It’s Monday the 27th of September 2021 – a month to the day since I returned to China from England, and my first day back at the office since mid-July. For the first time since arriving, I have not had to report a test result or my body temperature to officials. Over the weekend, I had to take my seventh mandatory coronavirus test of the past month.

This is China’s system for handling foreign arrivals, a system which entails not only two weeks of centralised quarantine, but also a further one to two weeks of home isolation and observation. The exact requirements vary from region to region. But this “14+7+7” process, as it has come to be known, is currently the only way to re-enter China, with scarcely any exceptions. Even foreign diplomats are expected to complete the process.

Of course, China is not alone in quarantining and monitoring international travellers. But Beijing has developed perhaps the most time-intensive entry process of any country. And unlike other countries including Britain and the US, or the Chinese territory of Hong Kong for that matter, China currently allows no reductions or exemptions for vaccinated travellers.

So what exactly does this 14+7+7 system entail? Here is everything I know, based on my own experience and reports from other recent arrivals.

Passengers wait to start 14+7+7 after undergoing rigorous tests at Pudong Airport.

A Month-Long Marathon

The first thing to stress – if I hadn’t already – is that returning to China now takes a long time. I do not mean that the number of hours it takes to fly to China has increased (though it may well require a connection or stopover that was not needed pre-pandemic). Rather, after factoring in quarantine and observation, the journey as a whole – from boarding a plane in one’s home country to being free of all restrictions inside China – now takes around a month.

Some will say that this is overkill and achieves very little, especially when recent variants of the virus are believed to manifest in as little as four days. The Chinese authorities, however, would argue that it is precisely this level of precaution that has enabled them to keep infections and fatalities low throughout most of the pandemic. They will point to cases where people have tested positive many weeks after arriving in the country. The prospect of this drawn-out process also functions as a deterrent aimed at dissuading people from travelling into China.

Having completed the 14+7+7 process myself, I can say that it profoundly changes the nature of travel. A trip to China now requires an investment of time (and not to mention money) that would have been unimaginable less than two years ago. For much of the world today, it has been several generations since people contemplated such extended timeframes for international travel. I think of my own great-grandparents from Russia, whose journey to the US by sea would have taken weeks, followed by further time spent at a processing facility, such as San Francisco’s Angel Island.

A reconstructed dormitory scene at Angel Island, California, where many arrivals from China were once processed.

Hotel meets Hospital

The entry process that I have experienced in China has no doubt been much easier than that which our ancestors endured a century or so ago. But the “14+7+7” process is also far from luxury. It is hard to neatly categorise the 14+7+7, since it traverses several familiar reference points, hospital and hotel being two of the most obvious ones.

One quickly realises, however, that the 14-day quarantine is not really in a hotel, but the shell of what use to be a functioning hotel. There is no longer any of the usual hospitality or housekeeping one would expect in a hotel. Fresh towels may only be provided on demand, if at all. As one member of a chat group pointed out, arrivals should not make the mistake of thinking they are staying in a hotel but realise that they are in a “quarantine camp”.

This doorway was where I received meals, deposited trash and underwent tests over 14 days.

In many ways, the 14+7+7 feels more like a prolonged hospital visit, beginning with a 14-day inpatient stay and ending with two weeks of medical observation and check-ups. For most, the medical treatment goes no further than twice-daily temperature checks and frequent swabs. But an unlucky few have actually ended up in hospital, usually because they have tested positive for either coronavirus or antibodies, or been in close proximity to other passengers who have had tested positive.

One unlucky person reported being taken away to a special ward simply because he reported a temperature of 37.4 degrees Celsius, which China’s authorities consider 0.1 degree too feverish. He was then subjected to frequent swabs and blood tests. Others have had to give stool samples. Only after repeatedly testing negative and reporting a low body temperature are these "patients" allowed to leave hospital and return to their hotel-based quarantine camps. Another poor soul was sent to a hospital for a night because the quarantine facility had accidentally released him a day early, and so no hotel or residential community would accept him for the +7 period.

My quarantine room was basic but clean and comfortable.

Prison and Parole

Yet more than either a hotel or hospital experience, the 14+7+7 is perhaps best compared to doing prison time. The first 14 days of quarantine are a form of enforced incarceration, while the subsequent two weeks are akin to house arrest and parole. "Inmates" are only granted full release pending good behaviour, that is to say they avoid going out in public and do not test positive for coronavirus or get a fever during that timeframe.

It is a strange and fairly comfortable prison experience to be sure. But it is very clear that through this extended period of solitary confinement, arrivals are in effect being punished for coming to China. Tests and temperature checks, while they no doubt serve an epidemiological purpose, are also about submission to a higher authority. This heightened presence of the state in your life (and your body) continues during the +7 “parole” period, when you will likely be visited by your local residents' committee, the grassroots of the Chinese Communist Party.

