China bans residents from leaving Xinjiang, weeks after the latest Covid lockdown

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Hong Kong

China has banned residents from leaving Xinjiang due to a Covid-19 outbreak – just weeks after the western region began to relax restrictions from a prolonged strict lockdown, fueling public frustration among those facing food shortages and reduced incomes.

On Tuesday, the region – home to 22 million people, many from ethnic minorities – reported 38 new asymptomatic Covid cases.

It was enough to alarm officials that Xinjiang Vice President Liu Sush would “strengthen control of workers between regions and that people should not leave the region unless necessary.”

Liu added that Xinjiang will strengthen control measures at airports, railway stations and checkpoints to prevent the virus from spreading to other parts of the country. All outbound trains, interprovincial buses and most flights will be suspended until further notice.

At Urumqi airport, the regional capital, 97 percent of departing flights and 95 percent of arriving flights were canceled on Wednesday, according to data from flight tracking company Variflight. Meanwhile, all flights out of Kashgar, the southern oasis town with Xinjiang’s second-largest airport, were canceled except for two to Urumqi.

China is still the last economy in the world to follow strict zero-Covid measures, which aim to eliminate chains of transmission through border restrictions, mass testing, extensive quarantines and uncompromising lockdowns.

“The current round of the Covid-19 outbreak is the most rapid, widespread, infectious and difficult-to-control public health emergency in Xinjiang’s history,” Liu said.

As of July 30, Xinjiang has reported a total of 5,790 infections.

Liu said Xinjiang would make sure to “create a good environment” for the success of the 20th Party Congress – a meeting of the party’s elite later this month where Xi Jinping is expected to be nominated for a third term in power, further consolidating it. the status of being the most powerful Chinese leader in decades.

The run-up to the congress, the most significant event on China’s political calendar, is particularly sensitive, with authorities across the nation working to smooth the way and contain potential hiatuses, such as an early outbreak of Covid.

But in Xinjiang, news of the closure of the region’s borders upset many residents whose pain is still fresh from the latest blockade.

Many parts of Xinjiang were placed under strict lockdown from August to September, with people in affected areas barred from leaving their homes, causing severe shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities.

Yang Fei, 34, has been trapped in Urumqi since he went to visit his girlfriend in July, with the city locked down on August 10. He asked for a pseudonym, fearing retaliation for speaking out.

As a cancer survivor, Yang had most of his stomach removed and has to eat smaller but more frequent meals – which became very difficult during the long lockdown due to food shortages.

Over the course of 30 days, she said she received only three food deliveries from community authorities and twice fainted from hunger. He said he called the mayor’s phone and the police repeatedly, to no avail; Calls for help on social media went unanswered. At the beginning of September he ran out of food; After not eating for 24 hours, he finally called an ambulance before losing his remaining strength.

Community workers eventually entered his apartment and brought him a food package consisting of three potatoes, cloves, leeks and pepper and garlic. Yang had to ration the pack in three days.

In early September, residents of Xinjiang – from Urumqi to the cities of Yining and Korla – took to social media en masse for help, drawing attention to the pain of the prolonged lockdown.

On September 3, Urumqi officials apologized in a press conference for “shortcomings and deficiencies” in the city’s Covid control, including shortages of food, medicine and infant formula in some residential communities. Yining and Korla officials also later apologized.

On Wednesday, Yang, who is still stuck in Urumqi, told CNN that since last week, he has been allowed to leave his residence for three hours every day to buy groceries. Residents were still prohibited from leaving the city, or entering other districts within Urumqi.

Residents stand behind a cordon line as they shop at a fruit stand in China on September 5 in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

This limited reopening lasted seven days before the regional lockdown was announced, with no hope of Xinjiang leaving.

“I haven’t been able to work for two months. And I have no income, the only thing I can do is not to starve,” he said.

Yang added that the Covid restrictions elsewhere in China paled in comparison to the severity of the Urumqi lockdown. In tightly controlled Xinjiang, where Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have endured years of repression, authorities have taken a hard line both to push for zero-Covid policies and to quash any signs of dissent.

Widespread surveillance systems targeting ethnic minorities are now being used to track the digital footprints of residents who speak out online against Covid restrictions. Yang and many other social media users said they received phone calls or home visits from police, who told them to delete posts criticizing the lockdown.

And while Tuesday’s announcement didn’t mention that she should stay at home, the county’s lockdown sparked panic anyway.

“People are stockpiling supplies again today at our HQ…Should I stock up?” Posted by a Weibo user. “Who can bear another round of suffering?”

Many worried that the border closures could disrupt graduate exams, which are required for admission to all graduate schools in China. Scheduled for December, it only happens once a year; it is worrying that some from Xinjiang have been booked into examination centers outside the region.

Others reported an increasingly common sense of exhaustion and depression after nearly three years of borderless confinement and isolation from the world.

“We’ve been wearing masks, doing PCR tests every day – this sudden outbreak really shouldn’t have happened,” read a post on Weibo.

“I’m so tired I can barely keep up,” another user posted. One commenter elaborated: “Me too … the lockdown started in the summer and now it’s already winter. If we go back to where we started, after all the losses I’ve suffered from the two-month lockdown, I can’t live my life anymore.”