Tibet Lockdown Triggers Outpouring of Anger – and Censorship – on Chinese Social Media

LHASA, CHINA - AUGUST 9 2022: Medical workers in PPE test people during the Covid-19 screening in Lhasa city in west China's Tibet Autonomous Region Tuesday, August 9, 2022. The city, heavily dependent on tourism, imposed partial lockdown after 18 reported Covid-19 cases on August 7. (Photo credit should read …
SU PING/ Feature China/Future Publishing via Getty Images

An ongoing lockdown in occupied Tibet and mass internment of residents in Chinese coronavirus quarantine camps have led locals to post dozens of videos expressing panic and condemning the Communist Party for ill-treatment in the past month, resulting in a rare apology from local officials followed by brutal censorship online.

The situation in Tibet is similar to that in the neighboring occupied region of East Turkistan, where native Uyghurs say the Communist Party is trying to expand its ongoing genocide against them by starving them to death in coronavirus lockdowns. Radio Free Asia (RFA), a U.S. media outlet, reported citing Chinese government officials that the East Turkistan lockdown resulted in 22 people dying from starvation in one day this month and untold others since the house arrest mandate began in late July.

Voice of America reported on Thursday that the deluge of videos on sites like Weibo and Douyin, China’s version of Tiktok, from Tibet show desperate Tibetans condemning officials for disappearing residents into quarantine camps with little information, often using a bus that only comes in the dead of night.

“Social media videos from Lhasa show people waiting to be bused at night to an estimated 20 makeshift quarantine camps,” Voice of America reported, referring to the capital of Tibet. “For Lhasa residents the ‘midnight bus’ represents their fears of what they may find once they arrive at crowded and locked quarantine sites.”

Past leaked videos from quarantine sites around the country have revealed distressful scenes of dirty, disorderly, and crowded quarantine camps full of desperate people. In Shanghai, the Communist Party sent in the military this year to separate babies from parents testing positive for the disease, placing children in unsafe camps where leaked images showed the children received little to no supervision. Some images showed up to three infants in the same crib, presenting potentially deadly risks of suffocation and other injuries.

Outside the camps, Chinese officials beat the pets of those imprisoned in quarantine camps to death, often in public. Even the transportation to the camps is not safe; at least 27 people last week after a quarantine camp bus crashed in Guizhou province.

These conditions all occurred in some of the most privileged regions of China – Shanghai is the city’s largest and wealthiest city – leaving many fearing that the situation in a poor and especially repressed region like Tibet could be far worse.

Voice of America narrated some of the videos posted from Tibet on Chinese social media before the crackdown:

In one post, a Tibetan woman said people were being treated like criminals instead of patients. If the authorities are incapable of properly managing these quarantine camps, she said, then they should allow those who test positive to isolate in their homes. “Even if they die, they can at least die in their homes,” she said.

In a viral audio recording, a Tibetan father pleads with a government official at one of the Lhasa quarantine centers to not separate him from his year-old child. “We were first brought to this quarantine camp even though we tested negative for COVID. Now we have tested positive, and you want to take away our child. If we need to move again, we want [to] move together as a family,” he said. “If you separate us from our child, I am willing to die right here.”

As of last week, RFA had compiled evidence of at least three Tibetans dying due to lack of care under the lockdown. RFA reported the three died of Chinese coronavirus infections, citing locals who added that timely care could have prevented the deaths.

Tibetan Review, a publication that regularly monitors news from the region, reported on Wednesday that many of those denouncing the regime from Tibet on social media appeared to be Han Chinese, not Tibetans – potentially prompting a more thorough reply to the complaints. Local officials in Lhasa issued a formal apology last Saturday for residents’ distress.

“We sincerely accept criticism for these problems, which have had a greater impact on the productivity and life of some of the people,” a Lhasa vice-mayor identified as Damdul told reporters. “On behalf of the municipal government, I would like to express our deep apologies to the people of all ethnic groups and those stranded in Lhasa due to the epidemic,” he said during a media briefing.

While China has refused to reconsider its total lockdowns to allegedly prevent the spread of Chinese coronavirus – despite even the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) discouraging them – Beijing has often throughout the pandemic forced local officials to apologize or otherwise take the fall in the face of public outrage or unrest.

“The apologies made by top leaders of Tibet’s capital Lhasa on Sep 17 … were accompanied by censors wiping China’s social media website Weibo clean of posts documenting the chaos of pandemic control measures there, said the online China-monitoring group chinadigitaltimes.net Sep 20,” according to Tibetan Review.

Censors reportedly disappeared a hashtag dedicated to sharing lockdown abuses and other related events and shut down a feature on Weibo that allows users to see “topics trending in your city.”

The situation in Tibet, both the lockdowns and ensuing censorship, appear similar to reports out of East Turkistan. Chinese officials locked down one of East Turkistan’s largest cities, Ghulja, in late July, leaving residents with no access to food or necessary medicine. A wave of social media posts and videos, including videos of desperate residents showing the corpses of their loved ones trapped at home, hit Weibo this month.

Unlike in Tibet, the lockdowns have led to multiple protests. One such protest, reportedly consisting of people simply leaving their homes without government permission, resulted in over 600 arrests in mid-September. Authorities identified the arrested as mostly young Uyghurs.

China is currently engaging in genocide against Uyghurs and other Turkic people in East Turkistan, imprisoning millions in concentration camps years before the pandemic and using mass sterilization and slavery to subdue and limit the growth of the population. The coronavirus lockdowns, which Uyghur activists have denounced, are adding “forced starvation” as a genocide tactic to the list already including the aforementioned abuses as well as the destruction of historical sites, separation of children from families, live organ harvesting, and other atrocities.

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