Mr Tang, a farmer from central China, bears the marks of hard luck and forces beyond his control. A wiry, shaven-headed man of 57, with red scars on his face and neck, he returned home to the province of Henan two years ago, after growing too old to find migrant work in big cities. Pouring his savings and borrowed money into a smallholding in the village of Niezhang, Mr Tang (not his real name) watched 200 pigs die last year of “the disease”. He means African swine fever, which is rampant in China. “They all had to go,” he recalls, pulling a thin jacket around him against a cold, damp day. “Every night we shipped them out in a three-wheeled truck to be buried.” His homecoming at the height of China’s “zero-covid” policy exposed him to rural life at its most controlling, as pandemic guards and volunteers in red armbands wielded coercive powers not seen since the Mao era.