HONG KONG — In the Xinjiang region of northwestern China, the government says, major construction projects have resumed, oil field workers are back on the job, garment factories are making masks and spring planting is underway. Students returned to school last week, and one class was greeted by the region’s top Communist Party leader, who wore a mask while speaking to them.
Officially vetted images and reports in China’s state-controlled media show life in Xinjiang resuming after more than a month of a regionwide shutdown to control the coronavirus. “Xinjiang has completely restored the normal order of production and life,” the official People’s Daily declared in a March 12 headline.
But questions remain over the severity of the outbreak in the largely underdeveloped region, and whether a tightly enforced lockdown made it difficult for some residents to survive.
The government says Xinjiang, a region of 24.5 million, officially has 76 coronavirus cases and three deaths. But Uighurs living abroad have been concerned about the fate of as many as a million or more Uighurs, Kazakhs and members of other predominantly Muslim minorities, who have been held in a sprawling network of indoctrination camps the government says are needed to fight religious extremism.
They are skeptical of the government’s official tally of cases, fearing that the virus would spread rapidly in Xinjiang if it were introduced into the camps, or to prisons or rural areas with limited medical care. For many Uighurs, communication with the outside world has been largely cut by the government’s clampdown, adding to the uncertainty.
Jevlan Shirmemmet, a Uighur living in Turkey, said the outbreak made him fear for the well-being of his mother, who is in Xinjiang. His mother, Süriye Tursun, was sentenced to five years in prison for supporting terrorism, which he calls a wrongful conviction that is part of the continuing crackdown. If the outbreak caught hold in the region, she would have little hope of avoiding infection, he worried.
This month Mr. Shirmemmet called the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul, where he lives. “They said, ‘You shouldn’t worry, the government is already paying attention to the prisons and the camps,’” he said.
He was unconvinced. Last month the coronavirus swept through at least four prisons in three provinces in eastern China, infecting more than 500 inmates and guards. So far no prison cases have been reported in Xinjiang, which has one of the country’s highest concentration of prisons in addition to the network of indoctrination camps.
The Xinjiang authorities have dismissed concerns that they were hiding information about the outbreak. A spokesman for the regional government called suggestions that the new coronavirus had taken hold in the camps or that the authorities were hiding the extent of infections “fabricated slanders and attacks,” the state-run news broadcaster, China Central Television, reported.
Even before the outbreak spread in China, Xinjiang was already under its own clampdown. The region is dotted with checkpoints to control the movement of minority populations and many Muslims have been rounded up and placed in camps or prisons for a range of behavior the government has deemed extremist.
Uncensored information from the region is scarce. For Uighurs and other minorities, communicating with people abroad is grounds to be sent to a camp. Reporting on the ground is highly restricted, and the extent of the vast campaign there has been pieced together in recent years only through the testimony of exiles and former detainees, leaked documents and satellite imagery of the growing network of detention facilities.
After the first coronavirus cases in Xinjiang were reported on Jan. 23, the region beefed up its controls. Reports from Uighur exiles described how the lockdown placed Uighurs in Xinjiang at risk of starvation. The Uyghur Human Rights Project, a Washington-based advocacy organization, reviewed a pair of videos from the region last month that showed people complaining of being unable to get food.
In one video, a Uighur man is confronted by a person speaking Chinese as he walks along an empty street and told he should not be outside. “What’s a person supposed to eat when they get hungry?” he replied in Uighur. “What should I do, bite into a building?”
Fears about the conditions inside indoctrination camps are even greater, and information even more sparse. No reports have emerged of conditions in the facilities since the outbreak began. But former detainees have previously described poor food and sanitation and little help for those who fell ill.
Internal Chinese documents leaked to The New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists have listed officials’ warnings about the dangers of infectious diseases in the indoctrination program.
Sayragul Sauytbay, a Chinese-born ethnic Kazakh woman who was forced to work as a Chinese language teacher in a camp for a few months until early 2018, said she was worried that the government would do little to prevent an outbreak in the camps.
“According to my personal experience in the concentration camp, they never helped anyone or provided any medical support for any kind of disease or health condition,” said Ms. Sauytbay, who fled to Kazakhstan two years ago, in a phone interview this month. “If the coronavirus spread inside the camps, they would not help, they would not provide any medical support.”
Now the region is being jolted back to work. Labor transfer programs, in which large numbers of Uighurs and other predominately Muslim minorities are sent to work in other parts of Xinjiang and the rest of China, have resumed in recent weeks. The programs have drawn scrutiny for harsh controls and coercive recruiting methods that experts say amount to forced labor.
By March 20, more than 20,000 people from poor, predominantly Uighur counties in southern Xinjiang were sent to work in cities including Hotan, Kashgar and Urumqi, the regional capital. The goal, according to the state-run Xinjiang Daily, was to transfer 50,000 people by the end of March.
In order to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus, the newspaper said, the workers had to be closely shepherded from point to point. When one group of workers set off, the newspaper said, they were only allowed to “go out, get in the train, then enter the factory door.”