HONG KONG: Protests have broken out in China’s remote Xinjiang region, as anger boils over three months of harsh Covid curbs, and after a fatal blaze at a locked-down apartment killed 10.
Hundreds of people marched through the streets of the far western territory’s capital, Urumqi, on Friday evening shouting “Lift the lockdown,” according to online videos verified by Nikkei Asia.
“We’ve been under lockdown for more than 100 days,” one resident, who declined to be named, told Nikkei. “Every day people are locked in their homes. There are no government subsidies.”
“There were 10 lives lost and we’ve been under lockdown for [over three months]. We’re all angry.”
It was not clear if virus curbs contributed to the death toll from the apartment fire on Thursday evening.
But Xinjiang, home to Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups, has set China’s record for the most prolonged lockdown – with no end in sight – after authorities started shuttering Urumqi on Aug 10.
Millions of people remain under strict Covid controls in Xinjiang in what critics say marks an expansion of widespread rights abuses against minorities, which the UN this year said could amount to crimes against humanity. China denies all abuse claims.
Some of China’s biggest cities, from Beijing to southern Guangzhou and sprawling Chongqing, are tightening curbs and ordering large swaths of their population indoors as Covid infections soared to new daily records this week. Shanghai endured a gruelling two-month lockdown earlier this year.
But the situation in Xinjiang appears to be among the strictest nationwide.
One Uyghur with family in Urumqi told Nikkei Asia that his relatives are housebound and live under what they described as constant surveillance, despite Beijing saying this month it would loosen its controversial zero-Covid policy.
“They can’t open the door and there are cameras everywhere to make sure they aren’t able to leave,” he said, asking not to be named to protect his family’s safety. “The relaxations don’t make any difference.”
The cities of Urumqi and Yining, with a combined total of about eight million people, have been under severe restrictions for months, with the region of some 26 million also squeezed by travel restrictions.
People who test positive for the respiratory illness are whisked away to quarantine centres, while Xinjiang has pinpointed some 1,100 “high- and low-risk areas” where residents are routinely tested.
Despite these measures, Xinjiang’s official case count hit 3,853 known infections this week, with an average of about 900 a day. China recorded a new daily record of 32,695 nationwide infections on Friday.
Yining, where most of the population is Uyghur, went into lockdown in August and residents shared videos and online posts of the chaos sparked by food and supply shortages. The public outcry, including claims that some residents were starving, was quickly scrubbed by China’s internet censors.
Last week, the city officially lifted its citywide shutdown but some restrictions remain, with daily testing the norm.
“They’re still locked at home, but are now required to work from home,” too, according to a Uyghur whose sibling lives in Yining. “Even though officially it was lifted, it’s still not true.”
And Xinjiang’s Communist Party boss, Ma Xingrui, warned that “the situation is still serious and complicated,” as he said the virus had spread to the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar and other cities with predominantly Muslim populations.
More than one million Uyghurs have been held in what critics describe as internment camps and have been allegedly subjected to torture, forced labour and sterilisation.
China has described the camps as training centres to combat terrorism and separatist activity.
Xinjiang and Tibet, another region with a large ethnic minority population, have been subject to harsher censorship than other parts of the country, largely due to authorities’ already tight control.
Several Yining residents were arrested in September over allegations that they spread false rumours online about pandemic controls.
This month, three men in Xinjiang were investigated by the region’s internet regulator over similar claims. Ma, the regional leader, later visited parts of Urumqi and said the government should “severely crack down on fabrication and spreading of rumours,” according to state media.
China has long defended tight pandemic controls for saving lives. But some activists and critics say the harsh lockdowns are an extension of abuses against Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities, who make up about half the population.
“It’s a very convenient way for authorities to try to justify a greater capacity for surveillance and imposing constraints on people,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Right Watch.
“States have an obligation to provide both public security and public health, but they can’t do it at the expense of rights … none of those rights are present.”