Schools in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have reopened despite the ongoing coronavirus epidemic, according to sources in the region, raising concerns that authorities looking to bolster their reputations as having effectively stemmed the outbreak are putting lives at stake.
In recent weeks, the official Xinjiang Daily newspaper reported that some 4.3 million primary, secondary, and tertiary technical school students were on March 23 to return to more than 5,000 institutions across the region that had been shuttered in late January to prevent the spread of the virus and the disease it causes (COVID-19).
Additionally, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that a “series of safety measures” were being adopted at schools in the region to control the virus, which has infected more than 846,000 people worldwide and left some 41,500 dead.
While the number of infections in China—where the virus originated in Hubei province’s Wuhan city—appear to be slowing, Beijing has faced criticism for its slow initial response to the epidemic and its lack of transparency in handling it.
Of the country’s more than 82,000 reported infections and 3,300 deaths, only 76 people were confirmed positive for COVID-19 in the XUAR, resulting in three deaths, according to official data.
Observers have questioned the number of reported cases in the region, where experts say the up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities believed held in a vast network of internment camps since April 2017 are at grave risk of a deadly outbreak, citing cramped conditions and lack of hygiene in the facilities.
RFA’s Uyghur Service recently spoke with staff members at a high school in the capital Urumqi and a Uyghur parent in the city of Atush (in Chinese, Atushi) in Kizilsu Kirghiz (Kezileisu Keerkezi) Autonomous Prefecture, who confirmed that classes are back in session in the region, despite concerns that the coronavirus remains a threat to the local population.
“They have—they started [March 23],” an employee at the Urumqi High School, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA when asked whether students had returned to campus.
A teacher from the school, who also declined to be named, said students no longer have the option of learning from home, as they did when campuses were locked up over the past nearly two months.
“They have to come to the school now … [Online classes] were fine for a while, but it’s not possible to teach students that way now,” the teacher said.
Several students from the southern XUAR and an area administered by the quasi-military Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) live at dorms on campus, they said, while those from Urumqi arrive in the morning, eat lunch at school, and return home in the evening.
‘Nothing to worry about’
When asked about parents’ fears of exposing their children to the coronavirus, the teacher suggested that “there’s nothing to worry about.”
“We’re checking the kids’ temperatures—[staffers] stop them before they come in the front gate of the school and take their temperatures,” the teacher said, adding that students are also checked at midday and again at night.
“The cafeterias are operating as usual. All the teachers and students eat their lunches there.”
Additionally, the teacher said, most life in Urumqi has “returned to normal” over the past three weeks, with businesses back in operation and social events, such as wedding celebrations, resuming across the city.
RFA also spoke with a Uyghur parent in Atush, who said their kids had “gone back to school” amid a regimen of safety measures that includes “wearing masks and gloves,” disinfecting surfaces, and practicing “social distancing” in classrooms.
But when asked whether they felt secure in sending their children back to classes, the parent hung up the phone, suggesting the topic may have been too politically sensitive to comment on.
Speaking to RFA, a New York-based Uyghur researcher in medicine who asked that his name be withheld, citing fear of reprisal against family members back home, acknowledged that the threat the virus poses to children is relatively low, but warned that they could spread it to those who are more vulnerable.
“Even if they are asymptomatic carriers who never get sick themselves, it’s possible that they could cause the deaths of some older people, simply by infecting the adults in their families,” said the researcher, a member of the exile Uyghur community.
“For this reason, measures are being taken in the U.S. to limit the scope of children’s activities for the sake of protecting the elderly. If life has returned to normal in our homeland, it’s possible that the greatest danger is not to children but to their parents and grandparents.”
Ilshat Hesen, an activist and the former president of the Washington-based Uyghur American Association (UAA) exile group, suggested that authorities are reopening schools in the XUAR and other areas of China to peddle a narrative that they have the coronavirus under control, even when it remains a threat.
“I think China is trying to portray itself internationally as strong by [falsely] dropping the number of [new] cases of the virus down to zero, adopting all sorts of measures [for control], and saying that it has eradicated the virus,” he said.
Hesen also cited reports that authorities in the XUAR are sending Uyghurs to work in factories in the region, which he said were part of a raft of “forceful measures to show off to the world” while “shirking their responsibility for the spread of the virus.”
Meanwhile, he said, parents in the region feel that they have no choice but to obey the local government, or risk persecution and detention under the pretext of promoting “separatism” or “religious extremism.”
“The people in our homeland, and people throughout China, don’t believe the lies of the Chinese government—they never have—so the issue here is not that parents have sent their children back to school because they trust the authorities,” Hesen said.
“They have no choice but to send their kids back because of [state] cruelty, because they fear the terror of the Chinese government. This is a sort of helplessness in a context of cruelty. There is no truth in what the parents are saying [about feeling safe having students return to school]. They’re all scared, and they can’t speak the truth on account of the ‘terrorism’ policies that China is pursuing.”
Hesen told RFA that not even majority Han Chinese families in other parts of China can express their own concerns about their children returning to school because they know they will invite official scrutiny and harassment in doing so.
“This is really dangerous, because this virus—we all know this—it hasn’t stopped spreading like they’re saying,” he said.
“They’re putting people’s lives in danger, putting society in danger, for the sake of protecting their own reputations, protecting themselves. They’re sacrificing people’s lives to protect the reputation of the Chinese government.”
Reported by Mehriban for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson and Shahrezad Ghayrat. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.