BEIJING — Residents of a city in the far west of China’s Xinjiang region say they are suffering from hunger, forced quarantines and dwindling stocks of medicine and daily necessities after more than 40 days coronavirus lockdown.
Hundreds of posts from Ghulja have enthralled Chinese social media users over the past week, with locals sharing videos of empty fridges, feverish children and people screaming from their windows.
The dire conditions and food shortages are reminiscent of a severe lockdown in Shanghai this spring, when thousands of residents posted online complaining of being given rotten vegetables or being denied essential medical care.
But unlike Shanghai, a glittering, cosmopolitan metropolis of 20 million people and home to many foreigners, harsh lockdowns in smaller towns like Ghulja have received less attention.
As more infectious variants of the coronavirus creep into China, outbreaks have become increasingly common. Under China’s “zero-Covid” strategy, tens of millions of people face continued lockdowns, crippling the economy and making travel uncertain.
The confinement in Ghulja also raises fears of police brutality among the Uyghurs, the Turkish ethnic group originating from Xinjiang. For years, the region has been the target of an extensive security crackdown, trapping large numbers of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in a vast network of camps and prisons. An earlier lockdown in Xinjiang was particularly difficult, with drugs forced, arrests and residents doused in disinfectant.
Yasinuf, a Uighur studying at a university in Europe, said his mother-in-law had sent chilling voicemails over the weekend saying she was being forced into central quarantine due to a mild cough. The officers who came to pick her up reminded her, she said, of the time her husband was taken to a camp for more than two years.
“It’s judgment day,” she sighed, in an audio recording reviewed by The Associated Press. “We don’t know what will happen this time. All we can do now is trust our creator.
Food was scarce. Yasinuf said his parents told him they were running out of food, despite stocking up before the lockdown. Without deliveries and banned from using their backyard ovens for fear of spreading the virus, her parents survived on uncooked dough made from flour, water and salt. Yasinuf refused to give his last name for fear of reprisals against his relatives.
He hasn’t been able to study or sleep for the past few days, he said, because the thought of his relatives in Ghulja keeps him awake at night.
“Their voices are still in my head, saying things like I’m hungry, please help,” he said. “It’s the 21st century, it’s unthinkable.”
Nyrola Elima, a Uighur from Ghulja, said her father was rationing their dwindling supply of tomatoes, sharing one every day with her 93-year-old grandmother. Another relative, her aunt, panics because she lacks milk to feed her 2-year-old grandson.
At a press conference last week, the local governor apologized for “the shortcomings and shortcomings” of the government’s response to the coronavirus, alluding to “blind spots and missed spots”, and promised improvements.
But even as authorities acknowledged the complaints, censors worked to silence them. The posts have been deleted from social media. Some videos were deleted and reposted dozens of times as people battled online censors.
Several people in the region told AP that the online posts reflected the dire nature of the lockdown, but declined to detail their own situation, saying they feared reprisals.
On Monday, local police announced the arrest of six people for ‘spreading rumours’ about the lockdown, including posts about a dead child and a suspected suicide, which they said ‘incited opposition’ and “disturbed the social order”.
Leaked guidelines from government offices show workers being told to avoid negative news and spread ‘positive energy’ instead. One called on state media to film “smiling seniors” and “kids having fun” in neighborhoods emerging from lockdown.
“Those who hype, spread rumors and make unreasonable accusations should be dealt with according to law,” a notice warned.
The AP was unable to independently verify the reviews. China’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
As authorities mobilize, conditions have improved for some. A resident, reached by phone, said food deliveries had resumed after stopping for a few weeks. Residents of its compound are now allowed to walk around their yard for a few hours a day.
“The situation is gradually improving, it has improved a lot,” she said.