‘At the breaking point’: Tibetans, locked down, make a rare cry for help

BEIJING – Infected patients are isolated along with those who test negative. No food for hours, despite repeated requests. Busy lines of people waited until late at night to take them to makeshift isolation centers.

These are the scenes described by residents of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, who have been locked away for a month as officials try to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Lockdowns, which include entire cities, have become almost universal in China, which remains focused on eliminating the coronavirus even as the rest of the world tries to live with it. But recent calls for help from Tibet, as well as Xinjiang – two border areas where the Chinese government has imposed very repressive controls – speaks to how desperate the situation has become there, where many residents are often threatened with silence.

However, the incentive for authorities to quickly and quietly restrain grievances is also stronger than usual. The Chinese Communist Party is expected to hold a major political meeting next month where its leader, Xi Jinping, will almost certainly extend his term. During the race, it is important for officials to ensure that the effort to achieve “zero Covid”, which Mr. Xi has declared as a personal priority, looks smooth and successful.

The result is a vicious cycle. Authorities issued increasingly stricter quarantine and censorship rules. These, in turn, create more difficulties and dissatisfaction.

“The social media posts you see from people in Lhasa are all about suffering, but that is the real Lhasa. Lhasa’s public announcements, I feel, are all fake,” said one food delivery worker in the city, who gave only his last name, Min, for fear of official retaliation.

The government promoted positive videos of officials encouraging frontline workers and promised ample supplies of food and medicine. But Mr. Min said he was quarantined with five family members in an unfinished apartment building, although he did not test positive. Workers said he could be released if his latest test, on September 10, also came back negative – but it has been days without results.

While he waited, officials sent another man with their family to quarantine, as they were both from the Hui minority, Min said. But the man said he had tested positive. Min said all he could do was put on two masks and try to keep his distance.

Restrictions are being tightened across China. Last week, the central government announced that the entire country, even areas with no cases, would need to make regular testing of all people mandatory until the end of October. Tens of millions of people has been locked in recent weeks. The capital Beijing is on high alert after dozens of cases were detected in recent days.

However, the shutdowns in Tibet and Xinjiang stand out for having lasted more than a month. Lhasa – home to nearly 900,000 people, about 70 percent Among them are ethnic Tibetans who began ordering the closure of some areas after several cases were discovered on August 8, with restrictions soon spreading to the whole city. Yining, a city in the northwest of Xinjiang, has also been restricted since early August.

Initially, the shutdown attracted relatively little attention compared to those in larger cities such as Shanghai and ChengduLockdowns this year have dominated Chinese social media. But in recent days, with control measures showing no signs of easing, people have launched an online campaign to draw attention to their plight. Some have tagged state media outlets in the hope of garnering official coverage. Others have tagged hashtags in an unrelated trend, such as one about an actor accused of hiring prostitutes.

Perhaps most notably, the choir also includes ethnic Tibetans – a group that could face fierce consequences for any criticism of the government. Under Mr. Xi, authorities in Tibet – the part of China officially known as the Tibet Autonomous Region – have stepped up long-term efforts to integrate ethnic Tibetans through resettlement programs, political indoctrination, and language suppression.

On Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, some residents shared videos in Tibetan describing their inability to work or pay rent, according to a translation by the Tibetan Action Institute, an activist group in foreign support for the independence of Tibet. A man who filmed himself in a car said he had been sleeping in his car for a month. One woman begged to be allowed to return to her village elsewhere in Tibet, saying she was worried about running out of food.

Lhadon Tethong, director of the Tibet Action Institute, said she was stunned by what she called a flood of Tibetan voices this week, compared with a trickle of information before.

“Those are the cries for help that come directly from within in a way that we can no longer see,” she said. “So we know they’re at the breaking point.”

Some videos have been deleted. In the video of the woman asking to go home – which is no longer available online – she emphasizes that she has no objection. On Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, a user whose post about Lhasa’s lockdown was shared more than 6,000 times then retweeted thanking the user for commenting on government accounts to raise awareness but ask them to stop tagging her. “The risk of speaking out is really high,” she wrote. “I’m panicking.”

The Lhasa government’s uncompromising approach also wiped out the Han Chinese, the country’s dominant ethnic group.

Wen Yan, 30, said she, her boyfriend and four roommates were ordered to be quarantined on Monday, even though their latest test results were negative. They boarded an ambulance around 4 p.m. but were not taken down to the isolation center – another unfinished apartment complex – until after the 7th. In the apartment, the bathroom was flooded.

They were not provided with any food; One worker said they were too late, Ms. Wen said. Around midnight, her boyfriend and another man confronted some workers for food. They were beaten, she said, providing photos of their injuries.

Ms. Wen also shares her photos on Weibo, where they have been shared thousands of times. The next day, an official at her quarantine facility asked her to remove them, but she refused.

“If these posts don’t exist, then no one cares,” she said. “I won’t delete them because they are all true.”

Conditions also remain dire for some people in Yining, in Xinjiang, home to many ethnic Uighurs. The plight of its residents, who have reported shortages of food and sanitary napkins, remained largely unknown until a recent storm of social media pleas. . Last week, local officials sorry for residents’ difficulties in accessing health care services.

Halipa, a mother of two in the city who gave her name only, said in recent days officials have delivered meat and naan – the first time she has eaten meat in three weeks. But she still can’t buy fruit and worries the lack of nutrition has weakened her baby’s immune system. Both have fever this month.

The Yining government said it was gradually reopening the city. But Halipa said there is no indication that the steel lock that holds residents inside her apartment will be lifted.

As more and more stories of suffering appear online – and efforts to prevent them mount – some have warned that these measures are going too far.

This week, local officials in Shandong province announced that they had arrested a man for sharing a live broadcast by Chinese state television in a group chat in the vicinity. of him and urged people to “go and ask for help” in the comments. Commenting on the announcement, Hu Xijin, retired editor of a nationalist state media tabloid, warned local governments not to undermine public support. for zero-Covid policies.

He Written on his personal Weibo page, adding that it was important to “work hard to win understanding”. “

Currently, the authorities are still relying on more coercive methods.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization announced that the end of the pandemic was in sight – a statement that quickly sparked a flurry of Chinese social media posts expressing hope. frustrated and tired of extensive control measures.

On Thursday, Weibo banned the hashtag “WHO says the end of Covid is in sight.”

Joy Dong research contributions and reports from Hong Kong, Isabelle Qian from Seoul and John Liu from Taipei, Taiwan.

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