Many readers have heard of China’s northwesternmost region of Xinjiang for the first time through the governmental documents leaked by The New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism last spring. Since then, people around the world have come to know of China’s Muslim minorities and their difficult co-existence with the Han majority. Ethnic grievances have shaped life in Xinjiang for decades. The Uyghurs, the largest minority, take up the principle of self-determination against the rule of China, which they perceive as a foreign power. In 1996 central authorities launched the first modern regional anti-crime campaign that specifically targeted “splittism and illegal religious activities.” Afterwards, similar campaigns were launched on an annual basis.
A turning point for Xinjiang was the 2001 “Global War on Terror,” when secessionist groups were included in the US list of international terror organizations that contributed to forging the link between Uyghurs and terrorists to a domestic audience. After 9/11 it was not uncommon for members of the minority to be refused service in restaurants or hotels around China. In 2009 grievances reached the breaking point and Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi was the theatre of the bloodiest military-civil confrontation in China since 1989 Tiananmen. As sporadic violence continued to erupt, in 2016 the central authorities opted for a change in leadership and Chen Quanguo was transferred from Tibet to Xinjiang. As the new regional party chief, Chen started to implement increasingly strict control measures that resulted in those internment camps that are the subject of the aforementioned investigations.
Little is known about the internment camps so far: evidence of their existence is corroborated by the testimonies of former detainees emigrated abroad and the satellite images of the facilities. At the end of February 2020, The Washington Post estimated that over one million people were detained in these camps. Many pages could be written on these camps—why are people taken there? How are they selected and how do they get out? What happens inside? How are these camps justified to the broader public? Most of these questions remain unanswered for lack of access.
Yet what is certain is that the measures implemented during the last four years have made Xinjiang even more susceptible to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first registered case in the region dates back to 23 January, roughly a full month after China notified the World Health Organization of an epidemic outbreak ongoing in Wuhan. To date, Johns Hopkins University data listed Xinjiang as one of the least affected regions in China with a total of 73 cases and 3 deaths. Yet media blackouts might have hidden real counts. Repeated testimonies about the camps, in fact, indicate low health standards and ahigh density of detainees in each facility—something that, in light of the high diffusion rate of COVID-19, might have easily turned the camps into a breeding ground for the disease. After all, China had had to face four prison clusters in its eastern provinces at the end of February that affected over 500 prisoners. Uyghurs from the diaspora turned to social media via the hashtag #VirusThreatinCamps to denounce the health risks run by detainees in the camps and the world. Xinjiang, in fact, shares borders with some of the poorest and most unstable areas in the world, Tajikistan and Afghanistan among others.
Nonetheless, it is not only in the camps that Uyghurs felt the wide-reaching effects of the pandemic.
Due to accelerated desertification and still-contaminated soil from the intense nuclear testing conducted in the area of the Lop Nur salt lake between the sixties and mid-nineties, people living in certain regions in Xinjiang (and especially in the southern Uyghur lands) still have poor living standards. A report from the US-based Uyghur Human Rights Projects notes that Uyghurs in remote rural areas have starved during lockdowns and lacked access to medical facilities. Moreover, since 20 March, “Labor Transfer Programmes” resumed and youths from these areas were transferred to Xinjiang’s industrial cities or factories around China to work. According to The New York Times, authorities planned to transfer 50,000 people by the end of March. The risk is that the most endangered sections of the population, such as the elderly and those with immune systems compromised by low living standards, either were left uncared for or transferred into high-risk situations, like industrial work in highly populated cities.
Like the most fragile areas in the world, Xinjiang’s experience with COVID-19 shows the general tendency towards social inequality that is characterizing response measures worldwide. As Amartya Sen noted, the pandemic is giving us the chance to build more equal societies around the world and, for once, we should think first about the most fragile areas. Above all, Asia has an opportunity to re-balance development. But only if, during the post-coronavirus recovery, governments in the continent prioritize those who are in greatest need.