In China, social media censors have been ordered to drown out public complaints about food and drug shortages.
China was the first country in the world to put quarantines in place during the Covid-19 pandemic. But the virus still persists there, as everywhere else. The Ili Kazakh autonomous prefecture, also known as Yili, was placed under lockdown in early August this year after a fresh outbreak of the virus, and this move was taken without any official announcement to give the public time to prepare.
Now, one month into the lockdown, locals in Yili have taken to social media to write about their experiences, especially about growing concerns and complaints regarding shortages of food, medication, delays or outright refusals of medical care. But their posts are being drowned out by a flood of innocuous posts dealing with anything from cooking to details of personal moods… but not all is as innocent as it seems.
According to a leaked directive published by the China Digital Times, government censors were ordered to “open a campaign of comment flooding” to hide posts criticising the lockdown or those expressing concern with how the situation is evolving.
“There are no subject matter restrictions,” the document reads, according to CDT’s translation. “Content may include domestic life, daily parenting, cooking, or personal moods. All internet commentary personnel should post once an hour (twice in total), but not in rapid succession! Repeat: not in rapid succession!”
Sample posts archived by the CDT as a possible example of the comment flooding campaign showed pictures of landscapes or local cuisine. However, they were quickly accused of being attempts to “dilute” the conversation around the lockdown.
Ili Kazakh is an autonomous prefecture for Kazakh people in Northern Xinjiang — the region of China that is traditionally the home of mostly Uyghur people. This province has been the site of a years-long oppression campaign by the central government against the local Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, and locals believe the poor management of this lockdown is part of that campaign.
Locals’ concerns were further stoked by the fact that sites near Ili Kazakh, a popular tourist destination, have recently been re-opened to visitors. Despite this, the lockdown is now entering its 40th day with no sign of coming to a close anytime soon.
Although central authorities have denied that anything was going poorly initially, they changed their stance last week and recognized that there have been some issues with the distribution of food and medical supplies. Although they did apologize in a press conference, they shifted the blame squarely onto local officials.
“Children who have a 40-degree fever can’t even see a doctor, pregnant women can’t even get into the hospital, we really can’t take this any more,” said one reported comment. “First they say it’s fake news, then they apologise,” added another. “What is real, is that the entire city has been silent for 41 days,” said another, according to CDT.
Last week, a health official in Yili said that the remaining lockdowns will be lifted after “two to three” more rounds of testing, according to the South China Morning Post.
The severity of the lockdown in Yili is bewildering given that only around 220 cases of Covid-19 infections are recorded in the whole Xinjiang province. But the rolling lockdowns continue to be implemented in various areas of China under the country’s “dynamic zero” containment strategy, in which widespread lockdowns and other restrictions can be implemented suddenly on residences, neighborhoods, or even whole cities, in an attempt to stifle any potential outbreak.
Still, the Chinese Government’s use of concentration camps against ethnic Uygurs, in the form of the Xinjiang internment camps, officially called “vocational education and training centers”, casts a huge shadow of doubt on the Yili lockdown. Even if instituted for public safety, locals are understandably reluctant to assume fair play. The severity of restrictions imposed here, alongside food shortages, in particular, raise genuine concerns from locals — which are further fueled by the leaked directive.