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  • The San Juan Daily Star

Just bread and noodles: China’s COVID lockdown distress hits Xinjiang

Residents at a fruit stall last week in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region of China, in a photo provided by China News Service. People in Yining have complained they can’t get produce amid a long lockdown there.

By Chris Buckley

This summer, Yining, a city in the Xinjiang region of far-western China, celebrated a boom of Chinese tourists seeking a sunny respite from COVID worries in their hometowns. Now Yining is under its own grueling, weekslong pandemic lockdown, with residents calling for help over limited food, difficulty getting medicines and drastic shortages of sanitary pads for women.

People in the city of 600,000 have been commanded to stay in their homes since early August, forcing many to rely largely on neighborhood officials to deliver supplies.

One resident contacted by telephone said that he received food every five days but that there was little of nutritional value — no fruit, vegetables or meat. He offered only his given name, Zubayr, fearing reprisals from officials over describing the tough conditions.

The conditions in Yining that people described online or in phone interviews with The New York Times echoed those of other cities in China that shut down to enforce the government’s commitment to “dynamic zero COVID,” keeping infections of the coronavirus close to zero. Some Shanghai residents complained loudly about food and medicine shortages earlier this year after officials there were overwhelmed during a citywide shutdown that lasted two months.

But Yining received little national attention until lately. It is in the northwest corner of Xinjiang, an ethnically divided region that has been under an intense crackdown aimed at Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslim minorities. Late last month, the United Nations’ human rights office said the Chinese government’s mass detentions and other repressive measures in Xinjiang “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

In recent days, complaints from Yining have generated a surge of online comments in China. Uyghurs abroad have also shared messages describing poor conditions in quarantine facilities for residents suspected of having had close contact with infected people in Yining, which Uyghurs call Ghulja.

“I think what has happened in Shanghai gets more attention, as it’s a financial hub, and Chinese people can protest,” said Rayhan Asat, a Uyghur human rights lawyer who is a fellow at Yale Law School.

“But things have gone so extreme and compelled people to call for attention,” she said of Yining and other locked down parts of Xinjiang. “Many don’t have the tools or the audacity to share what’s happening to them individually.”

In coming weeks, other cities across China may come under similar pressures. The Communist Party will hold a major congress in mid-October, when delegates are poised to anoint Xi Jinping to another five years as national leader, and local authorities are under intense pressure to stanch outbreaks of COVID that could sully or disrupt the meeting.

Until late July, officials in Yining appeared jubilant about the return of tourists to the area. In past years, many visitors had been deterred by the intimidating security crackdown and warnings across Xinjiang and then by COVID.

With many Chinese people unable to travel abroad and looking for domestic holidays, tourism rebounded to the point that some roads were choked with cars and buses. The Xinjiang government issued rules that it said would prevent COVID’s spread while sparing visitors serious disruptions. Officials in the Yining area opened a tourist festival with a ceremony featuring hot-air balloons and horse riding.

But in late July, Ili — the broader area including Yining — began announcing scattered COVID cases every day: four, and then 20, and then 67. Within a week, the area had recorded over 140 cases. Officials have said the outbreak was from an omicron variant of the coronavirus that originated abroad.

At first, Xinjiang authorities appeared to hope that they could restrict visitor numbers and tighten up checks without hobbling the tourist resurgence. But in mid-August, the Xinjiang government announced that holiday visits from other parts of China to Yining and other infection hot spots would be curtailed.

Yining authorities have kept news about the lockdown muted, but in interviews with the Times, residents said they had been ordered to stay at home since early August. On Aug. 13, Ma Xingrui, the Communist Party secretary of Xinjiang, made a quick visit to the area and put pressure on local officials, reminding them of Xi’s “dynamic zero” COVID goal.

“Take more vigorous and effective measures,” Ma told them, according to an official summary of his comments.

Some of the residents said that food deliveries had been reduced to a monotonous diet of rice, naan or instant noodles. They spoke with the Times on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about a reaction from officials.

A resident named Azad said there had been nothing but instant noodles for two weeks, which he could no longer face more than twice a day. He said it was wreaking havoc with his digestive system. Earlier in the lockdown, there had at least been rice and naan.

Officials have scrambled to head off the rising frustration in Yining by acknowledging failings. Last week they told journalists that there was no truth in rumors that an older resident had hanged himself after suffering severe hunger. The local official news service last week urged overworked local officials to avoid aggravating angry residents.

“Just think: the members of the public have been locked in their homes for over a month,” it said.

On Sunday, health authorities in Xinjiang said that Yining had detected 12 cases of COVID infection the previous day.

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