China’s Covid-Zero Lockdown in Xinjiang Just Hits 100 Days

(Bloomberg) — It’s China’s longest pandemic lockdown, and probably the least known. But residents in the country’s dry and mountainous west have just marked 100 days of living under some of the toughest, and most severe, Covid Zero measures in the world.

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Urumqi, the capital of the sprawling Xinjiang region, imposed its first major lockdown measures on 10 August. Despite initial success in bringing the flareup back to single digits, a spike in cases at the end of September prompted the entire region — about the same size as Alaska — to halt travel services early this month. spent, essentially sealing itself off from the rest of China to contain the spread of the virus there.

“Most people wouldn’t have imagined that the lockdown could go on for this long,” said a 21-year-old university student who spent months sealed off in his home in the nearby city of Yining. the border with Kazakhstan, and which he has spent nine years. days instead of quarantine before they are allowed to leave the city. He asked not to be identified because there is a sensitive discussion about Xinjiang and its ethnic group.

Read more: China’s Most Locked City Shows Endless Zero Covid Dangers

These aggressive moves have not dampened the rising daily number of cases, which hit more than 800 this week. But the marathon lockdown is now at odds with an overhaul of China’s pandemic response to eliminate the virus and minimize hardship on residents. Big cities are using more targeted measures even with thousands of new infections every day, avoiding city-wide lockdowns and limiting mass testing.

In Xinjiang, similar transitions have not yet taken place. Its size, remoteness and lack of economic and political control mean that officials are pursuing the strictest policies to prevent their health care system from being overwhelmed. As hopes grow that President Xi Jinping is easing China’s pandemic response, the region’s continued outlier status highlights the challenging and uneven path ahead for the world’s second-largest economy as it contemplates a departure from Covid Zero.

Even within Xinjiang, mitigation prospects vary from place to place. Urumqi remains under lockdown, along with most of the rest of the region, and Yining has just been shut down for months as of Wednesday morning.

“They can only take such simplistic and brutal measures,” said Huang Yanzhong, senior fellow for global health at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. “The lack of financial and bureaucratic capacity at municipal levels also means that there are not enough support measures when implementing the lockdowns. The discrepancy between policy objectives and actual capacity is huge. Covid Zero is much less effective in undeveloped places, and there could be a greater humanitarian loss.”

Crackdown

Many cities in China have dealt with severe lockdowns during the pandemic. Residents of Shanghai had trouble finding food and medicine, the Tibetan capital Lhasa reported a series of suicides, and people in Xi’an reported miscarriages and deaths after hospitals refused care.

But Xinjiang’s experience stands out for the authorities’ extreme control over its 26 million residents, more than half of whom are ethnic minorities, particularly Uyghurs who have been at the center of a prolonged crackdown that the United Nations said could be equal to it. crimes against humanity. Officials have used the web of surveillance, arbitrary detention and preventive policies Beijing put in place before the pandemic – in what the government says is a fight against terrorism and religious extremism – to implement Covid Zero measures.

The Xinjiang government did not immediately respond to a fax seeking comment on the region’s Covid measures. At a briefing earlier this week, local officials said there is a higher risk of a virus resurgence in multiple areas, and authorities pledged to implement the optimized virus policies issued by the central government.

“The political imperative for Covid Zero measures in Xinjiang is enhanced by the overwhelming securitization of the region,” said Michael Clarke, a senior fellow at the Australian Defense College’s Defense Research Centre, who researches Xinjiang. A key theme of Xi’s leadership was to emphasize that the region is part of China, and there will be no ‘coddling’ in the name of ensuring that ethnic minorities remain peaceful, he said.

This makes it a dangerous endeavor to publicize Xinjiang’s lockdown difficulties. Awareness across the rest of China that the region has been locked down for so long is low, and police have curtailed efforts to draw attention to the crisis. Three people are being investigated by authorities for disturbing public order after posting comments during official live streams, including one who typed “Urumqi” during a State Council broadcast.

“Any issue related to Xinjiang is categorized as ‘sensitive’ in China, resulting in strict censorship of everything people post or media coverage,” said the Shanghai-based Yining university student. for the closing of the financial hub in April and May. “Most people have already forgotten about Xinjiang.”

What China’s cynics manage to see through shows appalling conditions and has inspired a rare solidarity between Uyghurs and ethnic Han who make up more than 90% of the country’s total population of 1.4 billion.

A recent video circulating online, which Bloomberg News could not verify, allegedly shows people trying to leave Xinjiang by walking through the desert. Authorities in Xinjiang have previously said they would take action to facilitate those who want to leave, while helping migrant workers trapped by the lockdown. Another video, which also could not be verified, showed authorities clad in PPE strictly enforcing travel curbs.

Conditions inside quarantine centers are grim. The student, who is staying in a facility before returning to Shanghai for his studies, estimates that it is home to 3,000 people and is in the wilds of Xinjiang. The beds are hard and mice always visit through a crack in the corner, he said.

A Uyghur woman living in the United States, who asked not to be identified to protect the privacy of her family in Urumqi, is checking in on her parents from afar. When she told her father she was sorry for what he was going through, he told her things were “much better” than in 2017 — the time he was taken to a detention camp. A 2019 UN assessment said there are around 1 million people in detention.

No Visitors

There is at least one sign that travel difficulties may improve as China lifts a ban on cross-provincial travel from high-risk areas.

But it is uncertain how, or when, officials on the ground will implement instructions from the government and, for now, it is difficult to visit Xinjiang. Among the country’s 27 largest airports, Urumqi had the second-lowest number of completed flights on November 16, at just 4.42%, according to data provider Variflight.

It’s also unclear what measures authorities might roll out to handle an inevitable rise in infections if they lift all lockdowns since the region, like many other remote parts of the country, remains underserved -resources.

“I’m scared and under a lot of pressure,” said the university student. “I can’t sleep or eat well, or concentrate on anything for a long period of time.”

–With assistance from Jinshan Hong and Linda Lew.

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