August 15, 2022
People queue for COVID-19 tests in Lhasa, China's western Tibet Autonomous Region, on Aug. 9. | CNS / VIA AFP-JIJI
To combat fresh outbreaks of COVID-19 in outlying areas like Xinjiang and Tibet, Chinese authorities are drawing on a security apparatus previously used to quell dissent against authorities in Beijing.
Broad surveillance measures used over the years against Tibetan Buddhists and mainly Muslim Uyghurs, both minority groups in China, are helping enforce lockdown rules among people long at risk of arbitrary detention. That has helped ensure there’s no public displays of anger like those seen earlier this year during the monthslong lockdown in the financial hub of Shanghai.
“It’s ironic but very convenient for the CCP that it first constructed Uyghur ethno-national identity as a religious extremist ‘thought virus,’ took draconian steps to eradicate it and then a real virus came along for which similar techniques were useful,” said James Millward, professor of history at Georgetown University, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
President Xi Jinping has maintained strict “COVID zero” measures long after other governments abandoned the approach, dealing a blow to the economy and leaving China more isolated on the global stage. His administration has hailed the policy as helping to prevent deaths on a scale seen in the U.S. and Europe, which he aims to portray as a major success during a once-in-five year party meeting later this year at which he’s expected to extend his rule.
The Western region of Xinjiang reported 344 local cases for Sunday, down from 398 the day before. Tibet reported 592 cases on Sunday, up from 502 the day before. Both are part of the growing outbreak sweeping the country, which posted 2,312 new infections for Sunday.
China has faced accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang as part of a campaign to assimilate Uyghurs and other groups into a society dominated by ethnic Han Chinese, who make up more than 90% of the national population. China has consistently rejected allegations of genocide and other abuses, saying it’s fighting separatism and religious extremism.
At least five cities and two counties in Xinjiang imposed restrictions as of Sunday, with most of the capital Urumqi keeping residents locked in their homes. During a previous lockdown, users on the social media platform Weibo found that posts published with Xinjiang hashtags were quickly censored. Many tagged Beijing and Shanghai instead to evade the controls.
Altay in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China, in January 2018. During a previous lockdown in the region, users on the social media platform Weibo found that posts published with Xinjiang hashtags were quickly censored. | REUTERS
“Here people don’t really have voices,” said one 21-year-old Uyghur university student named Lea in the city of Ghulja, near China’s border with Kazakhstan, who was also in Shanghai during the lockdown in April and May. “People here are already tamed, so they don’t have much of that strong reaction compared with Shanghai.”
The student, who asked not to give his full name discussing sensitive issues, said local community offices were now using some anti-terrorism approaches to fight Covid. Community workers that once took people away to re-education schools now send them to quarantine centers. Propaganda is loudly and repetitively broadcast on the street and over the radio, Lea said.
“People are quite scared,” he said.
In Shanghai, where Lea lives during the school year, he said people are more educated and more foreigners are able to shine national attention on the problem. In Xinjiang, he said, privately many are very dissatisfied with the latest COVID-19 measures, especially small business owners who enjoyed a brief window of prosperity over the busy summer tourism season.
“People are very unhappy about how much life’s been so abnormal and absurd,” he said.
Tibet has also been a politically charged region for the party. Riots erupted in its capital of Lhasa in 2008 over allegations of religious oppression, leaving at least a dozen dead. A spate of self-immolations by ethnic Tibetans followed a few years later, and ethnic tensions still simmer.
Tibet reported only one COVID-19 infection from early 2020 until this month, when the region’s 920-day virus-free streak came to an end. The National Health Commission then expressed concern about Tibet’s ability to handle the pathogen, and dispatched health experts from Beijing while also building three hospitals in a few days, providing 4,000 beds in major cities.
A laboratory technician works at a COVID-19 testing facility in Lhasa on Aug. 9. | CNS / VIA AFP-JIJI
Some state media implied the current outbreak came from a neighboring country, even as the region enjoys a boom in mainly ethnic Chinese tourism. The Communist Party-backed Global Times cited an unnamed expert saying that because Xigaze — a Tibetan city that went into lockdown earlier this week — borders India, Nepal and Bhutan, the possibility of infection through trade “cannot be ruled out.”
Robbie Barnett, who headed Columbia University’s Modern Tibetan Studies Program until 2018 and writes extensively about the region, said the “foreign threat” narrative has been an extremely prominent part of political messaging in the Tibetan border areas for the last two years.
Even before COVID-19, the region was inaccessible for many foreigners, including journalists, said Ashwin Verghese, communications officer for the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet.
“With other parts of China, at least you do have some level of access,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that it’s harder because there is not that independent opportunity to verify some of the information.”