walked around with little metallic bowls to collect the donations. In front of them walked a layperson, in this case a child, banging a drum to alert people that the monks are coming. At the back there walked another layperson, in this case me, wheeling a big basket in which the monks place their donations when their bowls fill up. 

We walked around for about an hour, and by the end my basket had become pretty heavy. At every house we stopped, the residents gave the monks their donations and then got on their knees and placed their hands in prayer as the monks chanted their blessings. Not knowing Thai and not being a Buddhist I did not join in the chants, but I tried to stand respectfully at the back.

The monastery is clearly a focal point of community life in the area. On one of the days I was there I had the chance to see a ceremony for the full moon, an important part of Thai and Buddhist culture. A lot of local people came to the monastery to join in the evening chants, and then seek the abbot's blessing. After the chanting was over there was a dance performance held by local women in front of the monastery's chedi, as a Buddhist stupa is known in Thailand.

After the performance everyone, monks and lay people alike, circled the chedi clockwise, holding lanterns and chanting. Finally, dozens of Thailand's characteristic sky lanterns were released into the night sky, quite a sight to behold. The lanterns floated up until you could barely see them anymore. Apparently there is a concern in Thailand that they could be dangerous for airplanes, although no sky lantern has yet brought down a plane.

I had to leave the monastery after only six days, due to work-related obligations. On my final morning I left a donation. No one pressured me to do so, or even mentioned it. I asked the kitchen staff what I should do, and they gave me an envelope and said I could simply slip it into the donations box in the canteen with some money inside. No one knew how much I donated, or seemed to care. I then went and said goodbye to the abbot and the other meditators. 

While I am not a Buddhist or a follower of any organised religion, I found the willingness of the monks to allow people from all over the world to stay in their monastery for little apparent material reward, simply for the sake of spreading the Dharma as they see it, rather admirable. I have certainly never spent such a lot of time meditating, or alone with my thoughts, as I did in the six days I spent in Wat Sopharam. It was refreshing, and the effect lasted long after I had left the monastery and Chiang Mai for bustling Bangkok. 

A road in the surroundings of the temple

Monday, January 23, 2023

A trip to Wuhan

Last weekend I took a trip to Wuhan.

I had never been before, but Wuhan is in fact one of China's most important cities, both currently and historically. It has become the commercial and educational hub of Central China; it is also the city with the largest number of university students in the world, with over a million students spread out over its dozens of universities. 

The high-speed train network has made it much more convenient to take short city breaks across China. The fastest line now does the Beijing-Wuhan route in just four hours, amazingly little time given the huge distance involved. There is just one stop on the way, in Zhengzhou. The price, around 600 Yuan for a ticket, is not particularly cheap but still cheaper than flying. 

Unfortunately, I and the friend I was travelling with set off on a day when much of China was blanketed in thick air pollution. It was heavily polluted all the way from Beijing to Wuhan, to the extent that you could barely see anything out of the train windows. Air pollution is common in China, but it rarely covers such a huge swathe of the country in one go.

The view from my hotel window on the first day I arrived (above), and two days later (below)
The hotel where we stayed was excellently located next to the Hankou Bund, China's best-preserved colonial-era Bund (or waterfront) after the Shanghai Bund. Wuhan is traversed by the Yangtze River, and in the 19th century it became one of the so-called "treaty ports" that were forcibly opened up to foreign trade by the European powers. At the time it was made up of three cities, Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang, which were later merged to form Wuhan. Five foreign concessions, run by the UK, France, Germany, Russia and Japan and not subjected to Chinese laws, were established next to the Yangtze in Hankou, to the great displeasure of the Qing Dynasty's rulers who could do nothing about it.

The Bund has now become Wuhan's trendiest area, with cafes and nightclubs nestled among the 19th century European buildings and churches that are in many cases still intact. The German and Japanese concessions have mostly been built over, but the British, French and Russian areas are quite well preserved. Although Wuhan has a history that predates the European concessions by centuries and centuries, the European buildings remain the oldest architecture you are likely to see in the city. 

