COVID-19 scare: Travel restrictions hit China’s sprawling Xinjiang region

Beijing: The vast Xinjiang region of western China has been hit by sweeping COVID-19 travel restrictions as the government ramps up control measures across the country ahead of a key Communist Party congress later this month. Trains and buses in and out of the region of 22 million people have been suspended and the number of passengers on flights has been reduced to 75 percent of capacity in recent days, according to Chinese media reports.

A statement from the regional government on Tuesday said measures have been taken to “strictly prevent” the risk of the virus spreading. A Xinjiang official apologized for the spread of the epidemic to other regions and provinces in China, particularly in recent days. As is often the case with China’s draconian “zero-COVID” policy, the measures seemed disproportionate to the number of cases discovered.

The National Health Commission announced on Thursday that 97 cases had been registered in Xinjiang in the past 24 hours after 91 cases were reported the previous day. They were all asymptomatic. Officials desperate to not be called out for new outbreaks in their regions and Xinjiang is under special scrutiny over the government’s establishment of a series of prison-like re-education centers in which Muslim minorities have been taught to renounce their religion and are reportedly subject to a range of human rights abuses.

Xinjiang’s comprehensive surveillance system, which relies on ubiquitous checkpoints, facial and even speech recognition software, and universal cell phone surveillance, has made travel among the population extremely easy.

An earlier 40-day lockdown in Xinjiang left many residents complaining about inadequate food supplies. “Zero-COVID” has been closely identified with Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, who is expected to serve a third five-year term at the congress beginning Oct. 16. That’s despite criticism from the World Health Organization and massive disruptions to China’s economy, education and normal life.

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Last month, a nighttime bus crash that killed 27 people forcibly relocated to a mass quarantine site in southwestern China sparked a storm of anger online at the policy’s harshness. Survivors said they were forced to leave their apartments even if no case had been discovered. “Zero-COVID” has been celebrated by the country’s leaders as proof of the superiority of their system over the US, which has seen more than a million COVID-19 deaths.

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Xi has cited China’s approach as a “great strategic success” and a testament to the “significant advantages” of its political system over Western liberal democracies. But even as other countries open up, the humanitarian costs of China’s pandemic response have risen. With national and some provincial borders closed, tourism has all but dried up and the World Bank predicts the economy will grow at an anemia rate of 2.8 percent this year.

Xinjiang has been hit particularly hard because of the sanctions imposed on some of its officials and products over human rights issues. Even without nationally established criteria, testing and lockdowns have become the norm for tens of millions of people in China, from the North Korean border to the South China Sea, as local officials desperately try to avoid punishment and criticism.

Earlier this year, desperate residents in Shanghai complained that they could not get medicine or even groceries during a two-month lockdown, while some died in hospitals from lack of medical care as the city restricted movement. All 26 million urban residents in China’s largest city and financial center have been ordered to test two extra days this week, despite the announcement of just 11 new cases on Thursday, none of which showed any symptoms.

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