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In Beijing, There Are Small Signs That Brighter Days Are Ahead


China is working to return to normal - whatever that means. The government lifted restrictions on movement in Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak began. And Beijing sees small signs of improvement after six weeks of lockdown. Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia from the NPR daily economics podcast The Indicator From Planet Money report on life in the Chinese capital.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Dan Wang lives in Beijing. And he works for Gavekal Dragonomics, which does economic research.

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: One day in early February, Dan noticed some government workers stationed outside his Beijing apartment complex. He thinks they were from the municipal government.

DAN WANG: Someone set up a tent with a table and a pen and paper and started taking down everyone's temperature as they came in and out of the apartments.

VANEK SMITH: And there are temperature checks like this taking place all over the city. Before Dan can enter his office building, go into stores, go into restaurants, he has to get his temperature checked.

WANG: When I'm out, I would have my temperature checked around four or five times when I'm just walking around.

VANEK SMITH: Dan says a lot of his friends have hardly left their apartments at all. Travelers arriving to China from abroad now have to go into quarantine either at home or in a government facility for two weeks when they arrive. China has also enforced severe restrictions on travel within the country. China can do all of this, Dan says, because it already has a big security and surveillance system in place. And people are kind of used to it.

GARCIA: But here's the thing - China actually has managed to slow the spread of the virus. And last week, as the weather got nicer, Dan noticed that life for the first time was gently returning to Beijing.

WANG: And I would say that this is the first time in about six weeks or nearly two months or so that there are a lot of people walking around, you know. One or two of the shops that I used to go frequently that have been closed for the last several weeks are now opening again.

VANEK SMITH: Dan says even seeing some of the cars back on the road again has been a really nice change.

WANG: It's definitely a big relief to see the city getting back to normal. And I think people are extra glad to be outside.

VANEK SMITH: Dan says these tiny steps back in the direction of normal life have been taken really slowly, and they've been taken even as a lot of the restrictions on daily life stay in place.

GARCIA: Also, the crisis has left Dan with something he didn't expect, a new appreciation for the importance of the material world. For example, a lot of people thought that the Chinese tech companies - like Alibaba, which is kind of like the Chinese Amazon - might even benefit if people stayed home during the crisis because then these companies would deliver stuff to them.

WANG: And then, Alibaba says that we are having a lot of trouble actually delivering our goods because our couriers are just not in the cities. Or they're having trouble navigating between provinces or getting into different compounds.

GARCIA: There are reports that the roads are opening and travel inside the country is getting a bit easier. But overall, Dan says, based on what he's seen in Beijing, the hopeful thing to him is that following the advice of the health experts - practice social distancing, work from home if you can, monitor yourself for symptoms - does seem to work. So who knows how long this period of economic shutdown and isolation is going to last? Dan's experience in Beijing, though, makes him confident that it won't be forever.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAPA'S "EMPTY SPACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
Cardiff Garcia is a co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money podcast, along with Stacey Vanek Smith. He joined NPR in November 2017.