SHANGHAI – It is China’s longest pandemic lockdown, and probably its least well-known. But residents in the country’s dry and mountainous far west have just marked 100 days of living under the country’s Covid-Zero measures.
Urumqi, the capital of the sprawling Xinjiang region, imposed its first major lockdown measures on Aug 10.
Despite initial success in bringing a flareup back to single digits, an uptick in cases at the end of September prompted the entire region – roughly the same size as the US state of Alaska – to halt travel services in early October.
It essentially sealed itself off from the rest of China to contain the virus spread.
“Most people wouldn’t have imagined the lockdown could continue for this long,” said a 21-year-old university student who spent months sealed in his home in the city of Yining, near the border with Kazakhstan.
The student has now spent nine days in a quarantine centre before being allowed to leave the city. He asked not to be identified because discussions about Xinjiang and his ethnic group are sensitive.
The moves have not quelled rising daily case numbers, which hit more than 800 this week.
But the marathon lockdown now clashes with an overhaul of China’s pandemic response to balance stamping out the virus with minimising hardships on residents.
Major cities are using more targeted measures even with thousands of new infections each day, avoiding city-wide lockdowns and reining in mass testing.
In Xinjiang, there are not yet similar shifts. Its size, remoteness and lack of economic and political sway mean officials are leaning on the strictest policies to prevent their healthcare system from being overwhelmed.
With optimism building that President Xi Jinping is softening China’s pandemic response, the region’s continued outlier status underscores the challenging and uneven path the world’s second-biggest economy faces as it contemplates a Covid-Zero exit.
Even within Xinjiang, easing prospects vary from place to place. Urumqi remains under lockdown, along with most of the rest of the region, while Yining just lifted its months-long shutdown on Wednesday morning.
“The lack of financial and bureaucratic capacity at municipal levels also means there aren’t enough supporting measures when implementing the lockdowns. The discrepancy between policy objectives and actual capability is huge. Covid-Zero is much less effective in undeveloped places, and could bring larger humanitarian loss,” said New York-based Council on Foreign Relations’ senior fellow for global health Huang Yanzhong.
Many cities in China have dealt with strict lockdowns during the pandemic. But Xinjiang’s experience stands out for the authorities’ exceptionally tight control over its 26 million residents, more than half of whom are from ethnic minorities, chiefly Uighurs.
They have been at the centre of a long-running crackdown which the United Nations has said may amount to crimes against humanity.
Officials have utilised a web of surveillance, detentions and policies put in place by Beijing before the pandemic – for what the government says is a fight against terrorism and religious extremism – to apply Covid-Zero measures.
The Xinjiang government did not immediately respond to a fax seeking comment on the region’s Covid-19 measures. At a briefing earlier this week, local officials said multiple areas face heightened risk of a virus resurgence, and the authorities have vowed to implement the optimised virus policies issued by the central government.
“The political imperative for Covid-Zero measures is enhanced in Xinjiang by the extreme securitisation of the region,” said Australian Defence College’s Centre for Defence Research’s senior fellow Michael Clarke, who researches Xinjiang. A major theme of Mr Xi’s leadership has been to emphasise that the region is part of China, and there will be no “coddling” in the name of ensuring ethnic minorities stay quiescent, he said.
That has made publicising Xinjiang’s lockdown difficulties a risky endeavour. Awareness across the rest of China that the region has been under such a long lockdown is low, while police have clamped down on attempts to bring attention to the crisis.
The authorities are investigating three people for disrupting public order after they posted comments during official livestreams, including one person who typed “Urumqi” during a State Council broadcast.
“Any issue related to Xinjiang is categorised as ‘sensitive’ in China, which has led to the strict censorship on everything people post or media coverage,” said the university student from Yining, who was in Shanghai for the financial hub’s lockdown in April and May. “Most people have forgotten about Xinjiang already.”
What manages to trickle through China’s censors has fuelled rare solidarity between Uighurs and ethnic Han who make up more than 90 per cent of the country’s total 1.4 billion population.
A recent video circulating online, which could not be verified by Bloomberg News, allegedly shows people trying to leave Xinjiang by walking through the desert.
The authorities in Xinjiang have previously said they would take action to facilitate people wanting to leave, while also helping migrant workers stranded by the lockdown.
Another video, which also could not be verified, showed PPE-clad people enforcing travel curbs.
Conditions inside quarantine centres are grim. The student, who is staying in a facility before he returns to Shanghai for his studies, estimates that his location can house 3,000 people and is in the “wilderness of Xinjiang”. The beds are stiff and mice constantly visit through a crack in the corner, he said.
It is not certain how, or when, officials on the ground will implement directives from the government and, for now, visiting Xinjiang is difficult. Among the country’s 27 biggest airports, Urumqi had the second-fewest completed flights on Nov 16, at just 4.42 per cent, according to data provider Variflight.
It is also unclear what measures the authorities could roll out to handle an inevitable surge in infections should they lift all lockdowns given that the region, like many other remote parts of the country, remains under-resourced. BLOOMBERG