A street in the former German concession

After unpacking we went for a walk in the area, in spite of the pollution, and ate some 热干面 (hot dry noodles), the local specialty, at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. It tasted excellent. In the evening we headed across town to Wuhan Prison, a well-known bar where punk bands sometimes play live music. When we got there a DJ was performing. The bar is tiny, and it has the sort of grungy atmosphere that you rarely find nowadays in Beijing, with young foreigners and Chinese hanging out together. 

We barely saw any other foreign faces in Wuhan except for the ones in that bar, by the way. The city used to have quite a lot of foreign students, but most were evacuated or left after Covid began, and few have returned.

In the bar I got chatting to a young Moroccan man doing postgraduate studies in one of Wuhan's universities. He was one of those who didn't leave when Covid started. A sociable and multilingual young man, he told me how he had been lucky during the Zero Covid years because he lived off campus. Foreign students living on campuses throughout China were notoriously badly treated over that time, often entirely forbidden from leaving their campuses even when cities were not in lockdown.

He said that his university had long tried to push him to move to a dorm on campus, so they could control his movements, but he had found ways to refuse. When they summoned him to the campus, he would claim that he was in lockdown and had been told not to leave his house. On one occasion he left Wuhan, and got a call from the university telling him that he wasn't allowed to leave the city and should return at once. He told them that if they bought him a return ticket with their money, he would go back. They then relented.

The view from the top of the Yellow Crane Tower

The following day strong winds arrived and blew away the pollution, but the weather suddenly turned very cold, almost as cold as Beijing. Luckily our hotel room was well heated, but central heating isn't common in southern Chinese cities like Wuhan, and restaurants and other indoor environments could often be quite chilly.

After having lunch we decided to cross the 武汉长江大桥, the city's largest bridge over the Yangtze, on foot. The Yangtze is an enormous river, and it took about fifteen minutes to cross the bridge, which turned out to be quite painful in the Arctic winds. Wuhan's skyline seen from the middle of the Yangtze could rival Manhattan's, with skyscraper after skyscraper jostling for space. 

Once across the river we walked on to the Yellow Crane Tower, one of Wuhan's landmarks, made famous by being immortalised in the verses of various poets, including the celebrated Li Bai. The tower has existed since the second century CE in one form or another but, typically for China, the current tower was rebuilt recently, in 1981. It had plenty of visitors, and the view of the city from the top was quite impressive.

That evening it snowed, and the following morning the city was covered in snow. We decided to visit the museum of the Wuchang Uprising. The uprising, which as the name suggests started in Wuchang, one of the three cities that went on to make up Wuhan, marked the beginning of the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, which overthrew the Qing Dynasty and established the Republic of China. 

The museum is housed in a big modernist building, in front of a large square with a monument to the revolution. Between the snowy weather, the "socialist realist" style of the building and the huge empty square with the revolutionary monument, for a moment I felt like I was in Russia. 

On the other side of the square there is an old, European-style building built in 1909 to house Hubei's provincial assembly. After the revolution, the new government used it as its headquarters. It's now been turned into a sort of second museum, with displays on the revolution and what Wuhan was like at the time. Entry to both the building and the museum was free. 

The building that housed the revolutionary government, built in 1909

Some of the exhibits were quite interesting, and gave you a good picture of Wuhan in the dying days of the Qing Dynasty and the early days of the Republic. Political propaganda was never completely absent, of course, with the revolution often described as being a milestone on the path towards the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation", a slogan used a lot in recent years.

The Communist Party's official historiography considers the Xinhai Revolution to have been a positive event, the first step towards the real Revolution of 1949, even though it was led by its arch-rival KMT. Sun Yat-Sen, who led the revolution and founded the KMT, is still lionised in official propaganda, and in fact there was a statue of him outside the museum. This is in contrast to Chiang Kai-Shek, his successor as KMT leader who fought against Mao and then fled to Taiwan, who is reviled. 

The flag on the left was the official flag of the Wuchang Uprising. The 18 yellow dots symbolised China's 18 provinces, and the red and black symbolised blood and steel. The flag on the right, much better known, was the first national flag of the Republic of China. The five colours symbolised the country's five peoples (Han, Manchu, Tibetans, Hui and Mongols) 

The following morning, the weather had gotten warmer and sunnier. We were in Wuhan for four days, and the weather was quite different on each of them. I guess this proves the truth in the city's slogan (武汉,每天不一样, or "every day is different in Wuhan").

