Chinese authorities impose travel ban in Xinjiang, citing COVID-19 prevention

The stepped-up measure comes less than two weeks before a party congress in Beijing.
By RFA Mandarin and Alim Seytoff for RFA Uyghur
2022.10.05
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Uyghurs wear face masks as they walk along the streets of Aksu in northwestern China's Xinjiang region, March 18, 2021.
Associated Press

Chinese authorities have imposed a travel ban in China’s far-western Xinjiang region to further prevent the spread of the latest coronavirus outbreak, a Xinjiang government official announced Tuesday, just weeks ahead of a sensitive leadership meeting in Beijing later this month.

Under the ban, residents cannot leave the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) unless it is absolutely necessary. Trains and buses destined for places outside the region have nearly stopped operating, and the number of flights has been drastically reduced. People are not allowed to drive their own vehicles outside the XUAR.

The ban comes on the heels of strict residential lockdowns in Xinjiang from August to September that prevented Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities from leaving their homes to get food and medicine amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Some reportedly died of malnourishment or untreated illnesses. Some of the restrictions have now been relaxed.

Authorities would now "curb the spillover momentum of the epidemic as soon as possible and create a favorable environment for the successful convening of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China," Liu Sushe, vice chairman of the XUAR government, told a press conference on epidemic prevention and control in Xinjiang on Tuesday.

The congress is a key political gathering held every five years in Beijing to determine China’s leadership and future policies. Authorities across the country are striving to quell problems, including the COVID-19 outbreak in Xinjiang, ahead of the event so they do not detract from this year’s congress, which begins on Oct. 16. During the gathering, President Xi Jinping is expected to seek an unprecedented third term in office. 

“The outbreak that was effectively controlled by the end of August saw a rebound because people became relaxed and measures were not strictly put in place,” Liu said.

“The rebound led to local spread and spillover to many other provinces, causing trouble for COVID-19 control in neighboring provinces and the country,” he said.

Authorities failed to achieve China’s “dynamic zero COVID-19” policy in the region because of the highly infectious BA.5.2 variant of the virus and the ineffectiveness of control measures, Liu said, noting low testing capacity and staff who mishandled samples and became infected themselves.

The XUAR vice chairman also urged people of all ethnic groups to continue to cooperate with the epidemic prevention and control work to fight against what he said was the most serious public health crisis in the far-western region’s history.

As of Monday, there were 1,170 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), home to 26 million people, including 15 million predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and Turkic-speaking minorities. 

On Tuesday, officials reported no new confirmed coronavirus cases in the region, though there were 91 new local asymptomatic infections, bringing the total number to 354 ​​local asymptomatic infections, and one imported asymptomatic infection.

‘Extremely tight control’

Many Xinjiang residents expressed anger about the travel restrictions in addition to recent strict residential lockdowns that in some cases have prevented people from buying food or obtaining medicine, causing some deaths.

“People in Yining, Kuerle and Shihezi have been under lockdown for over 60 days, and have they [officials] apologized?” asked one netizen on social media. 

Uyghurs in some areas under lockdown have been subjected to disinfectant spraying inside and outside their homes, sickening some and killing others.

Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Uyghurs (CFU) expressed concern over the total lockdown in the XUAR and the travel bans to and from the region.

“The new restrictions imposed by the CCP against Uyghurs in East Turkestan will only continue to serve the regime’s intent of destroying Uyghurs and Turkic peoples,” Rushan Abbas, executive director of CFU, said in a statement issued Wednesday, using Uyghurs’ preferred name for Xinjiang. “China must allow for independent investigators and cease their authoritarian lockdowns that have left Uyghurs dead.”

Locking down the entire region is not a proportional measure, said Dolkun Isa, president of Germany-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC).

“These restrictions coincide with the increasing international pressure and scrutiny on China, particularly at the U.N., where a growing number of governments are taking a firm stance on China’s genocide of Uyghurs and the recent report by the OHCHR [Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights] has made Beijing even more anxious,” he said. 

The report issued in late August by the OHCHR said the repression in the XUAR “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

“The recent lockdowns might also be an attempt for the Chinese government to have an extremely tight control on the Uyghur population ahead of the CCP Party Congress,” Isa said.

Sawut Mamat, a board member of the Japan Uyghur Association based in Tokyo and the WUC’s Japan representative, suggested the region-wide travel ban is “directly related to the Party Congress,” without providing further details.

Payments for informants

Authorities in other parts of China have tightened up COVID-prevention measures in the run-up to the Party Congress.

The Shenqiu county government in central China’s Henan province, for example, began a policy on Monday rewarding people who report to authorities anyone with a yellow code on their mobile phones indicating that they have been in an area with medium coronavirus risks, or anyone who has tested positive for the virus. In return, they can receive up to 50,000 yuan (U.S. $7,000).

 Authorities are rewarding people for reporting others because there are no confirmed cases in the county, a Henan resident surnamed Jiang told RFA. 

“If there were COVID cases, they would have restricted people from moving around,” she said. “I think they really wish to have some cases.”

 Henan’s government reported only two confirmed new coronavirus cases in the province on Monday.

 The Fuyang government in east China’s Anhui province locked down the city without notifying the public, local sources told RFA. Those traveling to Fuyang are automatically placed in quarantine in higher-end hotels that they themselves must pay for.

 Translated by RFA Uyghur. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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