China Is Building A New ‘Great Wall’ To Keep Out … COVID?

(Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Dylan Housman Deputy News Editor
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China is fortifying its southern border under the premise of combatting COVID-19, but observers worry what the buildup may mean for the future of travel and trade in the country.

A fence loaded with barbed wire, security cameras and motion sensors has been put up along China’s southern border with Myanmar near the city of Ruili over the past two years, according to The Wall Street Journal, citing public documents. A similar fence has gone up along the country’s border with Vietnam to the east, stopping Vietnamese residents from crossing the border to sell herbs and harvest crops in Chinese villages.

Chinese state media outlets are referring to the new barriers as the “Anti-COVID Great Wall,” while social media users have called it “The Southern Great Wall,” according to the WSJ. The government says it is for the purpose of fighting the spread of the virus by limiting the flow of smugglers, workers and traders.

In August, Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly wrote a letter to border villagers in the Yunnan province urging them to “safeguard the sacred land” by building an impassable barrier. A similar message was reportedly relayed by Chinese Communist Party officials to residents in the Guangxi region bordering Vietnam, to “go all out, resolutely win the battle against the pandemic and defend the ‘south gate’” of their country.

100,000 personnel, ranging from police officers and soldiers to civilians and party officials, have been patrolling the border in Yunnan alone, the governor said in January.

According to a WSJ review, 285 miles of barrier have been newly-constructed or strengthened in China in the last two years, almost entirely in the south. Not all local governments report this spending, so the true figure may be higher.

The tiny village of Xiaoguangnong, home to only 260 people, uses facial-recognition software to determine if individuals are locals or outsiders, according to the WSJ, citing state media.

Some efforts to strengthen border fencing on northern lines with Russia and Mongolia have taken place in the last two years as well, according to public records. China’s Foreign Ministry told the WSJ that building border barriers is an accepted international practice, and repeated the line that the effort was being carried out to combat COVID-19.

The city of Ruili has instituted a complex border crossing system to allow trade to continue while keeping the virus out. Trucks carrying goods from Myanmar must stop on the Myanmar side of the border and their cargo must stay there for 48 hours after being sanitized. Automated robots and cranes move the goods onto Chinese trucks, which take them across the border where they are sanitized again and held for 24 more hours.

Produce often rots before being distributed in China because of the long process needed to get it across the border, the WSJ reported. (RELATED: China’s COVID Measures Become Tools For Population Control)

“Covid-19 might be the official justification that China is giving for building the buffer zone now,” said University of Sussex lecturer and author of a work on Myanmar’s border regions David Brenner. “But that intention started long before and will govern things long after the pandemic ends.”