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China has banned residents from leaving Xinjiang over a Covid-19 outbreak – just weeks after the far-western region began relaxing restrictions from a stringent extended lockdown, fueling public frustration among those scarred by food shortages and plunging incomes.
On Tuesday, the region – home to 22 million people, many belonging to ethnic minorities – reported 38 new asymptomatic Covid cases.
It was enough to alarm officials, with Xinjiang’s Vice Chairman Liu Sushe vowing to “strengthen the control of cross-regional personnel and insist that people do not leave the region unless it is necessary.”
Liu added that Xinjiang will strengthen control measures in airports, train stations and checkpoints to prevent the virus from spreading to other parts of the country. All outbound trains, inter-provincial buses and most flights will be suspended until further notice.
At the airport in Urumqi, the regional capital, 97% of departing flights and 95% of arriving flights were canceled on Wednesday, according to data from flight tracking company Variflight. Meanwhile, all flights departing Kashgar, a southern oasis town home to Xinjiang’s second-largest airport, were canceled – except for two heading to Urumqi.
China is the world’s last major economy still enforcing strict zero-Covid measures, which aim to stamp out chains of transmission through border restrictions, mass testing, extensive quarantines, and uncompromising snap lockdowns.
“The current round of Covid-19 outbreak is the fastest spreading, most widespread, most infectious and most difficult to control public health emergency in the history of Xinjiang,” Liu said.
Since July 30, Xinjiang has reported a total of 5,790 infections.
Liu said that Xinjiang would make sure to “create a favorable environment” for the success of the 20th Party Congress – a meeting of the party elite later this month, where Xi Jinping is expected to be appointed to a third term in power, further cementing his status as the most powerful Chinese leader in decades.
The run-up to the congress, the most significant event on the Chinese political calendar, is particularly sensitive, with authorities nationwide working to smooth the way and contain any potential hiccups – like an untimely Covid outbreak.
But in Xinjiang, the news of the region’s shuttered borders dismayed many residents for whom the pain of the last lockdown is still fresh.
Many parts of Xinjiang were placed under strict lockdown from August to September, with people in affected areas banned from leaving their homes – causing severe shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities.
Yang Fei, 34, has been trapped in Urumqi since he traveled there in July to visit his girlfriend, with the city locking down on August 10. He requested a pseudonym, fearing retaliation for speaking out.
As a cancer survivor, Yang had most of his stomach removed and needs to have smaller but more frequent meals – something that became extremely difficult during the extended lockdown due to food shortages.
Over 30 days, he said he received just three deliveries of groceries from community authorities, and fainted from hunger twice. He said he repeatedly called the mayor’s hotline and the police, to no avail; social media calls for help went unanswered. He ran out of food by early September; after not eating for 24 hours, he finally called for an ambulance with his remaining strength before passing out.
Community workers eventually broke into his apartment, and brought him a food package comprised of three potatoes, a cabbage, a leek, and some peppers and garlic. Yang had to ration the package over three days.
By early September, Xinjiang residents – from Urumqi to the cities of Yining and Korla – had taken to social media en masse to cry for help, drawing attention to the pain of the extended lockdowns.
On September 3, Urumqi officials apologized at a press conference for the “shortcomings and deficiencies” in the city’s Covid control, including the shortage of groceries, medicine and infant formula in some residential communities. Officials in Yining and Korla later also apologized.
On Wednesday, Yang – who is still stuck in Urumqi – told CNN that starting last week, he had been allowed to leave his residential compound for three hours every day to buy groceries. Residents were still banned from leaving the city, or entering other districts within Urumqi.
This limited reopening only lasted seven days before the regional lockdown was announced – dashing any hope of him leaving Xinjiang.
“I haven’t been able to work for two months. And I have no income, the only thing I can do is to not starve,” he said.
Yang added that Covid restrictions elsewhere in China pale in comparison to the harshness of the lockdown in Urumqi. In tightly-controlled Xinjiang, where Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been subject to years of intense crackdown, authorities have taken a hardline approach – both to carry out zero-Covid policies, and to snuff out any sign of dissent.
The sweeping surveillance systems put in place to target ethnic minorities are now used to track the digital footprints of residents speaking out against Covid restrictions online. Yang and many social media users say they have received phone calls or home visits from the police, who told them to delete their posts criticizing the lockdown.
And though Tuesday’s announcement made no mention of people needing to stay home, the regional lockdown sparked panic anyway.
“People are hoarding supplies again today in our residential compound … Do I have to stock up?” one Weibo user posted. “Who can endure another round of suffering?”
Many worried that the border closures could interfere with their postgraduate exams, required for admission into all graduate schools in China. Scheduled for December, it only takes place once a year – alarming some in Xinjiang who booked their exams in test centers outside the region.
Others voiced an increasingly common sense of fatigue and depression after nearly three years of unending restrictions and isolation from the rest of the world.
“We have been wearing masks, doing daily PCR tests – this sudden outbreak really shouldn’t have happened,” one Weibo post read.
“I’m so tired, I almost can’t go on,” another user posted. A commenter commiserated: “Me, too … the lockdown began in summer and now it’s winter already. If we still go back to where we started, after all the losses we suffered from the two-month lockdown, I really can’t live my life anymore.”