China’s 1,300-mile border with Myanmar traverses some of the most rugged landscapes in Asia. 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 never been an economic development priority for either country, and it has few roads and even fewer large settlements. Ruili, a Chinese city of a little more than a quarter-million people located on one of the only areas of flat land, is the exception. The city hugs the border, which divides it from Muse, a smaller city on the Myanmar side. Together they constitute a binational urban area—an analog to El Paso and Juárez on the US-Mexico boundary—and a crucial node for commerce. For decades, 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, some legal, some not.
That traffic has come to an almost complete halt. One of the key planks of China’s Covid Zero policy, which views even a single infection as an unacceptable risk, is the closure of the country’s borders, sealing it off from a world that has overwhelmingly decided to live with the coronavirus. Nowhere is the impact of the strategy more obvious than in Ruili. With the pandemic going largely unchecked in Myanmar, last year local officials began putting up spans of sheet metal, barracks for guards, and fences topped with razor wire along the boundary with Muse—structures the mayor dubbed a “Steel Great Wall.” When the local government discovered infections, it imposed some of the harshest restrictions in China. Ruili residents endured seven separate lockdowns from March 2021 to April 2022 and spent a total of 119 days barred from leaving their homes. Mandatory testing has been so frequent that, according to one Chinese news site, a baby there was swabbed six dozen times by his first birthday.