As China battles a rising wave of pandemic cases despite its zero-COVID policy of rolling lockdowns, compulsory testing and mass electronic tracking of citizens via the Health Code smartphone app, there are growing signs the policy is being unevenly applied across the country, analysts told Radio Free Asia.
In ethnic minority regions under Beijing’s control, the strict policy is yet another layer of government control to add to the prospect of detention in “re-education” or forced labor facilities and ubiquitous surveillance of their daily lives.
While authorities in Tibet announced a partial easing of pandemic restrictions this week, allowing some people to go back 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 is unclear just how bad the current outbreak in Xinjiang is.
More than 1,000 districts in Xinjiang, 665 of which were reported in the regional capital Urumqi, have been designated “high risk,” meaning residents are likely under full lockdown with orders to remain at home.
Yet the entire region only reported 19 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, alongside 928 asymptomatic cases.
Meanwhile, footage from inside a quarantine facility showed plywood partitions in a huge warehouse with rows of camp beds on a concrete floor and rows of urns delivering boiling water, with do-it-yourself brooms and open trash cans by way of hygiene arrangements.
Dozens of men, women and children were visible in the facility, huddled on beds alone or in groups, with some wearing surgical masks amid the sound of coughing.
“We’ve been brought to this quarantine facility. There’s neither a doctor nor medical equipment here,” a woman who shot the video says from behind the camera. “A man almost died last night because he had heart disease. There’s nothing for disinfection. It is extremely dirty.”
“Is this a quarantine facility or an internment camp, or a lab for running tests on patients?” the woman says. “Why were we brought here? They brought healthy people here to get infected.”
She continues to say that authorities didn’t allow people to gather in their neighborhoods and brought them to the facility and told to play cards together.
“What is this? Whose idea is this to prevent what disease? … Is there anyone who can answer these questions?” the woman says.
In September 2022, at least 13 Uyghurs died as a result of poisoning from disinfectants sprayed in their homes as part of a bid to fight a wave of coronavirus infections in Xinjiang’s Guma (in Chinese, Pishan) county and Hotan (Hetian) prefecture, local officials told RFA at the time.
Exploiting pandemic to exert control
U.S.-based legal scholar and rights activist Teng Biao said COVID-19 policy across China has long since been divorced from any genuine concerns over the effect of the virus on the population, particularly in Xinjiang.
“The zero-COVID policy espoused by the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping hasn’t been genuinely about pandemic prevention measures for a long time now,” Teng told RFA’s Uyghur Service. “It’s about grabbing the opportunity to increase their control over the whole of society, using the pandemic as a pretext.”
“In Xinjiang, there’s another aim in addition to that, which is to use the pandemic to step up the persecution and suppression of Uyghurs, adding disease control and prevention measures to their use of concentration camps and other methods, so that every person, every household, is under their control,” he said.
U.S.-based current affairs commentator Ma Ju agreed.
“This policy they are rolling out in the south of Xinjiang that’s of high importance to Ma Xingrui is at its core a political task of a whole new order,” he said. “They want to eradicate any political opposition they think may still exist, or even so-called forces who aren’t totally on-message, by wiping out the last cries of dissent.”
Authorities are stepping up controls on people living in ethnic minority areas, including “ever more brazen and unscrupulous measures that are both inhumane and anti-humanitarian in nature,” he said.
Xi is using officials’ willingness to implement the policy as a measure of their loyalty to his political vision, which he likened to a bid to turn everyone into “clones,” he said.
Local governments appeared on Wednesday to be scrambling to show they are 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 city of Sanya.
Nomura Securities estimated earlier this week that districts and localities accounting for nearly one-fifth of China’s total GDP are under some form of lockdown or curbs, Reuters reported.
China reported 28,883 new domestically transmitted cases for Tuesday, the majority of which were clustered in major manufacturing hubs 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 in a bid to keep cases down, while at the same time claiming to be easing restrictions following a directive from the Central Committee earlier this month.
Hua said Beijing is under a de facto lockdown, but that the authorities are trying to keep it under the official radar.
“All of Beijing’s schools have already shut down … but notifications were made direct from teachers [to households] by phone, not in the group chat,” they said. “District governments aren’t now issuing notices [about COVID-19 restrictions]. They’re saying it’s every district for itself.”
In the northern city of Shijiazhuang, the government issued a notice informing local residents of the easing of restrictions on Nov. 13, but by Nov. 20 was once more ordering de facto lockdowns, school closures and mass testing, with “closed-loop bubbles” in place at many workplaces to slow the spread of infection.
In Guangzhou, where there have been more than 9,000 cases daily over the past nine days, restaurants have been shut down in Tianhe district, while subway and bus services are suspended in Baiyun district, a local resident surnamed Liang told RFA.
“If you go out to eat, you can’t eat in, first of all,” Liang said. “You can’t go to buy groceries either, [because] if you go to the street markets you could get trapped [outside your home] if they lock down your residential community.”
He said a number of districts are currently building quarantine camps, including Tianhe, Huadu and Nansha, suggesting the easing of restrictions was fairly meaningless on the ground.
A resident of Shenzhen who gave only the surname Feng said even rural villages are now building quarantine facilities.
“Every village has to build a basic facility, even in rural areas,” she said. “The investment for each one is three million yuan.”
“Shenzhen is also building an isolation facility right now, with thousands of small rooms available as soon as it’s done,” she said.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.