Shanghai and Xinjiang were the two sides of the Chinese currency.
Shanghai was glamorous China, with skyscrapers, art deco apartments and a thriving middle class that shopped in Paris and strolled through Kyoto, Japan.
Xinjiang was the dark China. The western border region, which is twice the size of Texas, is home to more than 10 million Muslim ethnic minorities who have been subjected to mass detentions, religious repression and intrusive digital and physical surveillance.
Since April, Shanghai’s 25 million residents have been given a taste of Xinjiang treatment in a strict citywide lockdown. They’re lining up for rounds of Covid-19 testing to prove they’re virus-free, a pandemic corollary of Uyghurs queuing at checkpoints to prove they don’t pose any security threat.
The political slogans in the government’s zero-covid campaign align with those of the repression in Xinjiang. Residents in both places are subject to social control and supervision. 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 cannot be compared to the violence and brutality that Uyghurs and Kazakhs have endured in Xinjiang since 2017. But they are all victims of pointless political campaigns fueled by paranoia, insecurity and authoritarian excesses.
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 freedom they had before handing it over 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 both non-fiction and science fiction, has been incarcerated in Shanghai since March. He fears an even more dystopian China than it is today: a digital totalitarian regime that watches everyone, turns every neighborhood into a concentration camp and controls society with the same iron fist in a future crisis, be it war, famine, climate disaster or economic collapse.
A retired journalist in 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 keep 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 Wuhan’s shutdown, “Deadly Quiet City,” said he and his friends had talked a few years ago about the risk of the rest of China becoming more like Xinjiang. But he didn’t expect it to go so fast.
“The pandemic has greatly helped the Chinese Communist Party, which has seized the opportunity to expand its power indefinitely,” he said in an interview.
One of the most striking similarities between the lockdown in Shanghai and the crackdown in Xinjiang are the political slogans used by the authorities. In Xinjiang, a repeated order to detain Uyghurs in large numbers read: “Run up anyone who should be arrested.” In Shanghai, the government showed its determination by sending half a million people to quarantine camps with the slogan: “Include everyone who needs to be admitted.” In Chinese, it’s the same four characters.
Both the Xinjiang crackdown and the Shanghai lockdown are political campaigns that can only be explained by the ruling Communist Party’s governing rationale: do whatever it takes to achieve the leaders’ goal.
That was why Mao’s Great Leap Forward resulted in the Great Famine, why the Cultural Revolution plunged into a decade of political chaos and economic destruction, and why the one-child policy left many women traumatized and the country in a demographic crisis. In both cases, the leadership mobilized the entire nation to go after a target at all costs. In both cases it led to a catastrophe.
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 up 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 have 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 appalling that they are referred to as refugee camps or gulags on social media.
Two young professionals documented some of the older people they encountered in their quarantine camps with a podcast, article and photos on WeChat. They met a man recovering from a stroke who was unable to use the portable toilets, another who lost his sight after his medication ran out, and a 95-year-old woman who was so weak she had to be carried off the bus to the camp.
These older people would probably have been much better off if they had stayed at home or in 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 included.”
With the lockdowns in Shanghai and elsewhere, the Chinese government is moving resolutely toward a social control mechanism deployed in Xinjiang that combines surveillance technology and grassroots organizations, scientists and human rights activists said.
†There is a real fear that China will become more like Xinjiang or North Korea,” said Maya Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, who has done much to help repression in Xinjiang. “When I look at Xi Jinping since 2013,,” she said of China’s top leader, “I think the Covid control is almost a milestone towards deepening crackdown.”
Almost all Chinese 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 and use the system after Covid. For example, it could turn the health pass into a safety pass and flag “troublemakers” to restrict their movements.
Like the Muslims in Xinjiang, the people of Shanghai and many other cities lost their rights and protection of the law in lockdowns.
A city in northern Hebei province made headlines when community workers demanded that residents hand in 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 is no scientific evidence that disinfectant can kill the coronavirus. In a widely circulated video and a Weibo social media post, a woman documented how a group of police officers broke the door of her apartment and took her to a quarantine camp, though they were unable to provide a Covid test report. When her Covid test came back negative hours later, she was reportedly already in camp.
A lawyer in the southern city of Shenzhen told me he was furious when a surveillance camera was installed outside his apartment 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 legal scholars expressed concern that some pandemic response measures are clear violations of the law. “The destruction of the rule of law is a much 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 that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is much milder but more contagious than previous versions and that China needs to rethink its zero-covid policy. Nor did they listen to economists and entrepreneurs worried about a possible recession. Many articles with professional opinions were censored.
When those in Shanghai and the rest of China lost their rights, the middle class experienced great disillusionment.
“It came as a big shock,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of government 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 precious it is until you’ve lost it.”
Sun Zhe, the editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine in Shanghai, has reflected on his life choices. “I stop with all unnecessary shopping. I stop working hard. It was all a lie,” he wrote on his verified Weibo account. “The affluent, decent middle-class lifestyle that we achieved through hard work, intelligence and luck was shattered in the glorious anti-pandemic campaign.”
“Prosperity is just for decoration,” he continued. “After all, there are also luxury shopping centers and hotels in North Korea.”