In Xinjiang, Rare Protests Came Amid Lockdown

Almost exactly a year after China imposed its first targeted lockdown in Wuhan, the country has begun fighting its worst outbreak since March. Across northern cities, tens of millions have been placed into lockdown. With cases, slowly, beginning to tick up in Xinjiang, some fear a repeat of last summer.

Six months after China rolled out its first coronavirus lockdown in Wuhan in late January 2020, Urumqi was placed under quarantine. The first lockdown specifically targeting the capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, rather than the region as a whole, which began July 18, was not unique; lockdowns of infected cities have been a key tool to controlling outbreaks in China since the coronavirus began spreading. But in a region subject to strict control, the Urumqi lockdown was China’s strongest lockdown yet. And it proved an unusual catalyst for public backlash by the Han majority against the country’s most notorious surveillance regime.

When COVID-19 cases were detected in Xinjiang on July 15, the reaction from the Xinjiang COVID-19 epidemic prevention and control headquarters was swift. From July 15 to July 19, 47 cases were confirmed in Xinjiang, most of them in Urumqi. Residents of the capital (except essential workers) were banned by local authorities from leaving their homes starting from July 17. In a briefing, the Information Office of the People’s Government of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region announced that the city had entered a “wartime” state. The Urumqi COVID-19 epidemic prevention and control headquarters halted group activities and videos widely circulated online showed people handcuffed reportedly for violating quarantine rules. Meanwhile, members of neighborhood committees, or shequ (the Chinese Communist Party’s most local level of governance), went from door to door to seal off apartments across the city.

The lockdown lasted six weeks and succeeded in bringing the number of cases in Urumqi, a city of 4.4 million, down from 112 new cases a day at its peak to zero. But as the weeks ticked by, public condemnation mounted on Weibo and WeChat. A woman wrote of struggling to receive timely assistance after she had complications in childbirth at a local clinic. A father wrote about how his 7-month-old accidentally swallowed a glass ball and he couldn’t get an ambulance. A young man returned to Xinjiang to visit his dying father but could not see him before he died due to the weeks-long quarantine period. Those suffering from depression wrote of being unable to pick up their prescribed medicine and feeling extremely hopeless.

The lockdown in Urumqi was even stricter than that imposed in Wuhan in January, angering Han Chinese residents living in Xinjiang. Some who had been “in close contact with COVID-19 patients” wrote on their Weibo accounts that they were quarantined in unfurnished buildings and were provided with either raw or rotten food. Farmers were not allowed to harvest or sell their fruit and vegetables and agonized, publicly, over the loss of a year’s work and significant income.

A Han Urumqi resident who went by the name Wu Jun wrote on Weibo that neighborhood cadres taped his door shut. He couldn’t open the door, he said, even to take out the garbage, and supplies were delivered to him every three days by neighbors aiding in the pandemic response—part of a group of 210,000 “neighborhood cadres” in Urumqi alone. He said his neighbors faced the same treatment.

“Someone secretly ordered takeout and was publicly criticized by the neighborhood committee head of epidemic prevention,” Wu said in August, one month into the lockdown. “Sometimes, we received vegetables with a moldy flavor. I have heard someone bought lamb at three times the original price, but I haven’t been able to purchase any meat for many days. Since people are not allowed to walk their dogs anymore, I hear dogs howling constantly.”

Wu never tested positive for COVID-19, but, like his neighbors, he was ordered by the neighborhood committee officers to take Lianhua Qingwen, a traditional medication. He re-posted a WeChat message from the neighborhood officers outlining the requirements, including that residents photograph themselves taking the medication.

In a Weibo post, a man who went by the name Wang Yong, and who is also Han, described similar experiences, writing: “Neighborhood officials ordered residents to have the medicine and water ready so that when medical teams went door to door to take temperatures, residents could take the medicine in front of them, on camera.”

“Someone told me the Chinese traditional medicine was called Qingfei Paidu,” Wang told ChinaFile by phone. The medication is made from a blend of herbs, some of them banned in the U.S. and elsewhere because of their toxicity. He sent ChinaFile photos of neighbors who had had allergic reactions, including a woman who had a rash on her face. Wang said the woman complained to a neighborhood committee officer about the rash, but the officer told her she “must continue taking the medicine, there is no way around it, it is required by the government.”

