China sticks to its zero covid policy and represses despairing complaints on social media about the lack of food and medicines
By Isobel Cockerell
September 23, 2022
Parts of Xinjiang, northwest China, have been under a secretive and draconian lockdown for more than 40 days.
Rehima, a Uyghur woman living in Istanbul, Turkey, whose name has been changed to protect her family, spoke to her husband in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, last week. “They’re trying to kill us,” her husband told her, before saying he felt too hungry and weak to continue talking. “I don’t have the energy to speak,” he said. Rehima described how her husband — who spent three years in one of Xinjiang’s notorious “reeducation” camps before being released earlier this year — was now “devastated” by the lockdown. He has been shut inside his apartment for more than a month and his food supplies are dwindling to nothing.
As China pursues its zero-Covid policy, Uyghurs, the mostly Muslim ethnic group native to the region, are growing increasingly desperate as they report running out of basic needs including medical supplies. Bypassing strict controls on communication and risking their livelihoods by doing so, Uyghurs have been posting videos on Douyin — the Chinese domestic version of TikTok — highlighting the bleak conditions and the lack of food.
One video shows a young man lying on the floor. The woman filming him says “he just passed out, saying he was starving, he lay down in the yard and has stayed here ever since.” According to Radio Free Asia, as many as 22 people “died of starvation or a lack of medical attention” on September 15 in Ghulja, the third largest city in Xinjiang.
“The entire city has been silent for 41 days,” one commenter wrote on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, referring to Ghulja. Now, they’re breaking their silence.
“I’m more than 41 weeks pregnant, 9 days past my due date,” read one post on Weibo. “I waited at the hospital for five hours when they told us they were closing. What are we supposed to do?”
Videos uploaded to the app show mothers caring for feverish babies, locals arguing with police at checkpoints, and people collapsing on the street, apparently from hunger.
Uyghurs living around the world have been alarmed by the news they are getting, and say they are deeply concerned about their relatives in the region. Activists set up numerous groups to try to collect and verify evidence uploaded to Chinese social media. The Uyghur community in Turkey, the Netherlands, and Australia have held protests against the lockdowns outside Chinese embassies, while more are being planned in the United States.
As the rest of the world transitions out of the pandemic, China continues to operate a policy of stamping out the virus with the harshest possible measures. When a single case of the virus is detected in a community, vast numbers of people are ordered to test and quarantine. In Shanghai earlier this year, lockdown measures meant people ran out of food, and many reported beginning to starve.
Now, a similar situation is unfolding in Xinjiang, the severe lockdown measures another trial inflicted on the resident Uyghur population who have endured years of the harshest surveillance crackdown in the world. As many as a million Uyghurs in Xinjiang have been funneled into concentration camps, with more corralled into forced labor programs.
“The Chinese government is already committing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang in the name of counterterrorism,” said Yaqiu Wang, Senior China Researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Now, on top of that, the authorities are confining people in their homes in the name of the zero-covid policy, denying many residents access to food, medical care and other life necessities.”
Elsewhere in China, strict Covid-prevention measures are still in place, with cities across the country frequently placed under quarantine without warning. In the southwestern province of Guizhou, a bus transporting residents to a quarantine center crashed on Sunday, killing 27 people. A photo showed the bus driver driving at night, wearing goggles, gloves, and a full hazmat suit. The crash caused uproar on Chinese social media, which was quickly suppressed by censors. “Our destiny is like that bus, driving into the falling night,” wrote one Weibo user.
Also circulated widely in China were posts by a group of friends calling on people to “resolutely oppose the national testing regime, lockdowns across the country, and the epidemic prevention measures.”
In Tibet, authorities in the capital of Lhasa have apologized for their handling of Covid measures, where residents report similar conditions to those in Xinjiang — a lack of food, medical care, and a dysfunctional testing system. Tibetans have taken to social media to complain of crowded, dirty conditions in quarantine facilities, with little access to food or drinking water.
On Monday, Chinese officials said the number of new Covid infections was decreasing in Xinjiang region, with a total of 153 confirmed cases, and said “the majority of affected countries, cities, and districts have basically resumed normal life,” with thousands of tonnes of flour, oil and rice being delivered to the Yili region, from where the most desperate videos have originated.
The region is usually under a de facto communication blackout, with very little information available online about daily life in Xinjiang. Uyghurs fear the repercussions, including arrest, of posting about their reality on social media. But as the zero-Covid policy lockdown enters its second month and people have begun to run out of food, they have little left to lose by protesting on social media.
“I think they’re in a desperate position,” said Idris Ayas, 30, a Uyghur activist in Turkey. “ That’s why some of them, even though they face tremendous repression from the local government, are still choosing to resist.”