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An American in a Locked Down Chinese Town: ‘Everyone Here Is So Bored.’

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Weeks before the coronavirus became a national health crisis in China, authorities threatened a doctor, Li Wenliang, who warned about early cases. State media reported that Dr. Li was illegally spreading rumors.

That was a red flag for Bob Huang.

“People here tend to believe the government. Not me,” said Mr. Huang, who is 50 years old and lives with his mother, Zhang Wanrong, and her caretaker in Zhichang, a town of 300,000 in northern Zhejiang Province. “I’ve watched too many episodes of ‘The X-Files.’”

Mr. Huang is not like other people in Zhichang. He is a Chinese-born American and, as he put it, he doesn’t think like his neighbors. As Zhichang barricades itself from the outside world, he has watched with the bewilderment of an outsider, even if he shares his neighbors’ dry sense of humor about the situation.

Human interaction can be tough to find in a town barricaded from the rest of the world. Mr. Huang takes what he can get.

It begins with the volunteer guards outside his residential complex when he leaves home to buy groceries. Many wear red jackets with “volunteer” emblazoned across the back. Some are his neighbors. One of them is his dentist.

Sometimes this motley group of guards calls in reinforcements — cops in protective gear with Tasers. Mr. Huang refers to them as the “SWAT team.”

They don’t have much useful information, Mr. Huang said, but they have plenty of conspiracy theories.

The Coronavirus Outbreak

  • What do you need to know? Start here.

    Updated Feb. 10, 2020

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is possibly transmitted through the air. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • How worried should I be?
      While the virus is a serious public health concern, the risk to most people outside China remains very low, and seasonal flu is a more immediate threat.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      World Health Organization officials have praised China’s aggressive response to the virus by closing transportation, schools and markets. This week, a team of experts from the W.H.O. arrived in Beijing to offer assistance.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The United States and Australia are temporarily denying entry to noncitizens who recently traveled to China and several airlines have canceled flights.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.