Chinese censors have reportedly been ordered to flood social media with innocuous posts about Xinjiang to drown out growing complaints of food and medicine shortages in a region that has been closed off for more than a month.
Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, also known as Yili, is home to about 4.5 million people and is believed to have first been placed on lockdown in early August, without official public announcement, following an outbreak of Covid-19. In recent days, social media has hosted a flurry of posts about food shortages, delays or denials of medical care.
But according to a leaked directive published by the China Digital Times, censors were told to “open a comment flood campaign” to drown them out.
“There are no subject restrictions,” he said, according to CDT’s translation. “Content may include home life, daily parenting, cooking, or personal moods. All Internet comment staff should post once per hour (twice total), but not fast way! Repeat: not in quick succession!”
In a sample of posts archived by the CDT as possible examples of the “comment flood” campaign, users shared photos of Xinjiang cuisine and idyllic settings, but were quickly attacked as suspected attempts to “dilute” the conversation about the lock.
“All these Yili scenery and food posts are from alt accounts. Good job g*v*rm*nt. Ever heard of keeping a shred of dignity? said one comment.
Xinjiang, the site of a years-long government campaign of oppression against its Muslim population, is under a higher degree of scrutiny and political sensitivity than most of China. About 40% of Xinjiang’s residential population is Han Chinese, with the rest mostly Uyghur and other ethnic minorities. However, it has also become a national tourism attraction, especially Yili, which borders Kazakhstan.
“This is really happening during the Yili epidemic, the locals have tried a lot to let the outside world know about our circumstances here,” a commenter said according to the monitor site, What’s On Weibo.
“We are locked inside and do not have enough supplies, but they opened the scenic tourist areas, help us, help us here, help the common people of Yili!”
Complaints from people struggling during the more than 40-day lockdown had sparked hundreds of thousands of comments and posts. Reports have included pregnant women being sent home from a hospital that was closing, another woman and her baby being refused re-entry to their residence after giving birth in a hospital, and an elderly man denied admission after arriving at the emergency department vomiting blood.
“Children who have a fever of 40 degrees can’t even see a doctor, pregnant women can’t even enter the hospital, we really can’t take it anymore,” said one reported comment.
Authorities have denied some of the claims of hardship, including deaths and suicides. But last week they admitted there had been problems with food and medical supplies and apologized at a news conference, blaming local officials.
“First they say it’s fake news, then they apologize,” said one commenter. “What’s real is that the whole city has been silent for 41 days,” said another.
On Saturday, a Yili health official said the remaining lockdowns would be lifted after two or three more rounds of testing, the South China Morning Post reported.
On Sunday, China’s national health commission reported 1,138 local cases, including 28 in Xinjiang. About 200 local cases have been reported in Xinjiang in the past week, according to daily reports from the national health commission.
Globally, the numbers are very small, but with less than two months to go before a major political meeting, Chinese government officials are under pressure to contain and stamp out outbreaks. China’s “dynamic zero” strategy has seen widespread lockdowns and other restrictions implemented suddenly and without warning in cities, neighborhoods and individual residences, prompting growing complaints from citizens.