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Residents standing behind a cordon line shop at a fruit stall amid a COVID-19 outbreak in the Tianshan district of Urumqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, on Sept. 5.STRINGER/Reuters

At least four people in China’s Xinjiang region have been detained by police for spreading “rumours” after residents complained online of food and drug shortages amid a weeks-long, unofficial COVID-19 lockdown.

The arrests appear to be part of a concerted effort to suppress news from Yining, also known as Ghulja, the capital of Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture. Photos and videos began emerging last week of locals being denied medical care and struggling to get groceries, with some saying they were near starvation and desperate for help.

“We’ve already been in lockdown for 39 days. I don’t have the words to express everything that’s going on here,” read one anonymous post translated by What’s on Weibo, a monitoring site. “We want to be trending!”

As this and similar posts spread over social media platforms, hashtags related to Yining were flooded with innocuous posts in an apparent attempt to drown out the complaints, while strict censorship orders were issued to Chinese media.

One urgent notice subsequently leaked to California-based watchdog China Digital Times said that “effective immediately, no group is to pass on any content (including video, audio, or text) that has not received official confirmation or that conveys negative energy.”

The notice called on state-controlled media to help “win this smokeless war,” an apparent reference to the longstanding official position that any negative news about Xinjiang – where Beijing has been accused of widespread human-rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities – is driven by overseas actors.

But while some Uyghurs in exile have highlighted the ongoing issues in Ili, the prefecture is predominantly Han Chinese, who account for almost 60 per cent of the population, according to recent census statistics.

Ili has been part of renewed efforts to promote Xinjiang as a destination for Chinese tourists, and many posts by residents highlight the contrast between such campaigns and the increasingly dire situation in which they find themselves.

“Yining is a beautiful place. Many people travel here,” blogger Zhao Kang wrote, but the authorities show “cold hearts” to locals. “They often do things useless and do not do anything that can truly benefit the residents!”

As well as attempts to suppress negative news online, Yining police said Sunday they had arrested four people for “spreading rumours” that had incited “antagonistic emotions, disrupted the order of epidemic prevention and control, and caused a bad social impact.”

The police said four people had been punished with five to 10 days of “administrative detention.” In a statement, they encouraged residents to “jointly maintain the order of cyberspace.”

Unlike Chengdu and Shanghai, which have been under official lockdowns, no such order has been issued in Yining. Last week, Sun Chunlan, China’s vice-premier in charge of COVID-19 control measures, urged local governments to stop unilaterally imposing restrictions or lockdowns.

At a news conference Friday, after Ms. Sun’s comments, authorities in Ili acknowledged “shortcomings and weaknesses of the work of the local authorities” and promised to remedy them. Many lockdown orders appear to have been lifted, with authorities keen to emphasize a return to normal.

“Please promptly dispatch reporters … to record scenes of residents leaving their homes and going about their business, children having fun, and smiling seniors taking leisurely strolls in their assigned zones, and effectively package these scenes for publicity broadcasts,” read a directive sent to Chinese media and leaked to China Digital Times. “At the same time, widely disseminate these video clips on WeChat, news sites, Douyin, and other such platforms.”

With a file from Alexandra Li