The Debate | Opinion

China Says There’s No Risk of a COVID-19 Outbreak in Xinjiang Camps. Don’t Believe It.

In trying to deny any cause for concern, a government spokesperson only helped justify fears.

By Jewher Ilham and Munawwar Abdulla for
China Says There’s No Risk of a COVID-19 Outbreak in Xinjiang Camps. Don’t Believe It.

Chinese paramilitary police wear face masks as they stand guard outside the Beijing Railway Station in Beijing, Jan. 31, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

When the coronavirus outbreak hit international headlines, Uyghurs in the diaspora took to social media to raise concerns about the potential for mass outbreaks and deaths in China’s vast network of internment camps in their occupied homeland. Their demands were for: 1) the World Health Organization to send a delegation to the region to evaluate the spread of the virus; 2) international pressure on China to close the camps and release the millions of detained people in response to the dangers posed by the new epidemic; and 3) medical supplies and other humanitarian support to the region. Earlier this week, China responded to the campaign with an absurd but predictable statement in the Global Times.

Calling the campaign an effort to “slander China’s policies,” a spokesperson for the regional government only confirmed fears by asking: “As all of the trainees have graduated, how could there have been risk for large-scale infection?”

In December, China claimed to have released the more than 1 million Uyghurs and other persecuted peoples detained in “vocational training centers” as part of its campaign to “eradicate ideological viruses.” Shohrat Zakir, the chairman of the Uyghur region, told the press that everyone in the camps had “graduated” and were out and living “happy lives.” China has not offered any evidence to support that claim and continues to deny its persecution of the Uyghurs despite the mounting evidence. What we have seen instead is a large number of internees simply being transferred to other forms of detainment.

The recently published Karakax List, the third in a series of leaks of Chinese government documents, presents the strongest evidence of China’s “system of targeted cultural genocide that arguably rivals any similar attempt in the history of humanity,” according to Dr. Adrian Zenz, an expert on China’s ethnic policies.

The Karakax List confirms evidence from other sources – including journalists, camp survivors, human rights organizations, and previously leaked Chinese government documents – that suggests those so-called “vocational training centers” are actually prison-like camps that serve as the battleground for China’s war on Uyghur identity. While attempting to refute authenticity the Karakax List, China Daily seems to have inadvertently confirmed it by releasing a video of one of the people on the Karakax List whose name was not publicly disclosed as part of the leak.

With the camps, China has created nearly perfect conditions for the novel coronavirus, officially dubbed COVID-19, to rapidly spread and exacerbate the current global public health crisis. Human rights monitors and survivors report the camps are overcrowded, extremely unhygienic, and rife with abuse.

Survivors say they have been subject to starvation, sleep deprivation, rape, and other forms of physical and psychological abuse. One survivor told us lice outbreaks and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis were common in the Urumqi camp where she was detained for nearly 15 months.

The announcement of COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons in Shandong, Zheijiang, and Hubei provinces increases concerns about the vulnerability of those subjected to the vast network of camps and prisons in the Uyghur region.

When the virus hits the camps, it will likely spread more quickly than it has been spreading on the Princess Diamond docked in Japan. More than 700 of the 3,711 people abroad the luxury cruise ship have been infected despite serious efforts to contain the virus and treat the infected. Two of the passengers died Wednesday. Given the deplorable conditions in the camps and lack of adequate medical care, the scale of infections and deaths will likely be much higher, affecting thousands if not millions in the Uyghur region.

The statement published in the Global Times claims China is prioritizing the “safety and health of all ethnic groups.” That hasn’t been the case in Wuhan – ground zero for the coronavirus outbreak – and it certainly isn’t the case in the Uyghur region.

The death of Dr. Li Wenliang, the whistleblower punished by Chinese authorities for trying to raise alarm about the coronavirus, is a prime example of China’s blatant failure to prioritize public health. Li warned his colleagues on social media in late December about the coronavirus and was subsequently detained for “spreading false rumors.” He was forced to sign a document of admission stating he had “seriously disturbed social order” before he was released.

The regional government spokesperson also claims China is taking a “highly responsible and transparent attitude” to “disclose” information about the outbreak on a daily basis. However, China’s delayed reporting of the outbreak, efforts to silence whistleblowers like Dr. Li and citizen journalists, and its recent expulsion of three Wall Street Journal reporters from Beijing all contradict that claim. Instead, it demonstrates the unreliability of the limited information coming from Chinese authorities.

Chinese authorities have confirmed 76 cases of coronavirus and two related deaths in the Uyghur region, but the numbers are likely much higher given China’s record of downplaying and outright dismissing the grave situation there.

