My wife met me off the overnight train from Beijing. ‘It’s been ages,’ she said. ‘Let’s go and have breakfast somewhere.’ How nice, I thought. But breakfast was slow – spun-out slow – and she kept looking at her watch. And when breakfast turned into a boat trip, and a boat trip became a shopping expedition, I began to tire. I was still wearing the clothes I’d slept in, and I hadn’t seen our three-year-old daughter for a week. Then the truth came out: I wasn’t allowed home until lunchtime. Liu Hong’s mother had read that the Sars virus can live for four hours on clothes and bags. I was lucky: a couple of weeks later it became clear that the virus can survive on surfaces for up to 24 hours.

When we finally got to the flat, my clothes were taken off me. ‘They need a wash, don’t they?’ my mother-in-law said. Ten minutes later, her husband took me to the window with a grin and showed me what this ‘wash’ entailed: my still dirty clothes and bag were hanging from a line in the open air, being spray-gunned with disinfectant.

The Great Sars Scare of 2003 had started with a shock a couple of weeks earlier. We were eating supper in the kitchen. As usual, the main seven o’clock news bulletin was on in the background. I was barely concentrating: I was tired of trying to follow the Iraq war through layers of Arabic and English dubbed into Chinese. Tonight the bulletin began with an announcement from Wen Jiabao, China’s Premier; later he was shown visiting hospitals where everyone wore a white face-mask. Everything seemed different after that. We knew of the existence of a new and atypical kind of pneumonia thanks to the Internet and the Hong Kong newspapers, but the Chinese media had been silent on the subject. Now the Government had made it plain that something was wrong; but since no one trusted their reassurances, over-reaction was the only option. Fei Dien was what people called the disease: ‘atypical’. Rumour had it that there’d already been one covered-up case in this small city in the far North-East of China, more than five hundred miles from Beijing. If here, where else, and how many?

My mother-in-law immediately forbade us to take our daughter to Beijing, where we were supposed to meet friends off a plane; that meant her mum couldn’t go either. According to the Government there were about two hundred cases there – the WHO thought the number was nearer four hundred – in a population of 13 million. So I went to Beijing alone. It was a good time to visit: empty tourist sites, no queues in restaurants. On my last day I was in the Summer Palace when my mobile rang. The official figure for Sars cases had jumped to a thousand almost overnight – probably a result of previous underreporting – and the Mayor of Beijing had been sacked. This may well have been the first time since the Revolution that anyone really senior had lost their job for incompetence, rather than because of political in-fighting.

Everybody on the train back to the North-East had their home address and phone number taken by the carriage guard. Almost everyone was wearing a face-mask. I spent the night brooding about the proximity of unknown people and the poorly circulated air. Hypochondria is infectious, I thought.

Over the following weekend – 26-27 April – things started to get odd. Each day began with thick fog, pushed unwillingly aside by a cold sun. Police cars circled the streets broadcasting announcements through loudspeakers, exhorting us to be vigilant, and hygienic, and to build up our immune systems. On Saturday I heard that schoolchildren had been asked to look out for any outsiders in their area and report them to their neighbourhood committee. My wife’s niece said: ‘We had a foreigner at our house last week’ – meaning me. Luckily her father distracted them.

Looking out of the window on Sunday morning I saw a group of people in pink livery running down the street in a phalanx. Two red flags led the way. Revolution? No, the staff of a nearby hotel were responding to the Government’s call for people to ‘exercise vigorously to improve their immune systems’.

Everyone was glued to the TV, which was wall-to-wall Sars. Programmes were interrupted with calls to trace everyone who had travelled on this train or that bus. Yet the news was also filled with half-truths: a run on traditional Chinese medicines was mentioned, but no one said anything about the widely rumoured run on staple foods. At the end of each bulletin, there was a montage of images: a sick man in bed giving a smile and a V for Victory; people in face-masks going responsibly about their daily lives; leaders congratulating hospital staff. All against a background of hope-in-a-time-of-darkness music.

Conspiracies were everywhere. In Hong Kong they blamed Guangzhou for the virus; in Guangzhou they blamed Hong Kong. Beijing people blamed Southerners: ‘It’s their food,’ they said, ‘they’ll eat anything.’ And in the North-East, everyone was nervous of people from Beijing. There were rumours of roadblocks: some said Beijing itself would be put under quarantine. The new mayor appeared on TV to deny this, and so people started to say that the roadblocks had been requested by neighbouring provinces rather than imposed by central Government.

