Shanghai and Xinjiang used to be the two sides of the China coin.
Shanghai was the glamorous China, with skyscrapers, Art Deco apartments and a thriving middle class that shopped in Paris and strolled around Kyoto, Japan.
Xinjiang was the dark China. The western frontier region, which is twice the size of Texas, is home to more than 10 million Muslim ethnic minorities who have been subject to mass detentions, religious repression and intrusive digital and physical surveillance.
Since April, the 25 million residents of Shanghai have gotten a small taste of the Xinjiang treatment in a strict citywide lockdown. They have been lining up for rounds of Covid-19 tests to prove they are virus-free, a pandemic corollary to Uyghurs lining up at checkpoints to prove they don’t pose any security threat.
The political slogans in the government’s zero-Covid campaign echo those in the Xinjiang crackdowns. Residents in 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 experiencing doesn’t compare to the violence and cruelty that Uyghurs and Kazakhs have endured in Xinjiang since 2017. But they’re all victims of senseless political campaigns that are driven by paranoia, insecurity and authoritarian excess.
As more Chinese cities impose strict lockdowns, people are seriously discussing, possibly for the first time, whether they will be able to take back the little individual liberty they had before surrendering it to the government during the pandemic.
“Shanghai lockdown is a stress test of social control,” Wang Lixiong, an 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 nonfiction as well as science fiction, has been locked down in Shanghai since March. He fears an even more dystopian China than what it is today: a digital totalitarian regime that surveils everyone, makes each neighborhood an on-site concentration camp and controls the society with the same iron fist in a future crisis, be it war, famine, climate disaster or economic meltdown.
A retired journalist in Shanghai wrote on his social media WeChat timeline that he was not afraid of the virus. Instead, he’s more worried that the government will retain all the social control mechanisms it has used during the lockdown to treat people like pigs and criminals.
Murong Xuecun, author of a new book about the Wuhan lockdown, “Deadly Quiet City,” said he and his friends had talked a few years ago about the risk of the rest of China’s becoming more like Xinjiang. But he didn’t expect it would happen so quickly.
“The pandemic did a huge favor to the Chinese Communist Party, which took the opportunity 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 the authorities. In Xinjiang, a repeated order to detain Uyghurs in large number said, “Round up everyone who should be rounded up.” In Shanghai, the government demonstrated its determination in sending half a million people to quarantine camps with the slogan, “Take in all who should be taken in.” In Chinese they’re the same four characters.
Both the Xinjiang crackdown and the Shanghai lockdown are political campaigns that can be explained only through the governing rationale of the ruling Communist Party: Do whatever it takes to achieve the leadership’s goal.
That was why Mao’s Great Leap Forward resulted in the Great Famine, why the Cultural Revolution devolved 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 leadership mobilized the whole nation to chase after a goal at any expense. In each case, it resulted in a catastrophe.
In Xinjiang, the “strike hard” campaign sent about one 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 up and forced into endless indoctrination sessions.
In Shanghai, the authorities sent people who tested positive for Covid to makeshift quarantine camps. It didn’t matter that some of the people have recovered from the infection and have tested negative. It didn’t matter whether they were 2 months old or 90 years old. The conditions of some quarantine centers are so abysmal that they’re referred to on social media as refugee camps or gulags.
Two young professionals documented some of the older people they encountered at their quarantine camps with a podcast, an article and photos on WeChat. They met one man who was recovering from a stroke and couldn’t use the portable toilets, another who lost his eyesight after his medication ran out and a 95-year-old woman who was so frail that she had to be carried from the bus to the camp.
These older people would most likely have been much better off staying at home or at hospitals with proper care. Instead they ended up in the camps because of the government’s order to “take in all those who should be taken in.”
With the lockdowns in Shanghai and elsewhere, the Chinese government is moving resolutely in the direction of a social control mechanism deployed in Xinjiang that combines surveillance technology and grass-roots organizations, according scholars and human-rights activists.
“There is a real fear that China could become more like Xinjiang or North Korea,” said Maya Wang, senior researcher of Human Rights Watch who has done extensive work on the repression in Xinjiang. “Watching Xi Jinping since 2013,” she said of China’s top leader, “I think the Covid control is almost like a milestone toward deepening repression.”
Nearly all Chinese people have a health code in their phone that indicates their Covid risk and dictates the parameters of their movement. Some people fear that the government will keep the system and use it post-Covid. For example, it could turn the health pass into a security pass and flag “troublemakers” to restrict their movements.
Like the Muslims in Xinjiang, the people in Shanghai and many other cities lost their rights and the protection of law in lockdowns.
A city in northern Hebei Province made headlines when community workers demanded that residents surrender their keys so they could be locked up from outside. In Shanghai, community workers covered the insides of apartments with disinfectant after residents tested positive, even though there’s no scientific evidence that disinfectant can kill coronavirus. In a widely circulated video and a social media Weibo post, a woman documented how a group of police officers had broken the door of her apartment and taken her to a quarantine camp even though they couldn’t 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 in the southern city of Shenzhen told me that 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 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 legal scholars voiced their concerns that some pandemic control measures are obvious violation of the law. “The destruction of the rule of law is a far worse social pandemic than a biological pandemic,” wrote Zhao Hong, a law professor in Beijing.
No one in the leadership has listened. Nor have they listened to medical experts who have said the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is much milder, though more infectious, than previous versions and that China should recalibrate its zero-Covid policy. Nor did they listen to economists and entrepreneurs worried about a potential recession. Many articles with professional opinions were censored.
As those in Shanghai and the rest of China lost their rights, the middle class experienced a great disillusionment.
“It came as a big shock,” said Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College who grew up in Shanghai. “For them the unimaginable happened.” But he thinks that it could be a good political lesson. “Freedom is a strange thing. You don’t usually realize how precious it is until you have lost it.”
Sun Zhe, the editorial director of a fashion magazine in Shanghai, has been reflecting on his life choices. “I’ll stop all unnecessary shopping. I’ll stop working hard. It was all a lie,” he wrote on his verified Weibo account. “The affluent, decent middle-class lifestyle that we managed to attain with hard work, intelligence and luck was smashed into pieces in the glorious anti-pandemic campaign.”
“Prosperity is only for decoration,” he continued. “After all, there are luxury shopping malls and hotels in North Korea, too.”