Shanghai and Xinjiang were once two sides of the Chinese coin.
Shanghai was glamorous China, with its skyscrapers, Art Deco apartments, and a thriving middle class that shopped in Paris and strolled through Kyoto, Japan.
Xinjiang was black China. The western border region, twice the size of Texas, is home to more than 10 million ethnic Muslim minorities who have been subject to mass detentions, religious repression and intrusive digital and physical surveillance.
Since April, Shanghai’s 25 million residents have had a small taste of the treatment of Xinjiang under a strict citywide lockdown. They are lining up for rounds of Covid-19 tests to prove they are virus-free, a pandemic corollary to Uighurs queuing at checkpoints to prove they pose no security threat.
The political slogans of the government’s zero Covid campaign echo those of the Xinjiang crackdowns. Residents of both places are subject to social control and surveillance. Instead of re-education camps in Xinjiang, about half a million Shanghai residents who tested positive were sent to quarantine camps.
What many Shanghai residents are going through does not compare to the violence and cruelty that Uyghurs and Kazakhs have endured in Xinjiang since 2017. But they are all victims of senseless political campaigns driven by paranoia, insecurity and authoritarian excesses.
As more Chinese cities impose strict lockdowns, people are seriously discussing, perhaps for the first time, whether they will be able to take back what little personal freedom they had before handing it over to the government during the pandemic. .
“The Shanghai lockdown is a stress test of social control,” Wang Lixiong, author of books on Xinjiang, Tibet and surveillance, said in an interview. “If the authority can control a complex society like Shanghai, it can control any place in China.”
Mr. Wang, who has written non-fiction as well as science fiction, has been locked up in Shanghai since March. He fears a China that is even more dystopian than it is today: a digital totalitarian regime that surveils everyone, turns every neighborhood into an on-site concentration camp, and controls society with the same iron fist in a future crisis, be it war, famine, climate catastrophe or economic collapse.
A retired journalist from Shanghai wrote on his social media WeChat timeline that he was not afraid of the virus. Instead, he is more concerned that the government will retain all the social control mechanisms it used during the lockdown to treat people like pigs and criminals.
Murong Xuecun, author of a new book on the Wuhan lockdown, “Calm and deadly citysaid he and his friends had spoken a few years ago about the risk that the rest of China would look more like Xinjiang. But he didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.
“The pandemic has done a huge service to the Chinese Communist Party, which has taken advantage of it to expand its power infinitely,” he said in an interview.
One of the most striking similarities between the Shanghai lockdown and the Xinjiang crackdown are the political slogans used by authorities. In Xinjiang, a repeated order to detain a large number of Uyghurs read: “Round up all who should be gathered.” In Shanghai, the government demonstrated its resolve by sending half a million people to quarantine camps with the slogan “Welcome all who should be welcomed”. In Chinese, these are the same four characters.
The crackdown on Xinjiang and the lockdown on Shanghai are political campaigns that can only be explained by the ruling Communist Party’s governing logic: doing whatever it takes to achieve the leadership’s goal.
It’s why Mao’s Great Leap Forward led to the Great Famine, why the Cultural Revolution turned into a decade of political chaos and economic destruction, and why the one-child policy left many women traumatized. and the country with a demographic crisis. In each case, the leaders mobilized the entire nation to pursue a goal at all costs. In each case, it ended in disaster.
In Xinjiang, the “Strike Hard” campaign sent about a million Muslims to re-education camps for what the government considered problematic behavior, such as giving up alcohol, praying or visiting a foreign country. They were interrogated, beaten and forced into endless indoctrination sessions.
In Shanghai, authorities sent people who tested positive for Covid to makeshift quarantine camps. It didn’t matter that some people recovered from the infection and tested negative. It didn’t matter if they were 2 months old or 90 years old. Conditions in some quarantine centers are so dire that they are referred to on social media as refugee camps or gulags.
Two young professionals documented some of the elderly met in their quarantine camps with a podcast, article and photos on WeChat. They met a man who was recovering from a stroke and couldn’t use the portable toilet, another who lost his sight after his medication ran out, and a 95-year-old woman who was so frail she had to be carried from the bus. at the camp.
These elderly people would probably have been better off staying at home or in the hospital with proper care. Instead, they ended up in the camps because of the government’s order to “take care of all who should be taken care of”.
With lockdowns in Shanghai and elsewhere, the Chinese government is resolutely moving toward a deployed social control mechanism in Xinjiang that combines surveillance technology with grassroots organizations, according to scholars and human rights activists.
“There is a real fear that China will look more like Xinjiang or North Korea,” said Maya Wang, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, who has conducted numerous work on the crackdown in Xinjiang. “Oversight of Xi Jinping since 2013,” she said of China’s top leader, “I think controlling Covid is almost like an important step towards deepening the crackdown.”
Almost all Chinese people have a health code in their phone which indicates their Covid risk and dictates the parameters of their movement. Some fear that the government will keep the system and use it after the Covid. For example, it could transform the health pass into a security pass and flag “troublemakers” to restrict their movement.
Like Muslims in Xinjiang, residents of Shanghai and many other cities have lost their rights and the protection of the law during the lockdowns.
A town in northern Hebei province made headlines when community workers demanded that residents abandonment their keys so they can be locked from the outside. In Shanghai, community workers covered the interior of apartments with disinfectant after residents tested positive, even though there is no scientific evidence that disinfectant can kill the coronavirus. In a widely circulated video and on social media Weibo post, a woman has documented how a group of police officers broke down the door to her flat and took her to a quarantine camp when they could not present a Covid test report. When her Covid test came back negative hours later, she was already in a camp, according to her posts.
A lawyer from the southern city of Shenzhen told me he was furious when a surveillance camera was installed in front of his apartment door during a home quarantine and when his building was locked down after a neighbor tested positive this year. There was nothing he could do. He bought a ladder so he could escape next time.
Some lawyers and jurists have expressed concern that some pandemic measures are a clear violation of the law. “The destruction of the rule of law is a social pandemic much worse than a biological pandemic”, wrote Zhao Hong, a law professor in Beijing.
No one in management listened. They didn’t listen either medical experts who said the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is much milder, though more contagious, than previous versions and that China should recalibrate its zero-Covid policy. Nor have they listened to economists and entrepreneurs worried about a possible recession. Many articles with professional opinions have been censored.
As those in Shanghai and the rest of China lost their rights, the middle class experienced great disillusionment.
“It was a big shock,” said Minxin Pei, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College who grew up in Shanghai. “For them, the unimaginable happened.” But he thinks it could be a good political lesson. “Freedom is a strange thing. You usually don’t realize how valuable it is until you lose it.
Sun Zhe, editorial director of a fashion magazine in Shanghai, reflects on her life choices. “I will stop all unnecessary purchases. I will stop working hard. It was all a lie,” he said. wrote on his verified Weibo account. “The affluent and decent middle-class lifestyle that we managed to achieve through hard work, smarts and luck was shattered in the glorious anti-pandemic campaign.”
“Prosperity is just for decoration,” he continued. “After all, there are also shopping malls and luxury hotels in North Korea.”