Chinese censors have reportedly been ordered to flood social media with innocuous posts about Xinjiang to drown out mounting complaints of food and medication shortages in a region under lockdown for more than a month.
The Ili Kazakh autonomous prefecture, also known as Yili, is home to about 4.5 million people, and is believed to have been first put into lockdown in early August, without official public announcement, after an outbreak of Covid-19. In recent days social media has hosted reams of post about food shortages, delays or refusals of medical care.
But according to a leaked directive published by the China Digital Times, censors were told to “open a campaign of comment flooding” to drown them out.
“There are no subject matter restrictions,” it said, according to CDT’s translation. “Content may include domestic life, daily parenting, cooking, or personal moods. All internet commentary personnel should post once an hour (twice in total), but not in rapid succession! Repeat: not in rapid succession!”
In a sample of posts archived by the CDT as possible examples of the “comment flooding” campaign, users shared photos of Xinjiang cuisine and idyllic environments, but were quickly attacked as suspected attempts to “dilute” conversation about the lockdown.
“All these posts about Yili scenery and food are coming from alternate accounts. Nice job, g*v*rm*nt. Have you ever heard of maintaining a shred of dignity?” said one comment.
Xinjiang, the site of a years-long government campaign of oppression against the Muslim population, is under a higher degree of political control and sensitivity than most of China. About 40% of Xinjiang’s residential population is Han Chinese, and the rest mostly Uyghur and other ethnic minorities. However it has also become a domestic tourism drawcard, particularly Yili, which borders Kazakhstan.
“This is really happening during the Yili epidemic, the locals have tried many things to let the outside world know about our circumstances here,” said one commenter according to monitor site, What’s On Weibo.
“We’re locked inside and don’t have enough supplies, yet they opened the tourist scenic areas, help us, help us here, help the Yili common people!”
Complaints from people struggling during the more than 40-day lockdown had prompted hundreds of thousands of comments and posts. Reports have included pregnant women sent home from a hospital that was closing, another woman and her newborn baby denied re-entry to their residence after giving birth at a hospital, and an elderly man denied entry after arriving at the emergency department vomiting blood.
“Children who have a 40 degree fever can’t even see a doctor, pregnant women can’t even get into the hospital, we really can’t take this any more,” said one reported comment.
Authorities have denied some of the hardship claims, including of deaths and suicides. But last week they conceded there had been issues with food and medical supplies, and apologised in a press conference, blaming local officials.
“First they say it’s fake news, then they apologise,” one reportedly commenter said. “What is real, is that the entire city has been silent for 41 days,” said another.
On Saturday, a Yili health official said remaining lockdowns would be lifted after two to 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 from Xinjiang in the last week, according to daily briefings from the national health commission.
On a global scale the numbers are very small, but less than two months out from a hugely significant political meeting, Chinese government officials are under pressure to contain and eliminate outbreaks. China’s “dynamic zero” strategy has seen continued widespread lockdowns and other restrictions implemented suddenly and without warning on cities, neighbourhoods, and individual residences, prompting growing complaints from citizens.