Residents in the capital of Xinjiang are being forced to take traditional Chinese medicine, being handcuffed to buildings and ordered to stay inside for weeks as part of a harsh range of measures to tackle coronavirus, according to posts online.
Urumqi, the capital of the semi-autonomous region known for its draconian security measures, has been in a “wartime state” of lockdown for more than a month after a cluster of cases emerged in July, when the outbreak had been mostly contained elsewhere in China.
Since Friday, internet users have flooded social media platforms with complaints about overly harsh measures and extended quarantine at home or in designated locations, even as cases have gone down. The city, which had documented more than 531 cases by mid-August, has not reported any new cases in eight consecutive days.
Internet users complained they had been chained to buildings when they attempted to leave their homes. One said they had been kept in a quarantine centre for two months and had been required to take the medicine Lianhua Qingwen, an herbal remedy China has been promoting as a treatment for Covid-19. A relative of one family in Urumqi told the Guardian their family had been given the medicine every day but was not forced to drink it.
Videos posted online by internet users purported to show residents screaming from their apartment windows in frustration. The video could not be verified but a notice posted online from one residential compound warned that anyone who participated in the “roaring” activity on 23 August had committed an “illegal act”.
“Residents should strengthen their sense of social responsibility to prevent them from being used by those with evil intentions and lead to wrong guidance of public opinion,” it said. Other posts said residents were warned that everything from social credit rating to their children’s school admissions could be affected.
Officials in Xinjiang, which has come under scrutiny for the mass detention and surveillance of Muslim minorities such as Uighurs, are accustomed to managing information. Internet users also posted notices from their residential compounds ordering all residents to stop using or to delete their Weibo accounts due to the “release of bad information”. Hashtags related to Xinjiang and Urumqi appeared to be blocked over the weekend and some users claimed they were ordered to post positive messages about the city’s response to Covid.
Still, images and posts have been uploaded to Douban, another forum, as well as Twitter. One user wrote on Weibo in a thread that was later deleted: “When things reach a certain point, the voice of the public cannot be suppressed. If it is blocked in one place, it will move to another. If blocked there, it will move again and new ways will be found. Collective memory cannot be erased.”
Chinese state media on Monday attempted to paint a more positive picture, reporting that some residential compounds in the city had begun allowing people to leave their homes for “outdoor activities”. Local officials in Urumqi reportedly released their phone numbers in order to “hear residents’ anxiety and help solve their problems”.
The state-run Global Times newspaper said that in contrast to cities such as Beijing or Shanghai, extreme measures were adopted in Urumqi as a result of the “social norms in Xinjiang, where people … enjoy hanging out outdoors and like to gather together”.
“Unlike the clustered infections in Beijing, which adopted precise anti-epidemic measures by sealing off certain affected communities and the majority of residents could live normally, the same measures cannot fit Xinjiang,” said Zhang Yuexin of the Xinjiang anti-epidemic group, according to the Global Times.