The recent surge of COVID-19 in Xinjiang and Tibet since the beginning of August has prompted Chinese authorities to impose “COVID-Zero” policies on several major cities in the area, with more locations being added to the lockdown list. The lockdown of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, has been extended until 18 August, following an initial three-day lockdown announcement on 8 August. Additionally, the Ngari Prefecture of Tibet has been locked down since 11 August, and transportation between Shigatse, Lhasa, and Ngari Prefecture has been suspended. Famous tourist attractions across Tibet such as Potala Palace, Norbulingka, Tsaparang, and the Tibetan Museu have been closed to the public.
According to the media reports, people in the area have been anxious about their livelihoods as mass COVID tests are taking place. They been sealed off inside the neighborhood doing COVID-19 tests every day or night. Sometimes they had to undergo these tests in the rain, and people got sick from being wet in the rain while waiting in line. As economically underdeveloped regions, Xinjiang and Tibet lack decent manufacturing businesses. And now everyone’s income has become unstable, and everyone is anxious as the streets go silent.
To combat fresh outbreaks of the pandemic in areas like Xinjiang and Tibet, Chinese authorities are drawing on a security apparatus previously used to quell dissent against authorities in Beijing. Broad surveillance measures used over the years against Tibetan Buddhists and mainly Muslim Uighurs, both minority groups in China, are helping enforce lockdown rules among people long at risk of arbitrary detention. That has helped ensure there are no public displays of anger like those seen earlier this year during the months-long lockdown in the financial hub of Shanghai.
President Xi Jinping has maintained strict “COVID-Zero” measures long after other governments abandoned the approach, dealing a blow to the economy and leaving China more isolated on the global stage. His administration has hailed the policy as helping to prevent deaths on a scale seen in the US and Europe, which he aims to portray as a major success during a once-in-five-year party meeting later this year at which he has expected to extend his rule.
China has faced accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang as part of a campaign to assimilate Uighurs and other groups into a society dominated by ethnic Han Chinese, who make up more than 90 per cent of the national population. China has consistently rejected allegations of genocide and other abuses, saying it’s fighting separatism and religious extremism.
At least five cities and two counties in Xinjiang imposed restrictions as of 14 August, with most of the capital Urumqi keeping residents locked in their homes. During a previous lockdown, users on the social media platform Weibo found that posts published with Xinjiang hashtags were quickly censored. Many tagged Beijing and Shanghai instead to evade the controls.
Tibet reported only one COVID-19 infection from early 2020 until this month when the region’s 920-day virus-free streak came to an end. The National Health Commission then expressed concern about Tibet’s ability to handle the pathogen and dispatched health experts from Beijing while also building three hospitals in a few days, providing 4,000 beds in major cities.
Some state media implied the current outbreak came from a neighbouring country, even as the region enjoys a boom in mainly ethnic Chinese tourism. The Communist Party-backed Global Times cited an unnamed expert saying that because Xigaze – a Tibetan city that went into lockdown earlier this week – borders India, Nepal and Bhutan, the possibility of infection through trade “cannot be ruled out.” However, the “foreign threat” narrative has been an extremely prominent part of political messaging in the Tibetan border areas for the last two years. Even before COVID-19, the region was inaccessible for many foreigners, including journalists and it is difficult to verify the Chinese propaganda.