Asia China COVID-19 Ethnicity General Surveillance

How the Xinjiang crisis was made gloomier by the pandemic

Xinjiang detention centres in Onsu, Aksu, as identified by a technical journalist. Source:

By anonymous author

In this blog post I want to talk about the plight the Uyghurs face in China since the beginning of the pandemic. A crisis like this puts the socially vulnerable in a more vulnerable spot, especially in a country with a sizable amount of its population living in poverty, and has no social welfare system like China.[1] During the various lockdowns in 2020 worldwide, most people were confined to home, many people lost their job or livelihood, with no employment payment, no income or savings, and many struggled to pull through. The Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang suffered way more than that. The Uyghur communities in southern Xinjiang have much higher poverty rates than the Han communities, as a result of long-term discrimination policies against their Muslim identity. In recent years, their culture, language and religion have been further suppressed by the regime in the name of national security, many fell victim to the “re-education” camps or forced employment schemes.[2]

Xinjiang is a vast region located in the northwest of China, home to over 13 million Uyghurs and over 1 million Kazakhs, who are the ethnic and cultural minorities. News reports and investigations showed that since 2015, numerous ‘re-education camps’ were being built all around Xinjiang, and it is estimated that over 1 million Uyghurs and Kazakhs are being detained in such camps, facing brainwash, mental and physical abuse day by day.[3]

In the beginning of the pandemic, many migrant workers were eager to return to big cities for work, but were forced by the lockdown to stay home for more than two months. As a result, thousands of Uyghurs were being sent across the country, to fill up the vacuum of labour following the first lockdown. Many were forced to wear GPS bracelets to track their whereabouts.[4] According to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Chinese government sent approximately 80,000 Uyghurs to other regions of China to work in factories, including for many international brands like Nike, Apple, BMW and Volkswagen.[5] In July 2020, a New York Times visual investigation found that Uyghurs were also included in a government-sponsored forced labour program to produce face masks, in order to satisfy the skyrocketed global demand of P.P.E.. Much of the mask production was for export.[6] Besides all of this, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other minorities were forced to undertake hard and manual labour in Xinjiang’s vast cotton fields and the garment factories, where 20% of the world’s cotton is from.[7]

Another report by China Tribunal also reveals that the detainees in the “re-education camps” are victims of organ harvesting, a practice that is not at all uncommon in Chinese prisons.[8] China has one of the lowest voluntary organ donor rates in the world, with the spreading of Covid-19, there were concerns that the Uyghurs were being “killed-on-demand” for Chinese Covid-19 patients, as China announced its first double-lung-transplant for a Covid-19 patient, who waited only five days for a “consenting” donor to provide a perfectly matching set of lungs.[9]

There were two major lockdowns in Xinjiang in 2020, the first one was from mid-July to early September, when the rest of China reported almost no new cases every day. The same measurements like those in Wuhan were imposed there, people were not allowed to leave their home, some building gates were sealed with iron bars, and residents were forced to take unknown medicine every day.[10] Around this time it was also reported that a mass female sterilization campaign was being carried out among the Uyghur population,[11] similar to the one carried out nationwide in the 1980s and 90s, as a result of the one-child policy.

Being the most heavily policed area of the world, “covered by a pervasive network of surveillance, including police, checkpoints, and cameras that scan everything from number plates to individual faces”,[12] most people could never move freely before the pandemic. Many questioned the scale of the outbreak in the cities, and expressed their concern of possible outbreaks inside of the ‘re-education camps’.[13] Given that ‘[t]hose camps are especially vulnerable to contagious disease due to the cramped cells, lack of medical resources and generally dire conditions.’[14]

The second lockdown in Xinjian was carried out from late October to late November in the area of Kashgar, where most Uyghur communities and ‘re-education camps’ are located, harsh measurements were imposed on its residents again. According to the news reports and studies, the human rights violations in China continue to deteriorate during the pandemic. In January 2021, the U.S. government declared that the Chinese government has committed genocide on Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities of Xinjiang,’, it was by far the strongest condemnation by any government against the Xinjiang crisis,[15] hopefully more countries will take part in the joint effort to end such atrocities against humanity.


