Inside China’s Secret Covid Detention Centre

The risk of being returned to confinement that came with accessing China’s contact-tracing matrix was so significant that Financial Times Shanghai correspondent Thomas Hale had to make compromises like nowhere else on the globe. Here’s a look inside China’s secret Covid detention center.

Inside China’s Secret Covid Detention Centre

After Financial Times Shanghai correspondent Thomas Hale was detained by President Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid regime, the western world was handed a rare, close view inside the boundaries of a Chinese Covid-19 detention camp.

Not that Hale’s test results had come back positive. The mere designation of “close contact” was sufficient to condemn him to ten days in a secret island camp known only as “P7.”

Hale offers a primer on how China’s system is organized:

“PCR testing in China is an almost daily ritual and testing booths are common on many street corners. They look vaguely like food stalls, except they’re larger and cube-shaped and a worker inside sits behind Plexiglas cut with two arm holes.

They are merely the surface machinery of a vast monitoring system. China’s digital Covid pass resembles track-and-trace programmes elsewhere, except it’s mandatory and it works. Using Alipay or WeChat, the country’s two major apps, a QR code is linked to each person’s most recent test results. The code must be scanned to get in anywhere, thereby tracking your location. Green means you can enter; red means you have a problem.”

Hale began his descent into Covid lunacy with a simple excursion to a Shanghai bar. Someone who had also been at the bar, it seems, tested positive. The authorities were aware Hale had been there as well thanks to the tracking technology.

There were just 18 cases in Shanghai, a city of 26 million people, on the day Hale was in the pub, making it seem as though he had “won” some dreadful lottery.

Authorities contacted a few days after his pub outing to establish that he had indeed been there. He was informed that authorities were approaching the following day by a caller from the Shanghai Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Hale was poised to be “taken away” as the Chinese phrase for the situation goes.

Then, a member of the hotel staff called to inform him that he was unable to leave since his mere presence had put the establishment under lockdown. The hazmat suit-clad men then arrived and led him out of the hotel through the barricaded entrance after leading him down an empty hallway to a staff elevator. He was told to get on a small bus being driven by another man who was wearing a hazmat suit.

Hale accompanied the other condemned travelers—none of whom had actually gotten a positive test—in their group. His dreams of being brought to a quarantine hotel were crushed. After a more than hour-long drive, he arrived to a little road in the middle of a field where many huge buses were lined up in front of them.

The driver stepped off the bus, secured it behind him, and walked away. Another passenger was astonished to learn that Hale was from the United Kingdom: “They brought you here? With a foreign passport? ” Hours passed on the increasingly frigid bus before it eventually moved again at 2 a.m.

A fellow detainee gestured to three rows of wire above the boundary fences, beyond which were only towering trees as he trudged along to his designated lodgings.

Inside China’s Secret Covid Detention Centre 2
Hale counted 10 alleyways, each with some 26 cabins (Thomas Hale/Financial Times)

Hale’s new residence was a shipping container-style box lifted by short stilts. A camera was trained on him and every other door. There wasn’t any hot water.

“Inside my 196-sq-ft cabin there were two single beds, a kettle, an air-conditioning unit, a desk, a chair, a bowl, two small cloths, one bar of soap, an unopened duvet, a small pillow, a toothbrush, one tube of toothpaste and a roll-up mattress roughly the thickness of an oven glove.

The floor was covered in dust and grime. The whole place shook when you walked around, which I soon stopped noticing. The window was barred, though you could still lean out. There was no shower.

…The bed was made of an iron frame and six planks of wood, and the mattress was so thin you had to lie completely flat. The bed frame, meanwhile, was impossible to lean against.”

Inside China’s Secret Covid Detention Centre 3
Hale was sentenced to live here for 10 days, only because he allegedly was in loosely-defined “contact” with some unknown person who tested positive (Thomas Hale/Financial Times)

But he was delighted to discover that the internet connection was 24 times faster than the one at his hotel. The camp personnel was not allowed to leave or accept deliveries there, just like Hale. One employee claimed to make the equivalent of $32 each day.

Inside China’s Secret Covid Detention Centre 4
A camp staffer in hazmat gear walks by Hale’s cabin (Thomas Hale/Financial Times)

Hale made an effort to determine whether his status as a foreign journalist may help him evade detention. The employee he asked was perplexed by the question’s very premise, but we can not fault Hale for trying.

Hale highlights some significant elements of daily life in Covid detention:

  • Every morning, an industrial-grade machine blasted disinfectant on the cabin windows and front stairs, waking him with a “lawnmower-like noise.”
  • Two employees arrived at around 9:00 am to conduct the PCR testing. A positive outcome would have required moving to a new category of detention.
  • Meals were provided at 8 a.m., 12 p.m., and 5 p.m.
  • Hale followed a rigid schedule that included language study, writing, exercise, music, online chess, and then reading or watching Amazon Prime entertainment.

The routine worked nicely for him. His neighbors gradually stopped eating breakfast, and some could be seen pacing their wobbly boxes at night.

He did experience some psychological distress due to the uncertainty of his exit. Although he was initially told seven days, it turned out to be 10.

Hale enjoyed the warmth of the hotel’s shower and its bed when he was released and returned to civilization. However, as he went out for a celebratory supper, he stumbled, pacing the street as he thought about the risk of being returned to confinement that came with accessing China’s contact-tracing matrix.

He opted on takeout from a steakhouse, where an employee assured he would not have to swipe his code if he ordered takeout.

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2 Responses

  1. It’s impossible to tell whether there is any satire behind what Hale has reported, but it sounds like there is total buy-in on his part, based on his words. Complete and total slavery? 24/7 surveillance? Iron control by government? All normal, all welcome….and “it works”?? Wow. Talk about Stockholm Syndrome. Or trauma bonding. No human with a reasonably intact psyche would be willing to remain in a job under such conditions. Clearly, there is something very wrong with Hale’s mental health. And if he is doing this job based on a twisted sense of martyrdom….ditto to there being something wrong with his mental health. A martyr complex is one of the most damaging and insidious of all shadow archetypes.
    – What is wrong with the Chinese people? Where is the rage fueling them to rise up in a huge wave and cast off the shackles of the oppressive mafia government that controls away every single bit of meaning in life? They have been slaves for far too long.

  2. Only the west thinks China has “Secret Covid Detention Centre” or “secret prison” or slave labor, in China they are not secret, they don’t give a shit what the west thinks about there detention centers or prison or who they kill or maim. I lived in China, this is all part of what China, the politics and the culture is, most Chinese except this kind of rule especially Chinese citizens who belong to the party which is many times more than don’t, and just because we don’t like in the west, they don’t care what we like or don’t like.

    What ever gave the west any idea or thought we should tell anyone what they should or should not do, we need to clean our own house first, America is evil too.

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