As China battles a rising wave of pandemic cases despite its zero-COVID policy with ongoing lockdowns, mandatory testing and mass electronic tracking of citizens via the Health Code smartphone app, there are increasing signs that the policy is being applied unevenly across the country analysts told H Talk Asia.
In ethnic minority regions under Beijing’s control, the tough policy is another layer of state control to increase the prospect of incarceration in “re-education” or forced labor facilities and pervasive surveillance of their daily lives.
While authorities in Tibet this week announced a partial easing of pandemic restrictions to allow some people to return to work, quarantine measures have been extended to the southern part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Ma Xingrui recently visited the southern city of Kashgar, where he reiterated the government’s insistence on sticking to the zero-COVID policy despite recurring lockdown protests in the region.
Huge quarantine facilities in Xinjiang
It’s unclear how bad the current outbreak in Xinjiang is.
More than 1,000 counties in Xinjiang, 665 of which have been reported in the regional capital Urumqi, have been classified as “high risk,” meaning residents are likely to be in full lockdown and ordered to stay home.
Still, as of Wednesday, the entire region reported just 19 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19, along with 928 asymptomatic cases.
Meanwhile, footage from a quarantine facility showed plywood walls in a huge warehouse with rows of cots on a concrete floor and rows of urns supplying boiling water, with do-it-yourself brooms and open trash cans as hygiene precautions.
Dozens of men, women and children could be seen at the facility, alone or in groups huddled on beds, some wearing surgical masks amid the sounds of coughing.
“We were taken to this quarantine facility. There is no doctor or medical equipment here,” says a woman behind the camera who shot the video. “Last night a man almost died because he had heart disease. There’s nothing to disinfect. It’s extremely dirty.”
“Is this a quarantine facility or a detention center or a laboratory for testing patients?” says the woman. “Why were we brought here? They brought healthy people here to get infected.”
She goes on to say that the authorities didn’t allow people to gather in her neighborhood and took them to the facility and ordered them to play cards together.
“What is that? Whose idea is this to prevent which disease? … Is there anyone who can answer these questions?” says the woman.
In September 2022, at least 13 Uyghurs died as a result of poisoning from disinfectants sprayed into their homes in Xinjiang’s Guma (Pishan in Chinese) County and Hotan (Hetian) Prefecture as part of an attempt to combat a surge in coronavirus infections Officials said RFA at the time.
Exploiting the pandemic to exert control
US-based legal scholar and human rights activist Teng Biao said COVID-19 policies across China have long been divorced from real concerns about the virus’ impact on the population, particularly in Xinjiang.
“The zero-COVID policy advocated by the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping has long ceased to be really about pandemic prevention measures,” Teng told RFA’s Uyghur Service. “It’s about seizing the opportunity to increase their control over society as a whole, using the guise of the pandemic.”
“In Xinjiang, there is also another goal, which is to use the pandemic to increase the persecution and oppression of the Uyghurs, by adding disease control and prevention measures to the use of concentration camps and other methods so that every human being , every household, is under their control,” he said.
Beijing, China, November 23, 2022: A woman crosses a street during the morning rush hour after the central business district was kept largely empty due to homework orders amid ongoing outbreaks of COVID-19 in Beijing, China, November 23, 2022. Photo credit: Reuters
US-based current affairs commentator Ma Ju agreed.
“This policy they are introducing in southern Xinjiang, which is of great importance to Ma Xingrui, is at its core a whole new order political task,” he said. “They want to root out any political opposition they believe still exists, or even so-called forces that aren’t entirely on their guard, by snuffing out the last cries of dissent.”
Authorities are stepping up controls on people living in ethnic minority areas, including “increasingly brazen and ruthless measures that are both inhumane and anti-humanitarian in nature,” he said.
Xi uses officials’ willingness to implement policies as a measure of their loyalty to his political vision, which he likened to trying to “clones” everyone, he said.
Local governments appeared Wednesday to show they’re on board with the closure of malls and parks in Beijing, where authorities told people to stay home, and similar measures in the Hainan resort town of Sanya.
Nomura Securities earlier this week estimated that counties and localities accounting for nearly a fifth of China’s total GDP are under some form of lockdown or restrictions, Reuters reported.
China reported 28,883 new domestically transmitted cases Tuesday, most of which were clustered in the major manufacturing hubs of Chongqing and Guangzhou, the agency reported.
Hua Fang, a person close to the disease control and prevention system, said many local authorities are keeping up with mass testing and lockdowns to keep cases down, while claiming to ease restrictions following an order from the central committee early this month.
Hua said Beijing is under a de facto lockdown but authorities are trying to keep it under the official radar.
“All the schools in Beijing have already been closed… but the notifications were made directly by the teachers [to households] by phone, not in group chat,” they said. “County governments are not issuing notices now [about COVID-19 restrictions]. They say it’s a separate district.”
In the northern city of Shijiazhuang, the government issued a notice on Nov. 13 informing residents of the easing of restrictions, but again ordered de facto lockdowns, school closures and “closed-loop” mass testing until Nov. 20 -Blowers “on” introduced in many workplaces to slow the spread of infection.
In Guangzhou, which has seen more than 9,000 cases daily for the past nine days, restaurants in Tianhe district have been closed while subway and bus services in Baiyun district have been suspended, a local resident surnamed Liang told RFA.
“Especially when you go out to eat, you can’t eat inside,” Liang said. “You can’t go buy groceries either, [because] If you go to the street markets you could get caught [outside your home] when they lock down your shared apartment.”
He said a number of districts are currently building quarantine camps, including Tianhe, Huadu and Nansha, suggesting the easing of restrictions on the ground is pretty meaningless.
A Shenzhen resident, who gave only the surname Feng, said even rural villages are now building quarantine facilities.
“Every village has to set up basic services, even in rural areas,” she said. “The investment for each is three million yuan.”
“Shenzhen is also currently building an isolation facility where thousands of small rooms will be available as soon as they are completed,” she said.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.