Not to be mistaken for a packet of welcome mints, chlorine tablets are issued as standard for inmates to disinfect their own toilet.

Some over-eager local authorities have taken the liberty of treating the observation period as an additional week of quarantine, enforcing it with electronic door devices in some cases. This has reportedly occurred in several parts of Shanghai, as well as Beijing’s Shunyi, a district with a large foreign population which is closest to the city’s main airport. A newly-arrived teacher in Shanghai was made to extended periods of quarantine and observation – becoming 21+19, in effect – because the parents at his school believed he could still test positive 30 days after arriving from the US. Elsewhere, some cities such as Guangzhou now require a 21-day centralised quarantine, while other cities like Dongguan have extended the observation period to 35 days after entry.

From Balconies to Bat Holes

Where you go for the 14-day quarantine in Shanghai is a complete crapshoot. The lucky ones have enjoyed family-sized suites with balconies and bathtubs. Less fortunate inmates have ended up in cramped rooms with little natural light, peeling paint, faulty AC, black mould, big bugs, and even bats. Yes, one poor soul actually reported seeing a bat swoop around his one room one night before it retreated into a hole in the ceiling.

Paint ceiling paint scattered across the floor outside my room.

The reason for this inconsistency is that facilities are assigned according to which district of Shanghai you live in or, if you don’t live in Shanghai, wherever you final destination in China will be. While some districts give their arrivals a choice of two differently priced options, most people are simply taken to a facility without any prior consultation. Couples and even families with young children are split up on arrival, but some have been able to stay together after kicking up enough of a fuss.

My two weeks were spent in the tired shell of a Jinjiang Inn, which is a budget hotel chain owned by the Shanghai city government. Many Jinjiang Inn hotels have been repurposed as quarantine facilities during the pandemic. The cost is fixed at between 300 and 500 yuan a night, which is between 45 and 80 US dollars. Meals average an extra 100 yuan per day. I received no information about any of these costs until I was asked to pay on my penultimate day.

The façade of the Jinjiang Inn where I was quarantined.

Quarantine Cooking

Like the rooms, the quarantine cuisine is also variable. Rather than à la carte room service, my meals were prepared off site somewhere and then planted outside my door in green plastic trays by anonymous waiters in white spacesuits. These would arrive around 8am, 12pm and 6pm everyday, but could be significantly earlier or later. This unpredictability could be challenging if food arrived when you were busy or not particularly hungry, or conversely if you were hungry and the food hadn’t arrived yet.  

Overall, I found the quality to be passable. Some dishes, such as the meatballs or fried chicken, were not bad. But much of the time, the trays contained far too much oily, lukewarm meat for my liking, accompanied by yet another large portion of plain rice. A packet containing disposable utensils boasted that the catering company, Li Hua Fast Food, was a supplier to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Instead of being reassured about the quality of the food I was eating, these references to events over a decade old made me suspect the caterer was past its peak.

A typical meal from my time in quarantine.

To supplement the trice-daily food deliveries, I had (on the advice of others) prepared a supply of snacks and cheeses, though the latter were slowly melting in the absence of any fridge. A bottle of Ardbeg ten-year single malt was also a very important quarantine companion. Some fellow inmates brought copious amounts of home comforts with them, from French charcuterie to Japanese instant ramen. One quarantine resident attempted to grill vegetables with an iron, while another cooked up a hotdog in his kettle! I just about managed to make a toasted cheese sandwich with a hairdryer…

Final Thoughts

That cheese toastie was about as exciting as my 14+7+7 journey has got, and really I should be grateful that it hasn’t been more eventful. In fact, I am quite surprised to have made it through this entire process without suffering any mishaps. It has certainly not always been easy – at times, very boring and lonely. As much as I love Shanghai, it would have been nice not to have had to wait there for a full 22 days before being able to return to my house in Beijing.

Others have been far less fortunate. One man has found himself still unable to travel to Beijing after 30 days in China because he tested positive for COVID during quarantine. Despite recovering and testing negative, he is still not able to receive the green code needed to board a plane or train to the capital. There was also a story about a woman who apparently annoyed the staff at her quarantine facility so much that on her last day they told her she had tested positive for COVID and had to spend another two weeks there!

Like many things in life, China’s 14+7+7 system is perhaps best thought of as a game. There are levels you need to progress through, and after completing a set of challenges along the way, you are ultimately rewarded with a prize. In this case, the prize is that you are released back into the relative freedom of Chinese society. The gamification of quarantine certainly puts a more positive spin on it. But is it a game that I would like to play again any time soon? I can’t honestly say that it is. And that, I suppose, is by design.