At least four people in China’s Xinjiang region have been detained by police for spreading “rumours” after residents complained online about food and drug shortages amid an unofficial COVID-19 lockdown for a few weeks.
The arrests appear to be part of a concerted effort to suppress news from Yining, also known as Ghulja, the capital of Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture. Last week, photos and videos began to emerge of local people being denied medical care and struggling to get groceries, with some saying they were close to starvation and desperate for help.
“We have already been closed for 39 days. I don’t have the words to express everything that is happening here,” read an anonymous post translated by What’s on Weibo, a monitoring site. “We want to be trending!”
As this and similar posts spread across social media platforms, Yining-related hashtags were flooded with innocuous posts in an apparent attempt to drown out complaints, while strict censorship orders were issued to Chinese media .
An urgent warning later leaked to California watchdog China Digital Times said that “with immediate effect, no group shall transmit any content (including video, audio or text) that has not received official confirmation or that transmits negative energy”.
The notice called on state-controlled media to help “win this war without smoke,” an apparent reference to the long-standing official position that any negative news about Xinjiang, where Beijing has been accused of widespread abuses of the human rights against the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. it is driven by foreign actors.
But while some Uighurs in exile have highlighted the current problems in Ili, the prefecture is predominantly Han Chinese, who make up nearly 60 percent of the population, according to recent census statistics.
Ili has been part of renewed efforts to promote Xinjiang as a destination for Chinese tourists, and many posts by residents highlight the contrast between these campaigns and the increasingly dire situation they find themselves in.
“Yining is a beautiful place. Many people travel here,” blogger Zhao Kang wrote, but authorities show “cold hearts” to locals. “They often do useless things and do nothing that can really benefit the residents!”
In addition to attempts to suppress negative online news, Yining police said Sunday they had arrested four people for “spreading rumours” that had incited “antagonistic emotions, disrupted the epidemic prevention and control order and caused a bad social impact”.
Police said four people had been sanctioned with between five and 10 days of “administrative detention”. In a statement, they encouraged residents to “jointly maintain the order of cyberspace.”
Unlike Chengdu and Shanghai, which have been officially blocked, no order has been issued in Yining. Last week, Sun Chunlan, China’s vice president in charge of COVID-19 control measures, urged local governments to stop imposing unilateral restrictions or lockdowns.
In a press conference on Friday, after the comments of Ms. Sun, the Ili authorities acknowledged “the shortcomings and weaknesses in the work of local authorities” and pledged to remedy them. Many lockdown orders appear to have been lifted, and authorities want to emphasize a return to normalcy.
“Please quickly send journalists… to record scenes of residents leaving their homes and going about their business, children having fun and smiling elderly people leisurely strolling around the assigned areas, and pack effectively these scenes for advertising broadcasts,” read a directive sent to Chinese media and leaked to China Digital Times. “At the same time, widely disseminate these video clips on WeChat, news sites, Douyin and other similar platforms.”
With an archive of Alexandra Li