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China turns quarantine centers into apartments — a year after lifting COVID rules

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A year ago today, China lifted its strict COVID restrictions. One of the key symbols of that period was the quarantine centers, built in nearly every major Chinese city. They came to represent the collective trauma from mass testing and sudden lockdowns. But as NPR's Emily Feng discovers, 12 months on, cities are turning these huge centers into affordable housing units for young workers, an attempt to help those who struggle in the current economic slowdown.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Today, walk around this brightly painted high-talents apartment in Beijing, and you see scenes of normality like this shared canteen serving affordably priced meals. But just over a year ago, these apartments were used very differently, as a medical triage and quarantine facility.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: This is a video Beijing resident Hudson Li shot last year as he was being driven by health care workers into a Fangcang, the Chinese term for these hastily built quarantine centers.

HUDSON LI: (Through interpreter) It wasn't very cold yet, but they told me to pack my belongings.

FENG: Beijing alone built 23 of these makeshift facilities, designed to hold up to 23,000 people at a time. Less than two months after Li was quarantined, Beijing lifted most of its COVID restrictions. But Li says he still associates the Fangcang with feelings of helplessness and fear.

LI: (Through interpreter) It's been a year already, but I definitely have PTSD from the fear of scarcity and having to stock up on a lot of medicine and food.

FENG: Now the Fangcang are undergoing a transformation. They're apartments for young graduates like Li. Local authorities have been tasked with restarting economic growth and supporting small businesses after nearly three years of ruinous lockdowns. Cities like Beijing are also trying to bridge a housing gap between high real estate prices and low salaries for young workers. And so the Fangcang, once a symbol of containment, is now supposed to represent dynamism and growth. Li says he has mixed feelings about this.

LI: (Through interpreter) The facilities were not built and rented out transparently. But I do have to say you will not get anything more affordable than these apartments. They are very price competitive.

FENG: One of the new tenants in this former Beijing Fangcang is Sophie Shi. She works at a startup that allows her to work from home, and the talent department suit her just fine, though she was a little surprised when she found out what her home had been used for in a past life.

SOPHIE SHI: (Through interpreter) There were signs on A4 sheets of paper left in the rooms with instructions like line up here for group meals and COVID-era slogans left taped on the walls, encouraging bravery and be calm. Then it hit me in an instant. This used to be a COVID facility.

FENG: The low rent is what's kept her there. It's only about 200 USD a month for a studio - cheap for Beijing. But she's planning to move out soon. There is no bus station or metro line close by. After all, the center was designed to be remote, perfect for quarantining people, but not so convenient for a young urban dweller. And the Fangcang was built from little more than metal shipping containers stacked on top of each other. When Shi walks around her apartment, the thin floorboards shake.

SHI: (Through interpreter) Sound insulation is an issue because it's just made of iron sheets. I can clearly hear my neighbors upstairs, and the frequent sound of airplanes from the nearby Beijing airport is quite obvious.

FENG: Still, she said she'd recommend the apartment to friends. With the economy spluttering in China, who can say no to super low rent?

Emily Feng, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.