COVID lockdowns upset the rice bowls of China’s commuter workers

BEIJING — When the town of Yanjiao near Beijing was suddenly plunged into acoronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) lockdown last month, taxi driver Dong Tiejun was forced to drive hundreds of kilometers to avoid roadblocks and get a passenger to Tianjin, a metropolis on the northeast coast. 

As an unlicensed, long distance driver, Mr. Dong relied on a network of regulars traveling in and out of Beijing via Yanjiao, in Hebei province just east of the Chinese capital. Yanjiao’s lockdown from March 13 to early April took away much of his income. 

“No one can get out of there, so who will take your taxi?” he said. 

Millions of other white- and blue-collar workers whose livelihoods depend on unimpeded mobility between cities have faced similar hurdles since COVID cases began surging in March and the flow of people and goods between provinces was upended by travel curbs. 

Analysts at Nomura estimate 46 cities are currently in full or partial lockdowns involving strict mobility restrictions on local residents, affecting the lives of 343 million people. 

Border towns such as Yanjiao have grown at a dizzying rate over the past decade as office workers in Beijing looked for affordable housing nearby, with hundreds of thousands crossing the Hebei-Beijing border on a daily basis before COVID. 

Even after the lockdown for Yanjiao residents was lifted on April 4, border checkpoints were clogged in the early hours of the morning and resentment at COVID curbs was palpable. 

“I come here six days a week, every time at 5:30 a.m., the bus stop is far and the checkpoint is strict, the cost of riding a scooter here is also high, I think all these measures are very inconvenient,” said a Yanjiao resident surnamed Gao. 

Several Yanjiao commuters told Reuters that another burdensome measure was the “commuter pass” that anyone entering Beijing must now obtain and continuously update. 

The long list of documents needed to obtain the pass includes a homeowner’s ID card, a negative COVID test report with a 48-hour validity, proof of vaccination, and proof of employment in Beijing, among others. 

“I’m afraid I can’t get all of these documents,” said Yan Chun, 21, who came to Beijing looking for work after the beauty salon she worked for in Shenzhen closed due to COVID. 

“I’m looking for a job, so where do I get proof of employment in Beijing?” 

While major centers like Beijing and Shanghai have maintained high bars for imposing stringent COVID restrictions on residents, dormitory towns in Hebei face a much stricter and mercurial situation. 

Authorities in Sanhe city, which is composed of Yanjiao and nine other towns, said on Wednesday residents “would be restricted from entering and exiting Beijing” after “an abnormal nucleic acid test” was reported. 

THOSE WHO LABOR
Lao Yuan, 62, and his wife left their village in Hebei 10 years ago to work in a car factory in Beijing. In recent times, they have depended on daily labor markets in Songzhuang, on the outskirts of Beijing near the Hebei border, usually earning around 300 yuan ($46) a day. 

After the Lunar New Year holiday, Lao Yuan’s hometown in Hebei was locked down and his wife who traveled there has been unable to return to greater Beijing since. He now lives alone in a rented room in Songzhuang. 

At the labor markets, workers among the hundreds who would gather around 4 a.m. every day waiting for vans to take them to construction sites and factories say things have changed since the latest COVID surge. 

It’s now common to not find work at Songzhuang even after a whole morning of waiting, said a migrant worker from Shandong province, only giving his surname as Wang. 

“I’ve some direct connections with factory bosses, that works better now,” Mr. Wang said. 

“Most people just leave by 8 a.m., if we do not get a job we just stay in our rooms resting, looking at our phones.” — Xiaoyu Yin and Eduardo Baptista/Reuters