Inside China’s reopening: A Shenzhen entrepreneur gets a 6 a.m. throat swab and mandatory quarantine

May 4, 2020, 9:00 AM UTC

This is part of a series on China’s emergence from coronavirus lockdowns, featuring seven people who are living it.

China’s southern city of Shenzhen is known for its ubiquitous surveillance. The city tracks citizens via facial recognition cameras, sensors, and cell phone data, and then feeds the information into a central dashboard that city officials use to police and track city residents. But Zach Bielak, an American tech entrepreneur who’s lived in Shenzhen for three years, says the protocol in place to scan inbound travelers for the coronavirus in late March was intrusive, even by those standards.

When the 27-year-old landed on a flight from Bangkok to Guangzhou, 85 miles northwest of Shenzhen, on March 23, airport officials triaged passengers as soon as the aircraft came to a halt. After boarding the plane, officials slapped colored stickers on passports designating travelers’ nationality and where they had traveled from. Passengers were called off the plane by name or according to sticker color and taken through temperature checks in the terminal. They then waited in line for hours, filling out paperwork regarding their personal information, travel histories, and plans in China before finally passing through border security.

Authorities waiting outside the airport steered passengers to buses that would deliver them to quarantine centers closest to their homes: Bielak was off to Shenzhen.

Once there, authorities escorted him to a city hotel, where the lobby was divided in two; one side for quarantine guests and the other for regular guests.

He got to his room at 4 a.m. At 6 a.m. health authorities “came pounding on my door…and shoved a swab down my throat,” said Bielak, who’d fled China for Southeast Asia in mid-January amid the then-emerging epidemic. “That was fun.”

Bielak stayed in the same hotel for two nights until his COVID-19 test came back negative. But his period of isolation wasn’t over. From the hotel, police escorted him to a friend’s empty apartment to undergo a mandatory two-week quarantine. (In a stroke of bad timing, Bielak had been searching for a new apartment when he left China in January.)

In quarantine, Bielak took his temperature twice a day and shared the results in a group chat on Chinese messaging app WeChat, which included 30 or so other recent arrivals to China and was monitored by health officials. Bielak received daily calls and text messages from a sender he assumed was a community health care worker who reminded him to keep reporting his temperature to the WeChat group. If he did not, he would be “subjected to legal measures by the public security authorities,” according to paperwork he received; Bielak says authorities did not expand on what those measures might entail.

Walmart employees check temperatures and scan the health code apps of shoppers at a Shenzhen outlet on April 25. Photo by Zach Bielak

Over the course of the outbreak, the southern Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen confirmed 422 cases of coronavirus with three deaths, according to Chinese media. The city experienced fewer cases than the epicenter in Wuhan and other urban areas like Shanghai and Beijing, but nonetheless came to a standstill for more than a month during the outbreak.

Shenzhen shut down all nonessential businesses in early February. Some residents had to secure passes from their landlords to exit their apartment buildings for trips to the grocery store. Restaurants were closed to all dine-in service until the last week of March.

Bielak found a different Shenzhen when he emerged from quarantine on April 8. He said the city was functioning in almost the exact same way as before he left China. Except now, he needed to download a health code app and everyone was wearing surgical masks.

The health code app in Shenzhen is called Shen Ai Ni, or Shenzhen Loves You, and Bielak says it is necessary to show his code in order to enter malls, higher-end restaurants, apartment or office buildings, and public transportation, but not always necessary for smaller shops and cafés. Using a color-coded system, the app tells officials how likely it is that the user has come into contact with a coronavirus carrier.

Bielak says that crowded bars and private, mask-free gatherings in Shenzhen signal that life in the city has largely returned to normal. Yet he still feels a palpable fear in the city that the virus will return, and some locals are especially suspicious of foreigners, as imported cases of the coronavirus bolster Beijing’s new narrative of COVID-19 as an external threat.

In nearby Guangzhou, a small outbreak in the city’s African immigrant population—10,000 or so live there—ignited racist backlash against the community. Africans say they are unable to enter establishments like restaurants and malls, are forced to sleep on the streets after being denied entry to hotels, and have been hauled from their homes to mandatory quarantine facilities.

On April 12, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian issued a statement saying that China has “zero tolerance for discrimination” and that Guangzhou authorities were “working promptly to improve” treatment of Africans in the city. A few days later, Zhao said that foreign media and officials were exaggerating the incidents in Guangzhou to “sow discord between China and African countries.”

Bielak, who is white, says he has not experienced such overt racism personally, and he’s found Shenzhen to be generally “much more open-minded” in attitudes toward outsiders than Guangzhou. Still, he has noticed that locals won’t ride the elevator with him or scoot away from him on the subway.

“I was supposed to visit a friend last week, and the parents said, ‘You can’t come, because the building isn’t letting foreigners in,’” Bielak said. “Why are [people] scared of us now?”

Bielak says he has plans to travel within China now that he’s back. When he does, he won’t be subject to the same quarantine measures he experienced on his reentry to Shenzhen. Domestic travel is far more relaxed.

International travel, on the other hand, is off the table for now. China banned entry to nearly all foreigners in March, so Bielak would be blocked from coming back if he left. But he assumes he hasn’t had his last 6 a.m. throat swab. So long as the pandemic exists, he expects health scans and quarantine measures to be the norm for travelers to China, especially after foreigners are allowed back in.

Read the other stories in this Fortune series:

—A Wuhan college student still avoids restaurants and public transit
—A tech founder in Chengdu returns to a changed workplace
—A Shanghai consultant eschews a contact-tracing app
—A startup operations manager in Hangzhou sees automation accelerating
—A Beijing tech worker needs a quarantine certificate to dine out
—A Harbin university professor confronts a second lockdown

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