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Xinjiang capital in ‘wartime’ lockdown over spike in coronavirus cases

Andrew Cuomo

A “wartime” state has been declared in the capital of Xinjiang, home to China’s persecuted Muslim-majority Uyghur ethnic group, as authorities implement strict and sweeping measures to stem a spike in coronavirus cases.

The city of Urumqi reported 17 local infections Sunday, meaning that 47 cases have been identified since last Wednesday. Before that, it had not recorded a single case in nearly five months, according to the Xinjiang health authorities.

Since last week, Urumqi has also recorded 50 asymptomatic cases. In China, these are not considered confirmed cases under government guidelines.

To stop the outbreak escalating, authorities are now implementing the so-called Beijing model.

Beijing last month saw the worst coronavirus resurgence in China since the initial epidemic was largely brought under control in March. The outbreak infected more than 300 people, but swift lockdown measures, extensive contact tracing and mass testing saw it contained.

Yet in Beijing, public transportation wasn’t shut and only neighborhoods near high-risk clusters were put under full lockdown. The measures in Urumqi are even stricter — a sign of how seriously Chinese authorities are taking any reemergence of the virus.

“Wartime” mode

On Friday, after Urumqi reported just six new infections in two days, authorities locked down all residential communities in the city of 3.5 million people, banning people from leaving their housing compounds. Shopping malls and hotels were also closed, according to the state-run new magazine China Newsweek.

The city’s only metro line announced on social media that it suspended service on Thursday night. It did not specify when operations will resume. To stop the virus leaking to other parts of the country, nearly 90% of flights in Urumqi were canceled on Friday, according to the Global Times, a tabloid run by the Chinese government.

On Saturday, the Xinjiang government declared that Urumqi had gone into “wartime” mode, banning all public gatherings and encouraging residents to stay in the city. Those who have to leave must first test negative for the coronavirus.

Authorities are also rolling out citywide testing, starting with neighborhoods and groups deemed high risk for contracting the virus.

More than 1,600 health care workers in Urumqi have been mobilized to carry out the tests, and 200 more medical workers were sent from 10 provinces and cities to help.

The city’s market regulation authorities also inspected 75 food markets, 237 supermarkets and 638 restaurants, where all employees and products tested negative.

As of Sunday morning, Urumqi had tested everyone under medical observation in hospital and in self-isolation at home, and was still tracing the source of the spike in cases. As of Monday, there were more than 3,000 people under medical observation.

A region used to surveillance

Before the latest outbreak, Xinjiang had ridden out the first wave of the coronavirus with just 76 cases including three deaths, partially due to strict lockdown measures in February and March.

Restrictions on freedom of movement are not new to the region. In recent years, Xinjiang has been subjected to increasing police surveillance amid a security crackdown against its 11 million Uyghurs.

Since 2016, evidence has emerged that the Chinese government has been operating huge, fortified centers to detain its Uyghur citizens. As many as 2 million people may have been taken to the camps, according to the US State Department. A widespread coronavirus outbreak could be disastrous in one of these crowded facilities, which have increasingly come under a global spotlight in recent months.

Last week, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on a number of Chinese officials, including Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party secretary for Xinjiang, for their involvement in human rights abuses targeting ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang.

Beijing retaliated by announcing sanctions against US officials, including Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, calling on the US to “stop interfering in China’s international affairs.”

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