Authorities in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region have implemented comprehensive coronavirus prevention measures and a mandatory lockdown of residents in Ghulja in response to a new outbreak during a peak tourism period, prompting concern by Uyghurs that families will find it harder to make ends meet.
Locals in Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining), a city in far northern Xinjiang near Kazakhstan, have taken to social media to express their concern about the COVID-19 measures inflicting more hardship on them given that many families have already been devastated by the impact of China’s system of internment camps that have deprived them of their breadwinners.
Though over 70 percent of China’s population of 1.4 billion people has been fully vaccinated, the country is struggling to contain sporadic outbreaks of the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus.
Health officials in Ghulja began conducting citywide nucleic-acid testing, a type of diagnostic test that directly detects the virus, in early October after two asymptomatic infections were found in Qorghas (Huocheng), about 90 kilometers (56 miles) west of Ghulja, China’s state-run Global Times reported.
Officials closed Ghulja’s expressway on Oct. 3 and suspended rail travel and flights, advising travelers to wait inside hotels until they were tested, the report said. They also have imposed an indefinite lockdown on city residents.
The move came amid China’s Golden Week public holiday from Oct. 1 to Oct. 7 during which hundreds of millions of people were expected to travel domestically. Many Chinese remained at home, however, because government officials advised against unnecessary travel and gatherings to prevent further COVID-19 virus outbreaks.
Health authorities in Ghulja told RFA that they are monitoring the situation but that they could not disclose the number of people infected with the virus as they had done at the beginning of 2020.
“It can't be reported,” one official told RFA.
Chinese media outlets meanwhile are reporting on the situation not based on medical information, but rather according to the directives of the ruling Communist Party’s Propaganda Department.
‘Be brave, my people of Ghulja’
Measures implemented during the health crisis in Xinjiang have affected the region’s 12 million Uyghurs more than they have the Han Chinese who live there, Uyghur sources told RFA.
The Han Chinese population in Xinjiang enjoys the special protection of the Chinese state, they said, though Uyghur families face daily financial hardship trying to eke out a living with many adults now held in internment camps.
China has held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and others in the camps since 2017, while dismissing widely documented evidence that it has mistreated Muslims living inside and outside the camps — including testimony from former detainees and guards describing widespread abuses in interviews with RFA and other media outlets.
With the vast majority of the workforce now in camps and prisons, residents who need laborers for maintenance and building work have expressed apprehension that the indefinite COVID-19 lockdown will make their lives even more difficult.
“Be brave, my people of Ghulja, who have been trapped in their homes since October 3rd. … Especially the businesspeople who depend on daily income. Be patient, there is wisdom in everything,” wrote one Uygur resident on social media.
Residents in Ghulja’s Khorgos Mazar, Jelilyuzi, Onyar, and Dongmazar districts told RFA by phone that their doors have been locked from the outside and they have been trapped in their homes for at least a week.
“The doors are locked, sealed, and we are sitting at home without leaving,” said one resident.
Because authorities have ordered no information about the situation to be released during the lockdown, most residents said that the sudden imposition of stay-at-home orders has made it impossible for them to go out and shop for food.
The inability of most residents to move around, or even to go outside into their front yards and backyards, indicates the severity of the restrictions, they said.
Residents also complained that the unexpected lockdown has barred them from going to work and from accessing routine medical care.
Threats of ‘training centers’
The head of one 10-family unit — a social structure set up by Chinese authorities in early 2017 to maintain control over Uyghurs by making one person responsible for each group — said that the strict implementation of lockdown rules, along with a warning that those who violate the rules would be taken to “training centers,” have terrorized local residents.
“If we lack food, we need to go get food, but now we can’t do this because it’s breaking the rules,” he said.
One village Communist Party secretary in Ghulja said officials told residents not to leave their homes.
“We have told them that they should know that if they violate the rules, we will hand them over to the authorities, and the authorities will send them to ‘training,’” he said.
Because of the lockdown, a pensioner in the Ghulja village of Qash had been unable to take two cows with an unidentified disease to a veterinary hospital or to call a veterinarian.
“He told me his two cows are dead,” said head of the 10-family unit. “They would have been saved if a veterinarian could have come.”
Instead, the two pedigree cows, which were the pensioner's main source of income to provide for the 12 children of his three sons detained in internment camps, died in the cowshed, he said.
Other Uyghur families, especially those who have had to rely on charity and community donations, said they now facing food shortages and possible starvation under the lockdown.
A Jelilyuzi district resident, who is facing a food shortage, told RFA that there were many more people in the community like him who were in the same situation.
“Instead of eating three meals a day, we now eat only one meal a day,” he said. “There are many others like us in this neighborhood.”
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.