While the rest of the country is reporting only a handful of daily cases — with most of those imported — Xinjiang has this week recorded dozens of new infections. On Thursday, the region reported 14 new cases, taking its total active caseload to 197, according to China’s National Health Commission.
“The local government and Xinjiang at large launched emergency responses immediately, with medical teams and work teams in and outside of Xinjiang sent to the county and the prefecture for support,” state news agency Xinhua reported.
The Xinjiang outbreak has raised eyebrows, however, given the heavy surveillance and security prevalent in the region, and the drastic response the government enacted earlier this year.
Despite this, and despite much of the rest of the country avoiding renewed outbreaks, Kashgar has seen infections spread quickly, mainly through a garment factory in Shufu County’s Zhanmin Township where the teenage patient’s parents work.
Adrian Zenz, a leading expert on the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang, said the factory at the heart of the latest outbreak was emblematic of those used for “coercive labor training,” a purported poverty alleviation program targeting “so-called rural surplus laborers.”
Zenz said that while the “poverty alleviation” program was technically separate from the internment camps and the forced labor system, many such factories also took advantage of workers from the camps, “making it virtually impossible to distinguish labor involving higher coercion from that potentially involving less coercion.”
“Xinjiang has so many facilities that pack together people in crammed spaces and facilities, from prisons to detention centers to re-education camps to factories,” Zenz told CNN. “The factories especially are a setting where diseases are hard to control, because you have an even greater flow of persons.”
The news agency quoted users on the Twitter-like service Weibo “reassuring visitors (to) Xinjiang about the limited contagion risks outside Kashgar.” One user said “Xinjiang is so large that you can just take necessary prevention measures, relax and have fun.”
Speaking to CNN, one recent visitor to Kashgar expressed surprise at the recent outbreak, given the tight controls and surveillance she experienced while traveling there for a vacation.
“I was shocked and also baffled. The overall travel experience … felt very strict in terms of both virus control and security,” Greta Xu said, adding she was required not only to display her health status — a standard infection control check in China — but also a detailed travel history when entering hotels and even gas stations.
“We would be reminded by (security forces) on the streets to wear a mask. Theoretically it should be really safe,” she said.