The Chinese government tested nearly five million people in Kashgar this past week, revealing 178 positive coronavirus cases in the city. Rumors of a possible outbreak in Kashgar surfaced on Weibo after all flights to and from the city were cancelled without explanation. Coronavirus prevention measures in Xinjiang have generally been stricter than those taken in China’s eastern provinces. During the first months of China’s pandemic outbreak, “Xinjiang was subjected to strict lockdown measures on par with those imposed in the city of Wuhan — the original epicenter of the virus, despite having reported only some 70 cases and three deaths.” The Chinese government’s campaign of repression and surveillance against Uyghurs is well documented, especially in Kashgar. A New York Times feature on the city described “sledgehammer” surveillance and children interrogated about their parent’s religious beliefs. The current outbreak may have originated in a factory with ties to forced labor. Eva Dou reported for The Washington Post :
The outbreak in Kashgar has been traced to workers at a clothing factory in “No. 3 Village” in the area’s Shufu County, according to the Beijing News. It’s unclear how the virus got to the factory in Shufu County.
The first confirmed case was a 17-year-old girl whose parents worked at the factory, according to a news conference held Sunday evening by the Xinjiang health commission.
The outbreak draws further attention to an area that has faced intense international scrutiny this year. A number of Xinjiang clothing and textile factories were put under U.S. sanctions in recent months, after reports that Muslim Uighurs — the predominant ethnic minority in the region — were being forced to work in factories under threat of detention. [Source]
Chinese news outlet Caixin found that the epicenter of the outbreak is a clothing factory tied to China’s poverty alleviation campaign. “Poverty alleviation workshops,” heavily subsidized local factories, are a central part of China’s anti-poverty push. However, in Xinjiang, the term is sometimes a euphemism for ethnicity-based labor camps. From Adrian Zenz at Foreign Policy:
In Xinjiang, state-mandated poverty alleviation goes along with different forms of involuntary labor placements. Under the banner of “industry-driven poverty alleviation,” minorities are being torn away from their own jobs and families. Just as brainwashing is masked as “job training,” forced labor is concealed behind the euphemistic facade of “poverty alleviation.” [Source]
138 asymptomatic cases now in Kashgar, after the city was abruptly locked down last night. There is a strong probability that the cases are linked to Xinjiang's detention system – horrible news given how crowded conditions can be https://t.co/goPyBQmDgw
— Emily Feng 冯哲芸 (@EmilyZFeng) October 25, 2020
according to caixin, the factory hires 287 female workers and has an area of 500 square meters. The working space per person is less than 2 square meters.
— Chenchen Zhang🤦🏻♀️ (@chenchenzh) October 27, 2020
This past July the United States sanctioned 11 Xinjiang corporations, among them multiple textile manufacturers, due to suspected use of forced Uyghur labor. A report shared by state media outlet China Daily on Tuesday, October 27, denied that the Chinese government uses forced labor, claiming that “through laws, regulations and policies, it helps the people who are willing to get rid of poverty in Xinjiang.”
During July and August, an outbreak in Xinjiang’s provincial capital Urumqi triggered a lockdown so severe that some residents turned to “screaming from their apartment windows in frustration.” CDT translated an account from Karamay of lockdown enforced by rebar barricades at apartment buildings’ front doors, despite the absence of any local cases. Such safety hazards stirred memories of an infamous disaster in the city 1994, in which 288 schoolchildren and 37 others died after being trapped inside a burning theater.
Xinjiang Party officials say the Kashgar outbreak is unconnected to this summer’s Urumqi outbreak. In Kashgar, citizens are likewise staying home. “The once-bustling streets of [the] city are deserted,” a Kashgar resident told the Global Times. A Caixin photo series captured the emptiness of a city that had hosted 2 million visitors during the Golden Week holiday just three weeks earlier.
Kashgar’s mass-testing regime mirrored similar testing schemes in Wuhan and Qingdao in October and May, respectively. Officials tested approximately nine million residents in Qingdao, and eleven million in Wuhan. The New York Times reported that a top Chinese epidemiologist is skeptical about the public health necessity of massive testing programs:
Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that such mass testing may be unnecessary, and that more concentrated testing could achieve similar results with less cost.
“Focus on the source of the outbreak and radiate testing to a certain area around it,” he said in an interview on Saturday with the magazine China Newsweek. “When no cases can be detected, you stop. There is no need to blanket the city to do it.” [Source]
There was some confusion over the exact case count in Kashgar due to the Chinese government’s unorthodox reporting system for asymptomatic cases. At The South China Morning Post, Josephine Ma argued that now is the time to bring China’s coronavirus reporting process in line with global standards:
In a government statement about the latest Covid-19 outbreak in China’s Kashgar city on Tuesday, there were five confirmed cases but a further 178 without symptoms tested positive.
The seemingly contradictory report relates to China’s unique definition of Covid-19 confirmed cases, which excludes positive patients who are asymptomatic or presymptomatic. The 178 people who tested positive are not counted as confirmed cases, although some will be included later when they show symptoms.
[…] China is the only country in the world to adopt a different definition than that of the World Health Organization, which defines a confirmed case as someone who tested positive. [Source]