Authorities in Urumqi, the capital of northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have ordered a lockdown, cancelling nearly all flights in and out of the city, after confirming at least 17 cases of infection from the coronavirus.
According to official figures, the city of 3.5 million has recorded only six symptomatic cases of COVID-19—the disease caused by the coronavirus—and 11 asymptomatic cases, but official media reports said nearly 90 percent of flights into and out of the Urumqi Diwopu International Airport were cancelled and public transportation was shut down Friday as part of strict measures to contain the spread of the virus.
The new infections are the first to be detected in the XUAR for months. A 24-year-old woman tested positive on Thursday after displaying symptoms, while three of her friends were also found to be infected, although they were asymptomatic. A man who had recently traveled from Urumqi to Zhejiang province in eastern China was also discovered to be infected.
Residents have been ordered to stay within their housing compounds, state-owned Caixin reported, citing a government notice. Authorities have also ordered the closure of shopping malls and hotels, while visitors from other provinces will be quarantined for a week. City dwellers have scrambled to buy groceries and other essentials in anticipation of a lasting lockdown.
Beginning Friday, air travelers are being required to display evidence of having tested negative within seven days and must show a safe health code status on an app used to identify virus carriers.
The official Global Times newspaper cited XUAR party chief Chen Quanguo as calling for the region to “take strict measures to curb the virus spread, prevent imported cases and strengthen testing in densely populated areas” during a Communist Party meeting on Thursday.
He also urged local departments to “improve information dissemination to the public in a timely manner.”
Social media posts indicated that people were also being prevented from entering or leaving Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) city in southern XUAR.
RFA’s Uyghur Service spoke with an officer at Urumqi’s Tengritagh (Tianshan) District Police Station who said official vehicles could be arranged through neighborhood committees to pick up residents who need to go to the hospital.
“No personal cars are allowed to travel anywhere right now,” he said.
“We don’t know how long the measures will last, but we will keep residents informed through their neighborhood committees.”
A worker with the Urumqi Diwopu International Airport medical unit said it was unclear whether more cases might be discovered.
“We don’t know if there are more people going to the hospitals for examinations,” he said.
RFA also spoke with hotel staffers in the city who said they were not accepting guests and referred further questions about the outbreak to the authorities.
Efforts to reach other parts of the region went unanswered Friday.
Detainees at risk
It is unclear when Friday’s restrictions in Urumqi might be lifted. Chinese authorities have instituted strict measures throughout the country as part of a bid to eradicate the virus after initially drawing criticism for a lack of transparency in handling the outbreak which emerged in the city of Wuhan, in Hubei province, in late 2019. China has an official total of slightly more than 85,000 cases of COVID-19, but the coronavirus has gone on to infect nearly 14 million people worldwide.
Rights groups and experts have expressed particular concern about the potential impact of an outbreak in the XUAR, where authorities are believed to have detained more than 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since April 2017. They say limited access to health care and cramped conditions in the camps could allow the virus to spread virtually unchecked.
The XUAR has so far only recorded 77 cases resulting in three deaths. The source of the new infections remains unclear, officials say.
Beijing describes its three-year-old network of camps as voluntary “vocational centers,” but reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets shows that detainees are mostly held against their will in poor conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination.
As evidence of abuses in the XUAR continues to mount, Western governments have increasingly called out China for its policies in the region.
Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration leveled sanctions against several top Chinese officials deemed responsible for rights violations in Xinjiang, including regional party secretary Chen Quanguo, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
The move, which marked the first time Washington had sanctioned a member of China’s powerful Politburo, followed Trump’s enactment last month of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 (UHRPA), which passed nearly unanimously through both houses of Congress at the end of May. The legislation highlights arbitrary incarceration, forced labor, and other abuses in the XUAR and provides for sanctions against the Chinese officials who enforce them.
Earlier this week, China’s Foreign Ministry announced retaliatory sanctions targeting republican senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, republican representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, and the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China advisory panel.
Reported by Mihray Abdilim. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
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