Chinese censors working overtime to silence dissent on zero-Covid lockdowns in Xinjiang and Tibet

Isobel Cockerell

 

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 scrub the internet of evidence of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, where cities in the northwestern region are in a second month of a zero-Covid lockdown. As we’ve reported extensively in this newsletter, China’s incessant pursuit of its zero-Covid policy has led to ever more draconian measures to curb the virus. 

At the beginning of this year, we heard stories of people starving and sleeping on the streets in quarantined Shanghai. But the lockdown in Xinjiang is even more of a cause for concern. The region, which is home to the Uyghurs and other Turkic, mostly Muslim ethnic groups, has been subject to a years-long crackdown before Covid even came on the scene. As many as a million Uyghurs have been corralled into concentration camps for so-called “re-education,” and now the implementation of Covid restrictions sees millions more imprisoned in their homes. 

There’s usually an almost complete blackout on communications coming out of Xinjiang.

“While everyone in China is afraid to criticize the government, this is particularly true for Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, because even the slightest perceived dissent could send one to a political camp or prison,” Yaqiu Wang, a Senior China Researcher at Human Rights Watch, told me. 

But now, Uyghurs are breaking the silence. They’re taking to social media to describe how they’re running out of food, being denied medical care, and collapsing on the streets. At one point, 100 new posts per minute were being uploaded to a hashtag on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, about the Yili region of Xinjiang near the border with Kazakhstan, where conditions seem to be worst of all.

Censorship personnel working for the government have gone into overdrive to quell the outburst. They were directed to “flood” Weibo with unrelated content to try to drown out the dissent, according to a leaked censorship directive published by China Digital Times. “Content may include domestic life, daily parenting, cooking,” the directive read. “But do not touch on the pandemic situation, pandemic volunteers, pandemic prevention policies, etc.”

The Weibo platform has also set Xinjiang’s food and scenery as trending topics to try to drown out cries for help on the site so that anyone searching for news of the lockdown is inundated with noodle shots and tourism tips. Weibo users noticed the sudden inundation of irrelevant recipe posts on the Xinjiang hashtags. “All of today’s food posts are a political task. Everyone knows this, yet they still won’t let us comment,” one person wrote. 

And when the Queen died, eight of 10 of the top topics on Xinjiang then became about the British royal family. “The Queen has saved Weibo,” tweeted China researcher and journalist Chu Yang. 

Things are no better, it seems, in Tibet. Following Xinjiang’s lead, Tibetans have also been breaking their silence and taking to social media to air their frustrations over the zero covid policy. There are reports that the city of Lhasa has been under lockdown for over a month, and those housed in quarantine facilities have posted videos documenting spartan conditions, with rotten food and no one to check on them. A Weibo hashtag on Tibet’s Covid situation has repeatedly surged up the trending topics on Weibo — only to be deprioritized again. 

IN GLOBAL NEWS

We’ve been covering in this newsletter how one Boston hospital, which offers care to transgender youth, has been targeted by vicious death threats and bomb scares from anti-LGBTQ far-right groups. Now this campaign, orchestrated by the extreme right-wing “Libs of TikTok” Twitter page, has a new target in its sights: the American healthcare company Kaiser Permanente, which has been running special Zoom workshops to help transgender kids and their families. The workshops are focused on mental health topics, and helping kids between 12-17 with gender dysphoria navigate their emotions, explore their gender identity, and “learn ways to comfortably express themselves.” A post on Libs of TikTok’s substack falsely claimed that the workshops were being held “without parental consent,” despite the workshops being designed for both parents and kids. “Libs of Tiktok is now pushing misinformation around Kaiser Permanente to stoke another campaign of terror against medical providers,” Harvard Law instructor Alejandra Caraballo tweeted

As the cost of living soars amid predictions of energy shortages this winter, there’s a panicked rumor going around in Switzerland, claiming that people will face jail time if they heat their homes higher than 66°F. It’s been published in a number of tabloids and online news sites — and though it’s not true, it’s not entirely false. Plans are being proposed in the country to cap heating temperatures, and potentially issue large fines to those that refuse to comply. Whether they’ll go to jail for three years, though — as the rumors claim — is highly unlikely. The rumors are, it seems, a side-effect of the tense geopolitical situation and the likelihood of gas shortages in the coming months. 

The ripple effects of the Roe v Wade ruling in the United States are being felt in authoritarian-minded countries all over the world. In Hungary, where abortions have been legal since the 1950s, women wanting an abortion will now be forced to listen to the fetus’s heartbeat before going through with the procedure. “The only achievement of this amendment will be that people trying to access abortions will be more traumatized and more stressed,” an Amnesty International representative told the media. Opposition MP Timea Szabo said this week that the government is “banning abortion quietly, without consulting women.” Since the overturning of Roe, we’ve noticed a significant uptick in the amount of abortion-related misinformation online. For instance this week, a tweet by the evangelical American lobby group the Family Research Council tweeted a false claim that “abortion is never medically necessary to save the life of a mother.” The tweet brought in thousands of likes and retweets, and despite numerous doctors weighing in to disprove it, has yet to be removed by Twitter. 

WHAT WE’RE READING 

At an Amazon delivery hub in California, which has been struck by a crippling heatwave, nearly half the Amazon drivers vomited from heat-related illness in recent weeks. For the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Avi-Asher Schapiro writes about how drivers are under huge pressure from Amazon’s strict measures to push themselves to work beyond safe limits — because taking a break, even when your nose is bleeding from being so hot, could affect your “productivity score.”

Rebekah Robinson contributed to this edition.

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