BEIJING (AP) — Sprawling Xinjiang is the latest Chinese region to be hit with sweeping travel restrictions due to COVID-19, as China further tightens control measures ahead of a major Communist Party congress later this month.
Trains and buses in and out of the area of 22 million people have been suspended and the number of passengers on flights reduced to 75% of capacity, reports said on Thursday.
A statement from the regional government said the measures were put in place to “strictly prevent the risk of transmission” of the virus, but gave no further details.
As is often the case with China’s draconian “zero COVID” policy, the measures appeared disproportionate to the number of cases detected.
The National Health Commission reported just 93 cases in Xinjiang on Wednesday and 97 on Thursday, all asymptomatic. Xinjiang’s leaders on Tuesday acknowledged problems with the tracing and control measures, but gave no indication of when they planned to lift the restrictions.
Officials are desperate not to be called out for new cases in their regions, and Xinjiang has come under special scrutiny for the government’s establishment of a series of prison-like re-education centers where Muslim minorities have been taught to renounce their religion and allegedly have been subjected to a series of human rights violations.
Xinjiang’s massive surveillance system, based on ubiquitous checkpoints, facial and even voice recognition software, and universal cell phone tracking, has made controlling travel among the population particularly easy.
“Zero-COVID” has been closely identified with Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, who is expected to receive a third five-year term at the congress starting on October 16. economy, education and normal life in China.
Last month, a nighttime bus accident killed 27 people being forcibly transported to a mass quarantine site in southwest China sparked a storm of outrage online over the cruelty of the policy. Survivors said they were forced to leave their apartments even when not a single case had been discovered.
“Zero-COVID” has been celebrated by the country’s leaders as proof of their system’s superiority over the US, which has had more than a million deaths from COVID-19.
Xi cited China’s approach as a “great strategic success” and evidence of its political system’s “significant advantages” over Western liberal democracies.
But even as other countries open up, the humanitarian cost of China’s approach to the pandemic has risen. With national and some provincial borders closed, tourism has all but dried up and the World Bank predicts the economy will grow by an anemic 2.8 percent this year. Xinjiang has been hit particularly hard due to sanctions imposed on some of its officials and products over human rights concerns.
Earlier this year in Shanghai, desperate residents complained they couldn’t get medicine or even groceries during the city’s two-month lockdown, and some died in hospitals from a lack of medical care as the city restricted movement. Last week, residents in the western region of Xinjiang said they were starving during a blockade of more than 40 days.