Written by Javier C. Hernández
First came the notices that Chinese officials had declared a “wartime” state. Then authorities started going door to door, sealing off apartments and warning residents to stay inside.
The Chinese government in recent weeks has imposed a sweeping lockdown across the Xinjiang region in western China, penning in millions of people as part of what officials describe as an effort to fight a resurgence of the coronavirus.
But with the outbreak in Xinjiang seemingly under control and the restrictions still in place more than a month after the outbreak there began, many residents are lashing out and accusing the government of acting too harshly.
“There are no cases here,” Daisy Luo, 26, a fruit seller who lives in northern Xinjiang, said in an interview. “The controls are too strict.”
Luo, who said she has lost at least $1,400 in sales because of the lockdown, took to social media this week to protest the restrictions, saying she felt abandoned. “It’s useless to have opinions,” she said. “People dare not speak.”
The mounting anger poses a challenge for the ruling Communist Party. With the virus under control across most of the country and life starting to look relatively normal in many cities, the party is trying to project an image of harmony and to tout its approach to fighting the virus as a model for the world.
The lockdown, which according to government notices has affected at least 4 million people, has revived concerns about human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The Chinese government has spent years perfecting a system of mass surveillance and control in Xinjiang and has long imposed draconian social rules on the region’s largely Muslim ethnic minority groups, who make up about half the population of 25 million.
On social media sites, Xinjiang residents have in recent days circulated videos showing residents handcuffed to metal posts, purportedly for violating quarantine rules. Some residents have said that authorities have forced them to drink traditional Chinese medicine, despite doubts about its efficacy against the virus. Another widely circulated video showed residents in Urumqi, a city of 3.5 million and the capital of Xinjiang, yelling from their homes in despair.
“Is this a prison or cage?” one user wrote on Weibo, a popular social media service. “Is this prevention or suppression?”
Chinese officials have not provided detailed information about the restrictions, their scope or rationale. At least three cities have been affected, according to official notices, but the lockdown is likely more extensive. In recent weeks, residents in at least nine jurisdictions, covering a population of more than 10 million, have made reference to being under lockdown, according to a review of posts on Weibo and other sites. Xinjiang officials did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
As anger over the lockdown has grown in recent days, with residents of other parts of China joining in criticizing the government, authorities have moved quickly to limit dissent, censoring scores of online posts about Xinjiang.
Local officials have tried to portray themselves as responsive and transparent. On Monday, in an unusual gesture, the state-run news media published cellphone numbers of government and party officials in Urumqi, encouraging needy residents to call them and saying they stood ready to “effectively solve the difficult demands of the people of all ethnic groups.”
One of those officials, Liu Haijiang, a district leader in Urumqi, said in an interview that there were no cases in his district and that residents were pleased with the government’s response. “We are a pure land,” he said. “Ordinary people are all very happy.”
Liu said he did not know when the lockdown would be lifted. “This will be based on our overall plan and the opinion of the experts,” he said.
In Urumqi, authorities on Monday said they would ease restrictions in some districts, allowing residents to leave their homes and walk inside apartment complexes, according to Chinese news reports. Officials did not say when the full lockdown would be lifted.
The restrictions in Xinjiang began in mid-July as dozens of people in Urumqi fell ill with the coronavirus. Officials dispatched thousands of police officers to impose a lockdown in Urumqi and other cities, including Kashgar, announcing a “wartime” campaign. Medical experts eventually diagnosed more than 800 cases of the coronavirus.
In recent weeks, as the government has intensified the lockdown and expanded testing, locally transmitted cases have dwindled. There have been no such cases for nine days, officials say. Mainland experts have hinted that the lockdown will not be lifted until there have been no local cases for 14 days, the standard incubation period.
“If no new patients are found in this period, Urumqi can declare victory over this wave of the epidemic,” Zhang Yuexin, an expert who is part of a government team working to fight the outbreak in Xinjiang, told Global Times, a tabloid controlled by the Communist Party, this month.
Medical professionals said the Chinese government’s extreme approach in Xinjiang would likely prove effective but would mean trade-offs for the economy and the well-being of residents.
Siddharth Sridhar, an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Hong Kong, said the measures in Xinjiang were consistent with the Chinese government’s strategy of restricting outbreaks “at all costs.” As the virus spread rapidly through the central Chinese city of Wuhan earlier this year, the government imposed a similar lockdown that lasted 76 days.
“The tendency is to implement extreme measures to contain outbreaks early and to relax them slowly,” he said. “Such prolonged lockdown, no doubt, entails pain.”
Some human rights activists worry that the government is repeating the mistakes of the Wuhan lockdown, when residents were stuck in homes and deprived access to health care. Residents of Xinjiang have said on social media recently that critically ill people with other diseases in the region have been unable to get treatment.
More recently, China’s leaders have seemed to favor a more targeted approach to handling clusters of new cases, along with extensive testing. After an outbreak at a market in Beijing in June, authorities placed dozens of apartment complexes under lockdown but kept most neighborhoods, shops and restaurants open.
Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that some of the measures taken by the government to control the outbreak in Xinjiang were “unnecessary, intrusive, inhumane, and not based on scientific evidence.”
“To Chinese authorities, containing the spread of the coronavirus has become a paramount political mission,” she said. “In order to achieve it, human rights, dignity, and, ironically, health can be arbitrarily sacrificed.”
Like many parts of China, Xinjiang has struggled to get its economy back on track after the pandemic amid weak global demand for exports and steep job losses.
The recent controls have added to a crisis among farmers, who say crops have spoiled and incomes have cratered. The restrictions have come in the middle of what is typically a very busy tourist season in Xinjiang, known for its lakes, deserts and oasis cities.
Farmers have used social media to voice their frustrations. In one popular video, a fruit seller stands in a field smashing watermelons. “Our big watermelons at the foot of Huoyan Mountain are ripe, but we are not happy,” she says. “Although it is a bumper harvest, there is no way to be happy.” The video has since vanished.
Many activists are concerned that the government might try to use the pandemic to expand its crackdown on Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group that lives in Xinjiang. As many as 1 million ethnic Uighurs and members of other Muslim minorities have been held in internment camps in Xinjiang in recent years, drawing growing global condemnation.
Several Uighurs have been punished by Xinjiang authorities in recent weeks for making comments about the lockdown online, according to Uighur activists abroad.
“Uighurs have no choice but to tolerate discrimination, and they will be severely punished if they express their anger,” said Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, a group in Munich that supports self-determination for Xinjiang. “During the epidemic, China has strengthened its prevention and control tactics against Uighurs, fearing that dissatisfaction might lead to confrontation.”
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