Some of the most rugged landscapes in Asia can be found along China's 1,300-mile border withMyanmar. The mountains rise as high as 19,000 feet above sea level, fast- running rivers flow between steep cliffs, and dense forests shelter giant hornbills, snub-nosed monkeys, and elephants. The region has not been a priority for economic development for either country. One of the only areas of flat land in China is the city of Ruili, home to more than a quarter million people. The city hugs the border, which separates it from Muse. They are a binational urban area that is similar to El Paso and Jurez on the US- Mexico boundary. For a long time, throngs of people crossed every day: Burmese workers looking for factory jobs, Chinese residents visiting relatives, and traders of both nationalities carrying a huge range of goods.

The traffic has stopped completely. One of the key planks of China's Covid Zero policy is the closing of the country's borders, which is meant to keep the coronaviruses out of the country. There is no better example of the impact of the strategy in the world. The mayor dubbed the Steel Great Wall after putting up spans of sheet metal, barracks for guards, and barbed wire along the boundary with Muse. The local government in China imposed some of the strictest restrictions in the country. Over the course of a year, the residents of Ruili were locked up seven times and had to stay in their homes for over 100 days. According to a news site in China, a baby was tested six dozen times by his first birthday.

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Swabbing travelers at Changshui International Airport, the main transport hub for Yunnan province.
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Boxes of collected swab tests at a local community center.

Most Chinese cities have recorded a small number of deaths from Covid 19. The eradication of the virus has been a genuine public-health achievement, but it has also cost a lot. The city's best-known tourist attraction, the jade markets, had far more merchants than customers when the businessweek visited recently. The local economic output went down in 2011. After six months with no recorded cases, the authorities relaxed most day-to-day restrictions, but in mid-September the area went back into a state of emergency due to an infectious disease. No one knows when or if the border will reopen. The Steel Great Wall might be a thing of the past.

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Razor wire at a checkpoint near Ruili.

Although their policies have been extreme, they have been in line with China's stance. Australia and Singapore are two of the nations that took a zero-tolerance approach to the coronaviruses. The president of China, who is expected to have his leadership extended by at least five years at the Communist Party congress in October, often trumpets his country's minuscule death toll. Even though Covid Zero has wreaked domestic consumption and snarled international supply chains, he has not abandoned it.

Unless there is a change of heart or an end to the epidemic, the 1.4 billion people who rule will have to adapt to restrictions on trade and travel for the foreseeable future. Severe restrictions on movement are becoming commonplace, with recent lockdowns targeting many cities.

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Amy Gadsden is an associate vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania and a former special adviser to the US Department of State. She says that the pattern of political and social engagement in Communist China has been revived by the epidemic. Covid Zero shows the party state's ability to intervene in citizens' lives in terrible ways.

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Fencing next to a road parallel to the Ruili River.

There are rice and sugar cane fields along the border between China andMyanmar. Many locals from the Dai and Jingpo minorities crossed easily and undetected along the so-called paths of convenience. Life is still shaped by the border. In the most recent year for which data is available, around 50,000 people from the country were officially registered to live in the city. Chinese authorities have never condoned illegal crossing, but they have done little to stop them because many businesses in the area depend on cheap labor from Thailand.

The border was a factor in shaping the course of the Pandemic. On a cloudy morning in September 2020, a woman identified in government releases only by her name, Yang, set off from Muse with her three children and two nannies to visit her sister. The national border had been closed to travelers since the end of March, but Yang was able to cross the river into China. She lost her sense of smell and taste a few days after she arrived. She was found to have Covid when she was taken to the hospital. It was the first time that officials had been able to identify someone who had tested positive.

Chinese officials were proud of the fact that they had contained Covid after the first outbreak. They protected their population while Europe and the US killed hundreds of thousands of people. The government went into emergency mode. People are not allowed to leave or enter the city. Everyone in the central districts was ordered to stay home. Only one other person was found to have the disease, and the lockdown was lifted after that.

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A checkpoint near Jiegao Port.

The fence that was built along the border was a temporary structure that would be removed once the situation was deemed to be safe. Supplies of lumber, jade, and farm produce are important to the regional economy and they were allowed to remain open.

The next Covid case was reported in March 2021. The person with the disease was a citizen of the country. It isn't clear if the individual crossed into China legally. The case was viewed as a failure by local officials to police the border by the central government. A warning to administrators all over China about the consequences of allowing infections was given after the Communist Party chief in Ruili was fired and then named and shamed.

Zhai Yulong increased the amount of money spent on virus-control by sixfold, bringing it up to 2.12 billion yuan by the end of the year. The city imposed at least six more lockdowns over the course of a year. Businesses such as electronics stores and car repair shops remained shut for a year, along with schools, after the border wall was built. Thousands of guards now patrol the structure, and heat-sensing cameras monitor it, as well as the city setting up a system that tracks the movements of all residents and visitors, partly by using facial recognition cameras at the entrances of venues. It's still being used.

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Facial recognition and ID checkpoint while departing the city.
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A checkpoint at the Delong night market.

Businessweek reporters were accompanied by local government staff almost everywhere they went, an indication of how politically sensitive its Covid policies have become. It is difficult to know how their presence might have affected what people said during the interviews.

