Weeks before the coronavirus became a national health crisis in China, authorities threatened a doctor, Li Wenliang, who warned about early cases. State media reported that Dr. Li was illegally spreading rumors.
That was a red flag for Bob Huang.
“People here tend to believe the government. Not me,” said Mr. Huang, who is 50 years old and lives with his mother, Zhang Wanrong, and her caretaker in Zhichang, a town of 300,000 in northern Zhejiang Province. “I’ve watched too many episodes of ‘The X-Files.’”
Mr. Huang is not like other people in Zhichang. He is a Chinese-born American and, as he put it, he doesn’t think like his neighbors. As Zhichang barricades itself from the outside world, he has watched with the bewilderment of an outsider, even if he shares his neighbors’ dry sense of humor about the situation.
Human interaction can be tough to find in a town barricaded from the rest of the world. Mr. Huang takes what he can get.
It begins with the volunteer guards outside his residential complex when he leaves home to buy groceries. Many wear red jackets with “volunteer” emblazoned across the back. Some are his neighbors. One of them is his dentist.
Sometimes this motley group of guards calls in reinforcements — cops in protective gear with Tasers. Mr. Huang refers to them as the “SWAT team.”
They don’t have much useful information, Mr. Huang said, but they have plenty of conspiracy theories.
One day, a guard paused to look at Mr. Huang’s passport, then looked up and scowled. “This pandemic is definitely caused by you American imperialists!” the guard told Mr. Huang. The virus was obviously a new biochemical weapon, the guard reasoned. He was only partly joking.
“He doesn’t like the U.S. or Americans,” Mr. Huang said.
The next day, the guard apologized. His facts were wrong. Greedy and reckless Chinese scientists at a high security biochemical lab in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, were behind the spread, the guard said. They had sold an infected test monkey to the live market where authorities believe the virus spread. As far as Mr. Huang could tell, the guard believed the story.
Another guard told Mr. Huang that he saw a memo from the same lab, which had been posted online. The Wuhan lab had a cure, too, the second guard argued, and scientists planned to sell it and make boatloads of money.
(Scientists from around the world have broadly rejected the idea that the coronavirus was made by humans.)
Mr. Huang has to pass through several more makeshift checkpoints just to get to the market. At each checkpoint, Mr. Huang must write down his personal information and have his temperature checked. He goes through the same routine when he returns home. A 10 minute journey now takes three times as long.
The guards might be ad hoc, but they take their jobs seriously. One day a drunk neighbor returned to Mr. Huang’s complex and refused to explain why he had been gone for more than a day. The guards called in eight cops to subdue the man.
“Yeah, I was there rubbernecking,” Mr. Huang said. “But I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. Sad.”
Sure, the checkpoints and lockdown might seem extreme, Mr. Huang said, but they aren’t infallible. He has a friend in a nearby town who sneaks out to go swimming in the river every day.
One day last week, a man from a neighboring province walked into town after a four-day trek along smaller roads not subject to road checks. “There are plenty of cracks to be found,” he said.
The biggest problem, Mr. Huang said, is the town’s deep combination of listlessness and loneliness. Human interactions are becoming fewer and farther between as local officials change the rules to try to contain the virus. Now, each family can only send one member out to buy food once every two days.
“Everyone here is so bored,” Mr. Huang said with a sigh.
A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Mr. Huang got married in the United States and became a naturalized citizen. When his father died in 2003, he and his wife moved back to China to take care of his mother, choosing Zhicheng as their base.
In 2012, his mother was left paralyzed from a brain hemorrhage and a caretaker moved in. Since Mr. Huang’s wife died from colon cancer two years ago, it is now just him, his mother and her caretaker.
Mr. Huang would prefer not to be in China right now. He has told foreign friends in cities like Shanghai and Beijing to leave China if they can.
“There is something my father told me a long time ago,” said Mr. Huang. His father was a Communist Party member and local official who described the corruption he witnessed. “What he told me was that in China there is no socialism or communism. He called it ‘elite controlled capitalism.’”
For now Mr. Huang will stay with his mother. “But eventually, when I retire,” he said, “I don’t want to live inside a country that has all this.”