We still had a few hours to kill before taking the train back to Beijing, so we decided to go and take a look at the Huanan Seafood Market, the one where the Covid pandemic may have begun. We took a taxi to the neighbourhood, which is actually quite central and only took 20 minutes to reach from our hotel. 

The market turned out to be a nondescript two-storey building next to an intersection, dwarfed by the high-rises around it. Until January 2020, the ground floor of the building contained the seafood and wildlife market which was the epicentre of the world's first Covid outbreak; the second floor housed an eyeglasses market.

It turned out, unsurprisingly, that the seafood and wildlife market on the ground floor is now closed, probably for good. A blue metal barrier has been erected around it, so you can't see inside. There is, of course, no sign or reminder of any kind that this is the place where a pandemic that changed the world forever may have begun. The market is now just an anonymous building in an anonymous suburb with a metal barrier around it. 

On the second floor of the building, however, the eyeglasses market is still open and running. The building has a side entrance sitting next to a row of little shopts, through which you can reach the second floor. We decided to go in. There was a security guard at the entrance, but he didn't stop us. The second floor looked just like any cheap market anywhere in China, with dozens of little shops and stalls selling eyeglasses and competing for customers. It wasn't particularly busy. We walked around a bit, but at some point two security guards started following us. I became rather concerned at this point, and we decided to walk straight back out. 

I am certain that, in spite of the appearance of normality, the site is still considered sensitive, and the security guards have been warned to follow any foreigners who walk in. After all we might have been foreign journalists, there to report from "the place where Covid started". I was concerned enough that I insisted we walk away from the market and round a corner before calling a taxi, rather than hanging around in front of it.

The Huanan Seafood Market is the two-storey building in the centre of the photo

The Chinese authorities indicated the Huanan Seafood Market as the origin of the first cluster of Covid cases in January 2020. A few months later, however, they decided that no one knew where the Covid pandemic had begun, and actually it probably didn't even start in China. Unsurprisingly, the idea that the virus might have arisen at that market is no longer heard much in China today.

The entry on the Huanan Seafood Market in 百度百科, an attempt by Baidu to produce a Chinese Wikipedia, claims that researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences found in February 2020 that Covid did not originate at the market, but was brought there from elsewhere. It then claims that in March 2021, the WHO's report on the origins of Covid found that the market was not the point of origin of the virus, and that it is unclear how the virus got there. The entry then goes on to repeat the theory, often heard in China but not generally taken seriously anywhere else, that the virus could have first been brought to Wuhan from abroad on the packaging of a frozen product, and it reminds us that the Huanan market's supply chain included frozen and animal products from 20 countries.

The truth is that, regardless of what Baidu may claim, the WHO report never said that the market was definitely not Covid's point of origin. In fact, the report (which can easily be downloaded) states in its introduction that it is impossible to say: "No firm conclusion therefore about the role of the Huanan market in the origin of the outbreak, or how the infection was introduced into the market, can currently be drawn". The report, it bears mentioning, was based partly on a visit to Wuhan by a team of WHO experts who were not allowed to go anywhere on their own.

In reality, outside of China the theory that Covid originated in the Huanan Seafood Market remains the most popular one with serious researchers. In July last year, two peer-reviewed papers by an international team of scientists offered strong evidence suggesting that the virus was, indeed, first transmitted to humans from one of the wild animals at the market.

This theory should be far less politically controversial than the most popular alternative, in other words that Covid originated from a lab leak. Even so, the Chinese authorities do not want to hear of it. That's why it wasn't surprising to see that the Huanan Seafood Market remains standing, with nothing to suggest anything particular ever took place there; the seafood and wildlife market shut down as an embarrassment, but the eyeglasses market on the second floor still functioning as normal. 

After leaving the market we went back to our hotel, picked up our stuff and headed to the train station to take the high-speed train back to Beijing. Wuhan had definitely been worth the visit.