On Monday my wife went out as usual, intending to continue her research into traditional Chinese medicine. She returned half an hour later: no strangers were allowed into the hospitals. At one, a wide-eyed doctor in white overalls had appeared, shouting: ‘The last patient in here had an unidentified fever – get out!’

An hour or two later, my father-in-law heard on the local news that each neighbourhood committee in our province, Liaoning, was to go from house to house looking for people who had recently arrived from outside the city; the households in question would be put in quarantine for ten days. I had been in Beijing five days before, and was just about the most conspicuous outsider in the city.

The house-to-house search didn’t materialise, but it was a warning: things were only going to get worse. After all, this had happened when there still weren’t any known cases within a hundred miles. We booked seats on the next available flight out: it wasn’t the virus so much as living with the reaction to it that was getting us down. My in-laws worried about how to get us to Beijing airport without going near any infected areas. I was restless, perhaps selfishly so. But we agreed to follow the advice of our elders: they know how this country works; besides, my mother-in-law is a doctor. And she also knows from experience what the country can be like when it rouses itself for one of its periodic upheavals. They decided we should stay put for two days, then drive through the night down the new motorway and straight to the airport without going into the city centre. That way, we’d hardly be breathed on by outsiders, and the only worries would be roadblocks and travel restrictions. We could land at Heathrow with a clear conscience.

I was lucky not to have been quarantined: the neighbourhood committees have a more relaxed grip in the economic development zone where we live, because there are few state businesses, and most homes are privately owned. Many people’s lives elsewhere are regulated far more closely.

A shadow had seemed to roll over the country that weekend. But then things lightened up. Even the weather responded: a night of heavy rain, and then clear sunshine. The police cars stopped circling, businesses no longer felt the need to show their good intentions by making their staff run round the block. We popped into town. No face-masks; everyone shopping happily, preparing for the May Day holiday, which had been shortened to two days to avoid large movements of people.

And as things relaxed, odd gaps between policy and practice appeared. A cousin who was ‘in quarantine’ – he attended one of the colleges in Beijing that had been closed – came to say goodbye to us. My mother-in-law disappeared with our passports and came back with certificates from the health authorities to say that all three of us were clear of Sars. None of us had been checked; I had been in Beijing a week before – so much for rigour.

The car was filled with provisions. My mother-in-law carefully added layers to the face-masks. A relative in Beijing was briefed to expect a call if a roadblock prevented us from crossing the Municipality border: he would drive out and pick us up, a midnight transfer of refugee foreigners.

There were trailers on TV for a special May Day programme: called simply ‘We Are Chinese’, it was intended to encourage the nation to pull together ‘in this time of national crisis’. I know the kind of thing: a Maoist/global capitalist hybrid, with the latest boy band singing the national anthem and performing an anodyne dance routine. On the Internet there were rumours that martial law was being imposed in Beijing. I realised how much the media were part of the problem: caught between the sentimentality of the Chinese press and the Western hunger for a Great Chinese Calamity, I didn’t know who to believe.

It was something of a relief to be finally pulling out of the city in our people carrier. The journey started appropriately: we passed an army checkpoint on the opposite carriageway, where people in white head-to-toe garb were washing down a lorry with disinfectant. The motorway – on the afternoon before a national holiday – was spookily quiet. But the rest of the journey was a bit of a let-down: an all-night drive on an empty motorway is an all-night drive on an empty motorway, Sars or no Sars. Usually there are dozens of night buses on the motorway, but now there were only lorries. At major junctions we could see groups of medical staff flagging down trucks. But since we never left the motorway, no one stopped us – not even on the way into Beijing.

Our temperatures were checked twice at the airport, but there was no atmosphere of crisis. The plane, which had come from Heathrow completely empty (‘We only came to get you out,’ a stewardess told me), was half empty. Most people wore face-masks throughout the flight. In the International Herald Tribune, I read that Thaksin Shinawatra, the Prime Minister of Thailand, had said the fear of Sars is worse than Sars itself.

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