Radio Free Asia reported in early February that Chinese officials had quarantined nearly 100 Wuhan residents in a hotel in the city of Atush, where the spread of the coronavirus is being treated as a “state secret.” Local officials recently confirmed the infection of a 75-year-old Uyghur man residing near Ghulja City.

The spread of the virus in multiple cities across the region and the reports that people locked inside their homes for over a week are starving suggest that China is not doing enough to “intensify precise prevention and control,” do a “good job in scientific treatment,” or “[secure] supplies,” as it claims in the Global Times. If China is as serious about prioritizing public health as it claims, it should allow international health agencies and humanitarian groups into the Uyghur region to provide assistance with prevention and treatment efforts. The fact that it has not done so belies its stated intentions.

The Global Times article also confirmed that China has suspended public congregations and increased the management of generally crowded places such as bus stations, airports, and certain business establishments. But what about the camps?

The rhetorical question posed in the beginning of China’s statement suggests Chinese authorities realize the risk of “large-scale infections” in the camps but have decided to continue denying China’s mass detention campaign rather than address the apparent and serious public health issue in the region.

 

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An epidemic and crowded mass detention camps are a potentially deadly combination. Millions of #Uyghurs and other persecuted group are at risk of mass outbreaks of #coronavirus and related deaths inside China’s mass detention camps in the #Uyghur region. Join us and camp survivor Gulbahar Jalilova and call for: #WHO2URUMQI: We want the World Health Organisation to send a delegation to the region to evaluate the spread of the virus, assess the risks in the camps and take all measures necessary to prevent mass outbreaks and deaths. #CLOSETHECAMPS: We want WHO, the UN, international human rights groups, national governments and the rest of the international community to pressure China to close the camps and release the millions detained immediately as part of the global response to the coronavirus outbreak. #VIRUSTHREATINCAMPS: We want global health and humanitarian organizations to send medical supplies and teams to screen, diagnose and treat affected individuals in the Uyghur region. 1. Watch this video to understand why: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2TakMnDuc1U 2. Share using the hashtags #WHO2Urumqi #ClosetheCamps #VirusThreatInCamps 3. Sign and share the petition to take action: http://chng.it/rXpPnT5zsf For more information visit: https://uyghurtumblr.com/who2urumqi

A post shared by #WHO2Urumqi (@who2urumqi) on

China is able to continue to issue outrageously false statements such as the one published in the Global Times because the international community has continuously failed to hold the Chinese regime accountable for its crimes against humanity in the Uyghur region.

When news of the camps broke in 2017, the international community was slow to respond. Experts now estimate China has detained more than 1 million and as many as 3 million Uyghurs and other indigenous peoples over the past three years. China’s campaign of mass detention and surveillance is still very much in effect today. Uyghurs in the diaspora are still struggling to secure information about the state of their loved ones in the camps.

We cannot afford to wait for leaks and reports on the mass outbreaks of coronavirus and related deaths in the camps before sounding the alarm and demanding action. The international community – health and human rights organizations, governments, and international institutions –must collaborate to engage China directly on this issue and demand action as part of the global response to a coronavirus pandemic.

The Chinese government has strategically cultivated a false attitude of hypersensitivity on the Uyghur issue to influence the behavior of foreign governments and international institutions. The fear of antagonizing China has limited foreign actors’ ability to engage China on human rights and humanitarian issue like the mass internment camps in the Uyghur region.

World leaders and international institutions like the United Nations and its World Health Organization must overcome that misguided fear and not compromise their values and global human security to appease China. They must exert serious pressure on the Chinese government to allow independent delegations unfettered access to the region including the internment camps to evaluate the current spread of the virus and coordinate necessary measures to prevent an epidemic there.

Follow the campaign on social media using the hashtag #WHO2Urumqi

Jewher Ilham is an author, rights activist, and the daughter of Uyghur scholar, Ilham Tohti — an internationally renowned moderate voice dedicated to bridging the gap between the Uyghur people and the Han Chinese. In 2015, she published Jewher Ilham: A Uyghur’s Fight to Free Her Father, which recounts her experience as an activist for her father and the Uyghur people.

Munawwar Abdulla holds an MSc from UNSW Sydney and a B. Med Sci from ANU. She currently works as a lab manager and technician in an evolutionary neuroscience lab at Harvard University and is also a co-founder of The Tarim Network, an activist and a poet. She has previously been published in places such as The Diplomat, HKFP, UHRP Blog, and SubbedIn.