Covid contact tracing contrast lays bare China’s inequalities

HONG KONG—Two Covid-19 contact tracing efforts in the Chinese capital have combined to open a window into the extreme inequalities that have absorbed many people in the world’s most populous country.

On January 15, health authorities in Beijing reported on the recent movements of a Covid-19 patient they described as a professional woman. Portraying the type of life led by the city’s wealthy elite, the itinerary showed her skiing in the suburbs, shopping at Christian Dior and Lane Crawford, and eating at a well-known Peking duck restaurant.

Four days later, health authorities in Beijing reported the activities of another Covid patient, a migrant worker, whose movement recording painted a radically different picture: it showed him working around 30 jobs in the space of two weeks, mainly in the early hours of the morning, carrying bags of cement and construction waste in the vast districts of the city.

Yue Zongxian in the room he rented outside Beijing.



The contrast caught the attention of Chinese social media users, some of whom posted the routes side by side to form a tale of two urban lives. The plight of the migrant worker, a 44-year-old man named Yue Zongxian, struck a chord with the Chinese public, who quickly dubbed him “the hardest-working man based on contact tracing records.”

An interview with Mr. Yue published by state-run publication China Newsweek on Thursday ricocheted across Chinese social media, with related hashtags racking up nearly 100 million views on China’s popular Twitter-like Weibo platform.

“I feel the warmth of society,” Mr Yue told the Wall Street Journal by phone from Ditan Hospital in northeast Beijing, where he is in quarantine. “It is very moving.”

Decades of skyrocketing growth in China have produced historic new levels of wealth, but also extreme inequality. Recently, the social mobility that once helped lift millions out of poverty has begun to slow, increasing fears that many families could be trapped in poverty for generations. China’s official Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, stood at 0.47 in 2020, slightly lower than that of the United States but still above the 0.4 threshold set by the Nations which indicates a large income gap.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s response has been to launch a “common prosperity” campaign that aims to curb capitalist excesses and distribute the fruits of the country’s growth more fairly. The campaign appears popular, although for many in China, Mr Yue’s story and her contrast of contact tracing with the other patient illustrates the challenges she faces.

Health authorities were alerted to Mr Yue’s existence after he took a nucleic acid test on Monday to board a train to the port city of Weihai in the eastern province of Shandong. The test came back positive for Covid-19.

A fisherman, Mr Yue said he had been in Beijing for around 40 days before his positive test. He said he traveled to the capital from Shandong to search for his eldest son, who disappeared on August 12, 2020 and had at one point worked at a restaurant in Beijing.

He said he did odd jobs transporting materials to and from construction sites, working mostly nights and early mornings, the hours when construction trucks are allowed inside the city. To save money, he said, he rented a room of about 100 square feet on the outskirts of Beijing, paying 700 yuan ($110) a month.

Most of the rest of the money he earned he sent to his wife and younger son and to his sick parents, whose medicine was expensive, Mr Yue said.

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In a statement posted on its official social media account on Friday, the Weihai Police Department said that two weeks after Mr. Yue’s son disappeared, local police found a male corpse in a local pond that tests. DNA identified Mr. Yue’s eldest son. .

Mr. Yue said the local police showed him a body, but his face was round and swollen, where his son had always been skinny. He said he had never seen a DNA report and planned to continue the search.

The migrant worker, who is still coughing, said he was happy in hospital.

“My room is big enough and has a separate shower and toilet,” Mr. Yue told the Journal. He said he was delighted to receive a can of peaches from the local authorities, which symbolize a long and healthy life in China.

Mr. Yue said he didn’t complain or think his life was unfair. He said he was used to hard labor and felt it was his responsibility to continue working. “In this society, if you are able-bodied, you have to work hard and take care of your family,” he said.

His story nevertheless aroused a surge of sympathy from Chinese Internet users. Many tried to give him money, which he said he refused.

Guo Chao, a 25-year-old fitness trainer in Beijing, said Mr Yue’s story forced him to grapple with the difficulty of tackling inequality in China. He said he didn’t blame the wealthy person for their luxury, saying they had every right to enjoy themselves. He said he thought it was normal for different types of work to lead to different rewards, but also that “society should take care of people at the lower rungs.”

Although China’s most important holiday, the Lunar New Year, approaches next month, Mr Yue said he felt a duty to stay in Beijing and test negative for Covid before venturing back home .

“It’s my responsibility to society and my family,” he said.

Write to Sha Hua at [email protected]

Corrections & Amplifications
China’s official Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, was in 2020 above the 0.4 threshold set by the United Nations, indicating a large income gap. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the UN threshold was 0.04. (Corrected January 21)

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