The manager of the Daxing supermarket, which is a branch of a regional chain, said that the store had refrained from raising its prices during the lock downs. Residents are not allowed to leave their homes for any reason apart from mandatory testing, which is what Chinese lockdowns have been like. The officials were enthusiastic in their enforcement of the rules. Large retailers such as Daxing were able to deliver groceries to restaurants and small markets. Qiu and her staff filled hundreds of orders a day. She said she got calls from customers who said they were out of food. Qiu thought they were lying. She remembered that they couldn't have anything. She tried to make sure they got their orders in time.

China's Covid Zero Frontier

Dai Rongli, a former deputy mayor of Ruili, wrote a post in October of 2021. He said that the city was carrying a disproportionate burden in keeping the virus out of China because it was on the border. Dai said in a TV interview that some of his former colleagues in the municipal government were so overwhelmed with preventing infections that they hadn't been home for months. Dai was the first Chinese citizen to hear of the situation in Ruili, and his statements caused an uproar on social media, with commenters expressing shock at the extent of testing there. It was a rare indicator of the popularity of Covid Zero policies in the country. Dai's descriptions of the situation were out of date according to a statement issued by the city government. He didn't reply to questions.

China's leaders are aware of how their policies will affect the economy. In March of this year, the country's wealthiest and most vibrant metropolitan area was locked down for two months, which slowed the national economy and showed that no one would be spared from the strictest forms of viral control. The gross domestic product barely increased in the second quarter. Wealthy residents are looking to move abroad and immigration consultants are reporting a boom in business. In the last few months, national officials have taken steps to cut scurvy times, promote spending and investment, and punish local bureaucrats for overstepping their bounds.

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A public hand-washing station in Ruili.

Even though it has shown no hesitation in imposing coercive measures, it has stopped short of requiring vaccinations. Only 61% of citizens over 80 have had two shots, all of them with Chinese-made vaccines that have proven less effective. The risk is still high. A large outbreak would strain the health-care system because hospitals are under-resourced. If the omicron variant were to spread in China without mass testing and lockdowns, it could result in as many as 1.6 million deaths. The Communist Party has placed administrative competence at the core of its political pitch since the 1990s, and a viral catastrophe on that scale would test that.

China's approach continues to be the right one according to the president. The president said that the country achieved the best performance in the world in coordinating economic development and epidemic response.

Everbright Headwear, which supplies hats with the logos of the New York Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys, and other teams, opened a factory in 2019. As wages rose and the working-age population was constrained by the legacy of the one-child policy, the company followed an increasingly common path. It was difficult to hire in the province where Everbright has its headquarters, but the company was able to hire a lot of people who were in China. They would be paid $450 a month, half of what a Chinese employee would demand.

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The factory floor at Everbright Headwear.
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40% of Everbright's production capacity would be taken up by more than 1,000 employees, according to Chen Xile, the factory manager. The company sometimes fills custom orders for top athletes, among other services. The border closing brought attrition. If a loved one had been killed in the country's civil conflict, they couldn't come back to work. Chen was desperate for replacements as Everbright was down to less than 300 personnel. He said that his staffing policy now amounted to "if you're human, you're hired." Everbright was forced to move most of its production to Haiti and Laos because of the lack of interest in making hats for low wages in the local area. The company's main production base is in the Laotian factory which has grown to 4,000 workers. Chen wanted to be in China. It was important that labor was available. Volume is all that matters. Everything is difficult if you can't get volume up.

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The gem trade at Duo Bao Zhi Cheng market.

Jade, which has long been prized in China, particularly for jewelry, is one of the most important parts of the economy. The largest jade producer in the world is also the largest jade producer in the world. Many merchants at the largest jade jewelry market in the country were already shifting their operations to the internet prior to the swine flu outbreak. Jade dealers have become some of China's most enthusiastic livestreamers, creating what are essentially smartphone-friendly QVC broadcasts, with hosts interacting with viewers through a chat function. Do you want to see a bracelet? Text the host any questions you might have and then negotiate for a better price. The local color of jade sales makes them attractive to some buyers.

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Livestreaming gem trades at Yangyanghao market.
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Li said he started with a traditional jade stall at the market. During her summer break from school, her daughter tried to sell things on livestreams. She dropped out because of the money she made in a month, and because her father wouldn't stop her. 80% of the jade they sold was online.

The jade market was closed in the spring of 2021. The trade more or less shut down for over a year due to the difficulty of sending orders from locked down apartment buildings. According to the Chinese government, Covid can be spread on the surface of consumer products.

Cross-border shipments have resumed after the jade market reopened. The market was going to reopen, and Li was excited. I had been at my house for a year. He was hoping to get back to pre-pandemic levels.

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Customers shine specialized flashlights to inspect raw stones at the Delong night market.
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Dealers at the night market.

Normality in the country beyond is not as good for everyone. It took a single positive test for the government to start the September lock down. The 21 million residents of Chengdu were confined to their homes after a flare-up of infections shut down a vibrant hub of industry and culture.

China's leaders are willing to pay the high price of Covid Zero and citizens have no choice but to go along. Businessweek was able to interview a jade dealer without the help of local officials. He said he would do what the government told him to do. He said there was no point in worrying about his future since he had no control over it. He said thatili is now the safest place in China because we stopped everything.