TAIPEI – As coronavirus cases rose in Shanghai earlier this year and the city's lockdown stretched from weeks to months, Leah Zhang’s feeling of suffocation grew.
Though she could walk around campus freely, she was robbed of weekends spent seeing concerts in the city. She couldn’t stomach the cafeteria food — too sweet for her taste buds accustomed to the spicy Sichuanese cuisine she grew up with.
When her boyfriend told her he would “always trust” Shanghai’s government, she broke up with him. After censors took down a video compilation called Voices of April with some of the most defining moments of the lockdown, including crying infants being separated from their parents during quarantine, Zhang broke down.
“I cried to the point where I can’t trust anything anymore," said Zhang, who asked to be identified by her English name out of fear of government retribution for discussing a sensitive topic. "I can only trust myself, I can’t trust anyone else, or any government.”
Zhang knows that her experience was hardly unique — or even particularly extreme — but it gives a glimpse of how China's stringent “zero COVID” policy pushed ordinary people to a breaking point, one that led to nationwide protests late last month.
Over 26 million people in Shanghai were confined for two months in one of the country's strictest and most visible lockdowns. And over the past three years, various Chinese cities have suffered similar fates, as the government held fast to the policy, which aims to stop transmission of the virus through severe isolation procedures and constant mass testing.
In the wake of a wave of public anger not seen for decades, the government announced Wednesday that it would relax some of the most onerous restrictions, in a dramatic shift.
But perhaps now more than ever, Chinese people face a confusing mass of measures, as local officials struggle to balance the latest policy directives with the fear of an uncontrolled outbreak.
It was exactly the uncertainty that Zhang found difficult to bear — and permanently changed her relationship to her home, even prompting her to decide to emigrate.
In early March, with cases rising in Shanghai, Zhang’s university sealed off academic buildings, moved classes online, and locked the front gate to the campus.
She knows she was lucky. Some migrant workers chose to live on the streets so they could continue to work rather than become trapped at home, while middle-class apartment dwellers were forced to beg for essential medicines for those with chronic illnesses.
By contrast, she and her fellow students could walk around the campus and never experienced the food shortages that plagued some Shanghai residents confined to their homes — though metal sheeting around the perimeter ensured they didn't go out.
After a virus test each morning, Zhang turned on her computer for her classes — but she struggled to pay any attention. Lunch was usually at one of the restaurants on campus.
Afternoons were filled with discussions with classmates on what would happen next or doomscrolling on her phone at one of the exercise fields, she said.
Her greatest escape, she said, was smoking cigarettes after dinner.
For weeks, there was no end in sight. “Every week they’d issue a new notice saying, ‘Next week, we will continue this style of management,’” she said.
While she never went hungry, she missed her easy access to the foods she loved. She would binge at one of the restaurants on the campus, worried each meal there would be the last one — and eventually the eateries did start to close in April because they couldn't get the supplies they needed.
Her favorite was a malatang shop, which sells veggies dripping in chili- and mala-peppercorn infused oil. It shut down for almost two months. She also missed bubble tea from another shop that closed, and fresh bread, recalling that day in mid-May when it returned to campus after several weeks.
Meanwhile, she was sucked in by a constant stream of posts online about people suffering in the wider city.
Her concern and frustrations separated her from others around her.
Her roommate, for instance, was satisfied that they could eat without worry and move about on campus.
“Some schools at that time had sealed off the dorms, and she said, ‘Compared to these people, we’re already living a good life, why are you still complaining?’” Zhang said. “She felt this is a life she can accept, but I absolutely cannot accept this.”
Her boyfriend's conviction that they could trust the government made no sense to her as she consumed story after story of suffering and brutality.
Reports of pandemic workers beating a pet corgi to death. Elderly people with severe medical needs being forced to quarantine in facilities equipped only with portable toilets and sometimes without basic amenities like showers. The suicide of a local health department official. A 55-year-old man who lived alone dying in his apartment because his daughter could not get permission to leave her building and take him to the emergency room.
As these examples built up — and got deleted by censors — people created a virtual archive to record the stories.
In light of these realities, her boyfriend's words made him seem like a complete stranger, she said.
In late May, when the city finally began lifting some restrictions, Zhang made a plan to go home to her parents in southwestern Chongqing. Several, in fact.
“I had to come up with all sorts of plans, Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, so that if I came across any emergency situation, I could still go home,” she said.
Emerging from Shanghai's quarantine was a strange journey, she said. At the city's Hongqiao train station, Zhang was faced with a sea of people in white, medical-grade protective suits that have become synonymous with the virus in China. The universities had given the suits to students as protection. Zhang decided to just don a face mask.
“I was surrounded by all these hazmat suits, and it was really really terrifying,” she said. But "once I got on that train, I felt, ‘oh I’m already halfway home.’”
After the train journey, a night's stay in a hotel at the halfway point, and a plane ride, she finally landed in Chongqing, where government workers drove her to a hotel for a seven-day quarantine. They erected a plastic barrier in the car that kept her in a bubble.
The quarantine was hard, but it was bearable because it had an end. She was reunited with her parents on June 1.
She has decided to apply to study abroad for a graduate degree — in the hope that she would never endure another lockdown. As she awaits admissions decisions with nervousness, Zhang said she wants to figure out a way to immigrate more permanently.
“There were a lot of the things that happened during Shanghai’s lockdown in April, some things that were really unacceptable," she said. “After April, it set my conviction that I definitely need to leave this country.”
Last week, Zhang got a call from Shanghai's disease control agency saying she was a close contact of someone who tested positive at a concert she attended. She found herself in quarantine once again.