Zhou Xuefeng has a serious problem — he is from Hubei, the Chinese province at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak, and now no one wants to employ him.
The fact he has been working without incident in the city of Suzhou near Shanghai and not been back home for years does not matter. He is one of thousands of victims of a rising intolerance fuelled by growing alarm about the deadly virus.
Outside China, the spread of the flu-like illness to more than 20 countries has fuelled a rise in instances of abuse and racism aimed at people of Chinese descent. But inside the country, it is those with links to Hubei and its capital Wuhan who are facing possibly criminal discrimination.
Mr Zhou’s nightmare began when his employer told him not to return to work after the recent lunar new year holiday. The 37-year-old went out and applied for three more jobs but each rejected him. The humiliation at being targeted is compounded by the officials from the factory town where he lives who visit regularly to take his photo, but never explain why.
“I am a Hubei person and each day I sit at home like they tell me to. But I have no money and the country must let me work,” he said.
Authorities in eastern Jiangxi province have taken some of the strictest measures, going as far as barring anyone from Hubei, in central China, from returning to their jobs. In the capital Beijing, there have been reports of Hubei families being ejected from rented accommodation.
Elsewhere, some local residents’ committees have fixed posters on the doors of apartments to alert neighbours that Hubei natives live there while a few communities have even offered Rmb500 ($71) rewards to report people from Hubei or anyone who has even travelled there.
Some senior officials have tried to intervene to prevent the anti-Hubei attitudes from taking hold, including Chen Bei, Beijing’s deputy secretary-general, who at a press conference this month urged people to stop the discrimination.
“No one has the right to prevent returnees who pass the temperature test from returning [home],” she said, referring to the widespread checks for the high fever that is one of the symptoms of the virus. China’s human resources ministry has also banned companies from firing anyone who was unable to work due to the epidemic.
Yet the discrimination continues. Even if Hubei natives can conceal their distinctive accents, all Chinese carry identity cards with their details that make it easy for hotels or prospective employers to identify them.
Jin Diandian, a 23-year-old from Wuhan, where the virus first emerged late last year, spent the lunar new year holiday cooped up in her Beijing apartment, too terrified to go home and too scared to leave. When her roommate eventually returned from vacation, “her brother called my landlord and asked him to report me to the police”, she said.
The nearly 60,000 confirmed cases in all of Hubei remains a tiny proportion of the province’s 59m population, most of whom remain at home under some form of quarantine. But when President Xi Jinping last month ordered “resolute efforts” to fight the spread of the virus, the lumbering bureaucracy in provinces and cities across China cranked into overdrive.
Anyone who has travelled from Hubei has been asked to self-quarantine or been forced into designated quarantine “hotels”. Some cities have begun to apply similar measures to travellers from other places in China where there have been reports of large numbers of cases, but Hubei people remain the principal target.
One 26-year-old from Hubei who asked not to be named spent the lunar new year holiday at his girlfriend’s hometown in neighbouring Shaanxi province. By the time they arrived back in Suzhou, the authorities had erected checkpoints at highway exits and would not let them into the city — despite neither showing any signs of the virus.
“They knew we’d come from Shaanxi, but I’m from Hubei and they were scared to take responsibility,” he said. The next day, the police transferred them to a hotel where they were quarantined for 14 days. “We’re not allowed to leave our room. We wouldn’t dare to anyway.”
Mr Zhou has also been mainly confined to his Suzhou apartment, eating through a store of noodles. “In a few days I will try to go back to my village,” he said, adding hopefully: “Hubei people will not discriminate against each other.”