  1. CNBC. (2020, May 28). China has over 600 million poor with $140 monthly income: Premier Li Keqiang. CNBC TV18. Retrieved from,China%20has%20over%20600%20million%20poor,monthly%20income%3A%20Premier%20Li%20Keqiang&text=China%20has%20over%20600%20million%20people%20whose%20monthly%20income%20is,Li%20Keqiang%20said%20on%20Thursday

2. Lee, Elizabeth.(2020, Oct 23). POVERTY IN XINJIANG, CHINA. The Borgen Project. Retrieved from

3. Uyghur Human Rights Project. (2020, February 18). “IDEOLOGICAL TRANSFORMATION”: RECORDS OF MASS DETENTION FROM QARAQASH, HOTAN. Retrieved from

4. Dong, Han. (2020, March 12). 大批新疆维族人被强制送往内地工厂外出须戴定位. World Uyghur Congress. Retrieved from

5. Xu, Cave, Leibold, Munro and Ruser. (2020, March 01). Uyghurs for sale. Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Retrieved from

6. Xiao, M., Willis, H., Koettl, C., Reneau, N., Jordan, D. (2020, July 19). China Is Using Uighur Labor to Produce Face Masks. The New York Times. Retrieved from

7. Sudworth, John. (2020, December). China’s ‘tainted’ cotton. BBC NEWS. Retrieved from

8. Nice et al. (2020, March 01). The Independent Tribunal into Forced Organ Harvesting from Prisoners of Conscience in China. China Tribunal. Retrieved from

9. Werleman, CJ. (2020, March 10). Are Uyghur Muslim Organs Being Illegally Removed to Save China’s Coronavirus Patients? Byline Times. Retrieved from

10. Kang, D. (2020, August 31). In China’s Xinjiang, forced medication accompanies lockdown. AP News. Retrieved from

11. Zenz, Adrian. (2020, June). Sterilizations, IUDs, and Mandatory Birth Control: The CCP’s Campaign to Suppress Uyghur Birthrates in Xinjiang. The Jamestown Foundation. Retrieved from

12. BBC NEWS. (2021, January 20). US: China ‘committed genocide against Uighurs’. BBC NEWS. Retrieved from

13. Dick, S. (2020, August 08). Dual threat: Coronavirus not the only battle in Uighur ‘re-education’ camps. THE NEW DAILY. Retrieved from

14. Rogin, J. (2020, February 26). The coronavirus brings new and awful repression for Uighurs in China. Washington Post. Retrieved from

15. BBC NEWS, 2021.

Asia Diplomacy Geopolitics

What impacts do epidemics have on geopolitical and diplomatic issues? The example of the Manchurian Plague

Gravediggers during the Manchurian Plague (papers of Dr. Richard Pearson Strong, on repository at Harvard University’s Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine)

By Cedric Carlier, BA


During these unsafe Covid times, we hear about different countries that use the emergency situation to their own good. During the past few months, we have noticed for instance that China, among others, has taken advantage of the pandemic to further extend its territory in the South China Sea. Although it is not clear if there is a direct link between the pandemic and their increasing aggression, others like the US Department of State argue that China is using the weakness of other countries due to the pandemic situation to expand its power in the South China Sea. In this blog post, I will explain how epidemics have an impact on the strategic advantages between states and have an impact on diplomacy, focusing mainly on China’s experience facing foreign threats during the Manchurian plague in the early 20th century and comparing it with the current situation.

The Great Manchurian Plague and the interests of the great powers

As Summers (2012) explains in The Great Manchurian Plague of 1910-1911: The Geopolitics of an Epidemic Disease, the plague occurred between 1910 and 1911 and caused the death of about 60 000 people, mostly in Manchuria (northeast China), even though other cases were also reported in other regions, such as Beijing and Tianjin. The Manchurian plague is a story of railroads, foreign markets and geopolitics on a huge scale. At a time of great international issues and even warfare, a deadly infectious disease appeared, killing and devastating on its way.

It is important to remark that several Great Powers were interested in the Manchurian region at the time. Not only Russia and Japan, but also France, Germany, Great Britain and the US had ambitions in Manchuria. China, which was extremely weak at the time, tried to use its political and diplomatic means to win over the Great Powers to its own advantage. Furthermore, alliances between the various nations were quite considerable: on the one hand, Russia was assisted by France and Germany and on the other hand, Japan and Great Britain cooperated. As for the United States, they decided to stay neutral, as they lacked alliances with European countries.