Many similar posts and videos circulated online. One resident wrote: “I’m fine, why do I have to take the medicine? Why can they do whatever they want in the name of benefiting me?” Someone else wrote, “Is this a prison or cage? Is this prevention or suppression?” Inspired by the public pushback in Wuhan, Urumqi residents jointly opened their windows in late August and shouted out their frustrations; a video of the protest went viral.

For years, the government in Xinjiang has been using electronic databases coupled with tools like cameras and face scanners to keep track of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities through what is perhaps the most repressive surveillance system in the world. But the surveillance has been strictly aimed at controlling ethnic minorities, and the Han population living in Xinjiang has generally been supportive of (or at least quiet about) such restrictions. For some, the lockdown marked a rare moment of insight into the excesses of this system.

As angry residents filled Weibo’s “Urumqi” tag with complaints, which quickly went viral, authorities moved to delete Weibo posts and block accounts. Soon, all posts marked with the “Urumqi” tag were deleted. Some Xinjiang netizens started putting Weibo’s “Beijing” tag on their posts instead. Some of these posts were shared thousands of times and eventually picked up by Western media outlets, including The New York Times, NPR, and The Guardian.

As these publications reported on the severity of the Xinjiang lockdown, local residents started to delete their posts.

Some people did so because they were forced. According to a Weibo post, a neighborhood committee office in Urumqi announced that: “all neighborhood residents who have Weibo accounts should stop using them and delete them. People who spread negative information on Weibo will be held accountable. . . It will impact their moral standing, career opportunities, work, children’s education, and chances of joining the Communist Party. . . Residents who don’t wish to bring themselves unnecessary trouble should educate their children and delete their Weibo posts.”

Others removed them so as not to “wash dirty linen in public” (or, as the common idiom states, “don’t spread family shame abroad,” 家丑不可外扬). On August 25, Wu Jun and I had a long telephone conversation to make sure that I was not part of the “foreign hostile forces.” He told me that the last thing he wanted to happen was to give these “foreign hostile forces” a reason to criticize China’s human rights record and thus damage the “heroic image” projected by the Chinese government.

“I do not want to ruin the Chinese government’s huge success in containing this deadly virus,” Wu told me. He was angry and annoyed that his personal freedom had been curtailed, but after years of patriotic education, he felt obligated to sacrifice himself for the greater good of his motherland. He told me he didn’t want to be seen as disloyal to China and that he had no desire to be the next Fang Fang, a famous author who had drawn strong criticism from nationalists for posting daily diary entries online while under Wuhan’s lockdown, often describing frustrations with the restrictions.

Wu said no one forced him to delete his Weibo posts, and that after our first conversation he started to doubt whether he should complain when “the government has spent a lot of money and resources on protecting people from catching COVID-19.” This led him to reflect on whether all the Weibo posts were truthful, or if they had been based on rumors spread by Western media outlets. He took pains to let me know that after the complaints went viral, volunteers provided him with some fresh meat and eggs.

“China did well in controlling COVID-19, much better than the United States,” Wu concluded.

On August 23, when I reached out to Wang for a second interview, he offered a similar outlook. He stressed that he was only upset about Urumqi officials who didn’t execute the lockdown plan well, but he agreed with China’s Xinjiang policy, including the mass surveillance system.

“I have lived in Xinjiang for many years. I know all the potential terrorist risks in this region,” said Wang. “It’s not like we cannot be in a lockdown—we would understand it. However, the government should let us know how long the lockdown will last, and what the actual situation is. There aren’t many confirmed cases in Xinjiang, so why lock down communities that have no confirmed cases?”

The Urumqi lockdown was lifted on September 1, and Weibo went quiet. Wu and Wang seemed happy: They had complained online, and, unlike their Uighur neighbors, their voices were heard. Even though Wu’s Weibo account has been blocked since early September, his life gradually went back to normal. We added each other on WeChat, and I could see him occasionally posting patriotic content.

Then, in late October, Wu reached out and told me he had been summoned by the police.

The most educated among his friends, he had started a WeChat group to discuss how to address financial struggles in the wake of the lockdown. The group talked about asking the local government for subsidies.

In mid-October, police identified the group as a potential “danger to the harmony and stability of the country.” Wu, as the main organizer, had to go to the police station and testify that he wouldn’t go to Beijing to appeal for help from higher authorities.

The intimidation he faced at the police station had left him unsettled. “Do Uighurs live like this all the time?” Wu asked me.