American lawyer James Zimmerman, a Perkins Coie Beijing partner, has worked in China for over 24 years. He thought he was healthy enough to return to Beijing in March, after having heart surgery in San Diego during the Christmas holiday.
The timing couldn’t be worse. The four-time chairman of American Chamber of Commerce in China flew to Shanghai as Covid-19 lockdowns were about to begin. They have since disrupted global supply lines and triggered outrage on social media among the 27 million people living in Shanghai. There are a variety of complaints, ranging from food shortages or unsanitary state-run quarantine units.
Zimmerman, who is 63, was allowed to travel from Shanghai to Beijing, but he has been denied permission to quarantine at his home because of his medical condition. Instead, he’s been in a quarantine hotel for 11 nights, where he claims he was fed spoiling fruit and faced other hardships. Zimmerman warns businesspeople that China’s capital might be subject to wider lockdowns.
Zimmerman stated in an email that the State Department must issue another advisory that warns people they might be placed in central quarantine for 37-days. It is not a manageable 14-day period. It is difficult to predict the future because of the lack of transparency from China’s policies.
What is the future for foreign business in this “chaotic environment” Zimmerman described? Although there is no desire to discuss divestment or decoupling, there is a strong desire to examine the business environment.
Here are some excerpts from interviews.
Flannery: Today’s Twitter posts are quite dramatic. They include 37 days spent in China quarantine, testing negative for Covid and being denied entry to quarantine back home despite having had heart surgery four months prior. How did you end up in this situation?
Zimmerman: I have lived in Beijing for 24+ years and moved to China in the early 90s. I was in San Diego on Christmas vacation when the surgery took place. I have fully recovered.
As all foreign lawyers registered in China, I had to return to Beijing by April 30 to renew my one year visa. If I don’t renew it, it could take me months to obtain an invitation letter or visa to come back. I had to return for ongoing client issues.
After 22 days in Shanghai’s central quarantine, I was released and I left Shanghai on Easter Sunday. I had received green codes from my Beijing, Shanghai and State Council health kits apps. I thought I was good to go.
Flannery: What are the conditions for quarantining in Beijing?
Zimmerman: All passengers arrived in Beijing and were immediately taken into custody and sent to centrally quarantine. The process was well organized with a similar number police and health personnel to gather the 100+ passengers into mini-vans and buses to transport them to their homes to be quarantined. There was no warning that we would be leaving Shanghai.
I am currently staying at the Jade National Hotel, which is about two miles from my house. It’s probably a two star hotel. The hotel is surrounded by blue steel corrugated fencing that measures six feet high at street level. The furnishings and fixtures reminded me of rural travel in early 90s. The small space doesn’t allow me to exercise as much post-op. Before I left for China, my daily walking pace was up to 5 miles per day. I also did intense circuit training. It’s difficult to do this in a 12×12 room. The same goes for eating a healthy diet. I asked for fresh fruit and was given rotten apples by the hotel. They apologized for their mistake. (The hotel didn’t return my call for comment.
I vented a lot more and finally they agreed to just serve me steamed vegetables and white Rice. Due to my intense rants, the food has improved. They also moved me into a room that had just undergone renovations. However, the new paint and glue smell is still bothersome. They spray the hallways with a cleaning solution all day and they emit a constant chlorine odor.
Despite my repeated pleas, I am not allowed to quarantine at my home. I even received a bilingual letter from my cardiologist explaining my condition. The U.S. Embassy protested to Beijing Foreign Affairs Office but made no progress.
Flannery, You have been the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce Beijing for four terms. What do the U.S. companies doing business between China and the U.S. see as its impact?
Zimmerman: China’s poor policy-making skills are evident in China’s response to the Shanghai earthquake. The local officials only needed to hear that someone at the top yelled to close down the city. They didn’t think to consider the practical consequences of such drastic measures. What were they expecting when they suddenly locked down a city with 27 million inhabitants? Then, why was there panic buying and no food for the masses? Logistics are important. This week, the same thing is happening in Beijing.
China is known for its tendency to pursue big plans, grand schemes and reactionary policies without ever considering the possibility of a better path. No forecasting. No impact assessment. No analysis of economic and social effects. The Chinese government should do a better job of assessing how policy decisions affect the big picture.
My assessment of the overall impact on the foreign business community is that foreign businesses, including those from the U.S. or EU, are beginning to question how the government is managing the economy and the pandemic. While there is no desire to talk about divestment and decoupling in the foreign business community, there is a strong desire for a closer look at the business environment.
Flannery: What should the U.S. government do for Americans in Beijing and China generally at this time?
Zimmerman: The State Department must issue another advisory advising people that they may end up in centrally quarantine for 37 consecutive days, just like me. It is not a manageable 14 days. The lack of transparency in China’s policies means that even the U.S. government has difficulty predicting the unforeseeable. It is difficult to predict the next steps when Beijing is creating new rules as it goes.
While I appreciate the U.S. Embassy’s support when protesting to the Chinese authorities it seems that no one wants to take any responsibility in this chaotic environment. No one wants to quarantine me at home, especially since I have been repeatedly negative for the contagion in Beijing.
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