As the plague was spreading southward along the railway routes of Manchuria, both the Russian and Japanese foreign governments located in Harbin and in Dairen respectively started realizing the benefits and dangers the disease could bring. Despite the weakness of its government, however, China initially managed to resist these attacks on its sovereignty, but that did not last very long.

Russia tried to take advantage of the situation by bringing in more troops with the alleged aim to enforce quarantines and to control travel and population movements. Nonetheless, Russia’s influence in Manchuria was constantly becoming weaker, especially after its defeat in the Russo-Japanese war and the loss of dynamics during its Far East strategy. Furthermore, by the end of the plague, Russia’s main surrogate in Manchuria had great financial issues and his power was very limited in the region. Russia, nonetheless, still tried to take advantage of the Manchurian plague to regain control and keep its power in the region. However, the presence of other major economic and military powers, especially Japan, prevented Russia from expanding its power, which explains how its influence in Manchuria came to an end.

Japan’s interests in Manchuria and Korea were clear from the time of the Meiji Restoration, i.e., the political revolution of 1868. Furthermore, the Sino-Japanese war in 1895 and Russo-Japanese war in 1905 permitted Japan to exert great power in both Korea and later in Manchuria. During the Manchurian pandemic, Japan, which was already present in the southern part of Manchuria, saw an opportunity to consolidate its well-established position in the region by extending its influence in the field of public health, quarantines and other forms of population control. In January 1911, at the peak of the epidemic and before the International Plague Conference, the Japanese started bringing more troops to Manchuria and accommodating them in barracks along the South Manchuria Railway, claiming that the purpose of these constructions was to quarantine sick low-class passengers. In addition, Japan kept extending its influence northward towards Mukden, partly through the relocation of Viscount Oshima from Dairen to Mukden. It then claimed that he headed the Japanese Sanitation Commission, which was responsible for anti-plague work there and thus needed to be transferred.

International plague conference in Mukden

The international plague conference in Mukden played a crucial role in the geopolitical and diplomatic issues of Manchuria. The international conference meant that China was admitting that it needed assistance in managing the growing pandemic, even though it would only accept international help on its terms. The conclusions of the conference were that China had to improve its public health organization, its medical education system, and its hospital and quarantine provisions. In the aftermath of the conference, however, both China and Japan attempted to take advantage of these dynamics to increase their influence in Manchuria by developing new initiatives.

After the conference, Japan used its agent of colonialism, i.e., the South Manchuria Railway Company, to further extend its influence in the region, by for example founding a new medical school in Mukden, which was controlled and staffed by Kyoto Imperial University. It also founded in China the North Manchurian Plague Prevention Service, which represented the first stage toward a national public health system. It was, however, very Westernized, as it had a senior staff of ethnic Chinese who had studied Western medicine. Furthermore, the junior staff physicians were often graduates of Western medical schools in China. The organization later became the National Quarantine Service, which was, however, ended due to Japanese aggression in 1937.


In summary, major economic and military powers such as Japan and Russia took advantage of China’s vulnerability to the plague in Manchuria to try to expand their territory and thereby refine their diplomatic and geopolitical strategies. Russia, however, was less successful in this respect, and so it is mainly Japan that achieved its expansion in the region. Thus, whereas about 100 years ago China was the victim invaded by various Great Powers such as Russia and Japan, it is now being criticized for “exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea” (US Department of State) during the current pandemic. Based on the events of the Manchurian plague and the current situation in the South China Sea, we can easily conclude that it is not at all uncommon for Great Powers to take advantage of pandemic situations in a geopolitical and diplomatic way and that the power positions can change very quickly throughout history.

Historical information on the plague in this text taken from William C. Summers (2012): The Great Manchurian Plague of 1910-1911: The Geopolitics of an Epidemic Disease. New Haven: Yale University Press

Welle (, Deutsche. “Is China Taking Advantage of COVID-19 to Pursue South China Sea Ambitions? | DW | 26.05.2020.” DW.COM. Accessed January 23, 2021.