The death of Queen Elizabeth II was a convenient, if unlikely, distraction that came to the aid of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese censors have been working hard to clean the internet of evidence of human rights violations in Xinjiang, where cities in the northwestern region are in a second month of zero-Covid lockdown. As we have reported extensively in this newsletter, China’s relentless pursuit of its zero-Covid policy has resulted in increasingly draconian measures to curb the virus.
Earlier this year, we heard stories of people starving and sleeping on the streets of Shanghai under quarantine. But the blockade in Xinjiang is even more of a cause for concern. The region, which is home to Uighurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic ethnic groups, has been the subject of a crackdown for years before Covid arrived on the scene. Up to a million Uighurs have been locked up in concentration camps for so-called “re-education”, and now the enforcement of Covid restrictions sees millions more imprisoned in their homes.
In general, there is an almost complete blackout on communications leaving Xinjiang.
“While everyone in China is afraid to criticize the government, this is especially true for the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, because even the slightest perceived dissent could send one to a political camp or prison Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told me.
But now, the Uyghurs are breaking their silence. They take to social media to describe how they are going without food, being denied medical care and collapsing in the streets. At one point, 100 new posts per minute were being uploaded to a hashtag on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, about the Yili region of Xinjiang, near the border with Kazakhstan, where conditions appear to be the worst of all.
Censorship staff working for the government have gone into overdrive to quell the outbreak. They were directed to “flood” Weibo with unrelated content in an attempt to stifle dissent, according to a leaked censorship directive published by China Digital Times. “Content may include domestic life, daily parenting, cooking,” the directive said. “But don’t touch on the pandemic situation, pandemic volunteers, pandemic prevention policies, etc.”
The Weibo platform has also established the food and scenery of Xinjiang trending topics to try to drown out the cries for help on the site so that anyone looking for lockdown news is filled with noodle punches and tourist advice. Weibo users noticed the sudden flood of irrelevant recipe posts on Xinjiang hashtags. “All food posts today are a political exercise. Everyone knows, but they still won’t let us comment,” one person wrote.
And when the queen died, eight of Xinjiang’s top 10 subjects became the British royal family. “The Queen has saved Weibo,” he tweeted Researcher and journalist from China Chu Yang.
Things don’t seem to be going any better in Tibet. Following Xinjiang’s lead, Tibetans have also been breaking their silence and using social media to air their frustrations over the zero-covid policy. There are reports that the city of Lhasa has been locked down for more than a month, and those housed in quarantine facilities have released videos documenting spartan conditions, with rotten food and no one to monitor them. A Weibo hashtag about the Covid situation in Tibet has repeatedly risen to trending topics on Weibo, only to be prioritized again.
IN GLOBAL NEWS
We’ve been covering in this newsletter how a Boston hospital, which provides care for transgender youth, has been the target of brutal death threats and bomb scares from far-right anti-LGBTQ groups. Now this campaign, orchestrated by the far-right Twitter page “Libs of TikTok”, has a new target in its sights: the US healthcare company Kaiser Permanente, which has organized special Zoom workshops to help children transgender and their families. The workshops focus on mental health issues and help children aged 12-17 with gender dysphoria navigate their emotions, explore their gender identity and “learn ways to express themselves comfortably”. A post on the Libs of TikTok substack falsely claimed that the workshops were held “without parental consent”, even though the workshops were designed for both parents and children. “Libs of Tiktok is pushing misinformation around Kaiser Permanente to fuel another terror campaign against medical providers,” tweeted Harvard Law instructor Alejandra Caraballo.
As the cost of living rises amid predictions of energy shortages this winter, there is a panicked rumor in Switzerland that people will face jail if they heat their homes more than 66°F. It’s been published in various tabloids and online news sites, and while it’s not true, it’s not entirely false. Plans are being proposed in the country to cap heating temperatures and potentially issue hefty fines to those who refuse to comply. If they will go to prison for three years, however, as the rumors claim, it is highly unlikely. The rumors are apparently a side effect of the tense geopolitical situation and the likelihood of gas shortages in the coming months.
The ripple effects of Roe v. Wade in the United States are being felt in authoritarian-minded countries around the world. In Hungary, where abortions have been legal since the 1950s, women seeking an abortion will now be forced to listen to the fetus’s heartbeat before going ahead with the procedure. “The only success of this amendment will be to make people who try to access abortion more traumatized and more stressed,” an Amnesty International representative told the media. Opposition MP Timea Szabo said this week that the government is “silently banning abortion, without consulting women”. Since the overturning of Roe, we have seen a significant increase in the amount of abortion-related misinformation online. For example, this week, a tweet from the American evangelical lobby group Family Research Council tweeted a false claim that “abortion is never medically necessary to save a mother’s life.” The tweet brought thousands of likes and retweets, and despite many doctors weighing in to disprove it, Twitter has yet to remove it.
WHAT ARE WE READING
At an Amazon fulfillment center in California, which has been hit by a crippling heat wave, nearly half of Amazon’s drivers have vomited from heat-related illnesses in recent weeks. For the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Avi-Asher Schapiro writes about how drivers are under great pressure from Amazon’s strict measures to push themselves to work beyond safe limits, to take a break, even when the nose bleeds from being so hot, it could affect your “productivity score”.
Rebekah Robinson contributed to this edition.