China has employed high-tech surveillance tools and thousands of law enforcement officers to lock down the restive Xinjiang province in a bid to halt the largest outbreak of Covid-19 since Wuhan.
More than 500 infections have been discovered since the middle of July in Xinjiang, the north-western region where the Chinese Communist party has interned more than 1m Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims.
Despite the rollout of blanket surveillance and strict controls on movement in Xinjiang, where authorities been accused by Washington and London of human rights abuses, coronavirus cases have continued to rise.
There has been scant information about the Xinjiang outbreak while infections that appeared in other areas of China since March have been openly discussed. During those outbreaks, Chinese media have traced the transmission chain at a granular level and experts have provided regular commentary.
For Xinjiang, however, authorities only admitted to a new outbreak after a traveller from the region arrived in Zhejiang province on China’s east coast and tested positive for Covid-19.
Huang Yanzhong, a public health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think-tank, said Beijing had done less to publicise the outbreak in Xinjiang than in other parts of the country. That, he said, was probably due to concerns about social and political stability in the region.
Mr Huang added that the outbreak would probably be brought under control, as it was in Wuhan, where the virus was first discovered. But the authorities’ inability to find the origin of the outbreak was worrying.
Overseas Uighur groups have also raised concerns about the spread of Covid-19 in detention centres, prisons and re-education camps across the region.
The Uyghur Human Rights Project, a Washington-based advocacy group, wrote to the World Health Organization in February to express concern that the virus could spread rapidly in the overcrowded and unhygienic facilities.
The group is now concerned that the government’s “wartime” measures could be used as an excuse to “lock people in their homes for weeks without prior warning”.
The Xinjiang government has denied accusations that it is “sealing off” the region, saying its efforts to prevent the spread of the disease are similar to those applied in other cities.
But some Xinjiang residents believe they are being subjected to harsher measures than had been applied in other regions, such as Beijing. An outbreak in June led to parts of the capital being shut down, while other areas remained largely unaffected.
“Everyone has been locked down in their homes now, regardless of their area’s alert level,” said one resident, who declined to be named. “I did not expect the notice to be this short and they never told us how long the lockdown would last.” Residents were given only a few hours’ notice to prepare for lockdown.
A system of community-by-community surveillance and social control by local officials has been used to enforce quarantines while checkpoints on roads have enforced travel restrictions, residents said.
Despite cases being concentrated in Urumqi, the provincial capital, the restrictions have also spread to some villages, where households have been told by local officials not to leave their homes.
“There is not a single person on the streets,” one village resident said.