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The delayed emergency response to a deadly fire has sparked protests demanding an end to the months-long lockdown in Xinjiang, northwest China’s tightly controlled region, and a nationwide outcry over the restrictions imposed by the country’s “zero-Covid” policy country are prescribed.
Flames engulfed the upper floors of a high-rise apartment building in downtown Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, on Thursday night, killing ten people, including three children, and leaving nine hospitalized with smoke inhalation, officials said. According to initial investigations, the fire was caused by a power strip that caught fire in a bedroom in one of the apartments.
Videos shared on Chinese social media platforms showed fire trucks parked some distance from the building spraying water that stayed behind the flames, leading some to question whether the pandemic’s movement restrictions are preventing the trucks from doing so had to get closer or arrive fast enough.
According to widely shared videos on social media app WeChat, Urumqi residents carrying China’s national flag rallied outside a local government building on Friday night to call for the lockdowns to be lifted. The Washington Post was unable to immediately verify the authenticity of the clips.
The city’s mayor apologized and promised an investigation into the cause of the fire at a news conference Friday night. Li Wensheng, chief of the fire department, denied that the coronavirus restrictions were hampering the response, instead blaming a narrow alley full of parked cars for blocking access for the fire engines.
“Some residents’ ability to save themselves was too weak … and they could not escape,” Li said. He also denied claims made online that residents were not allowed to leave or that the escape doors were locked.
The official response only spurred online outrage, with many continuing to blame the government’s tough Covid policies. Critics said it was inappropriate for authorities to blame victims, arguing centralized quarantine rules meant vehicles were left stranded.
On Saturday, authorities in Urumqi eased restrictions in some neighborhoods deemed low-risk, the Associated Press reported. But other areas of the city remained locked down. Meanwhile, several apartment complexes in Beijing lifted lockdowns after residents protested the restrictions, according to Reuters.
Frustrations over mismanaged and arbitrary coronavirus restrictions have escalated into protests across China in recent days. Authorities announced earlier this month that testing and quarantine requirements would be relaxed. But soon after, a record number of cases prompted many major cities to lock millions in their homes, dashed hopes of a phased reopening. China reported 34,909 local coronavirus cases on Saturday.
Netizens have posted videos of residents in Beijing, Chongqing and elsewhere arguing with local officials over lockdown measures. Violent clashes erupted between police and workers at the world’s largest iPhone factory in downtown Zhengzhou on Wednesday over Foxconn plant workers’ dissatisfaction with lockdown conditions and the manufacturer’s alleged failure to honor contract terms.
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The Urumqi fire follows a bus accident in September that killed 27 people while being taken to a quarantine center. In April, a sudden lockdown in Shanghai, China’s most populous city, sparked online and offline protests. Reports of confinement-related suicides and deaths, including a 3-year-old who died after his parents were unable to take him to a hospital, have further incensed exhausted residents.
Online criticism of the Urumqi fire briefly seemed to overwhelm censors, as did the death of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who tried to raise the alarm about the then-unknown coronavirus in late 2019 but was reprimanded by police .
In a comment reposted online, one user wrote: “I was the one who jumped out of the building, I was the one on the overturned bus, I was the one who left Foxconn on foot, I was the one who froze to death on the one Street, I was the one who had no income for months and couldn’t afford a veggie sandwich and I was the one who died in the fire. Even if neither of them were me, it could very well be me next time.”
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Demonstrations like Friday’s protests are rare in Xinjiang, where authorities launched a security crackdown in 2017 that forced more than a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other mostly Muslim peoples of the region into “re-education” programs. Xinjiang has suffered some of the toughest and longest-running anti-coronavirus measures in the country, with residents reporting being locked in their homes for weeks without enough food.
During the pandemic, a number of facilities previously used for what the Chinese government called “vocational education and training” have been repurposed into quarantine centers. The United Nations concluded in August that violations of human rights in the region may constitute crimes against humanity.
Chinese officials have signaled they want to back away from the crackdown by replacing the regional party leader in December and boosting tourism. But Xinjiang remains one of the most closely monitored places in the world. Exiled Uyghur activists claim that the forced assimilation campaign is far from over.
National health authorities insist their strategy of halting transmission as soon as possible and quarantining all positive cases is the only way to prevent a spike in severe cases and deaths. They worry that a lack of natural immunity among the elderly and other vulnerable groups could result in already overburdened hospitals being swamped with patients.
Rather, critics of the policy are concerned about collateral damage from the government’s uphill battle against more transmissible variants: medical care being denied or delayed because patients don’t test negative for coronavirus; mental health trauma from too much time being cooped up at home alone; an economic toll that hits poorer families hardest.
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Online, many mocked the Xinjiang government for failing to clarify its story about the local coronavirus situation. Urumqi officials on Saturday said the coronavirus was no longer circulating among the general population and also said there were 273 buildings in the city classified as high risk for virus transmission.
Alongside state media articles reporting that Urumqi had “achieved basically zero Covid in society”, the most common comments were questions from baffled readers as to how it could possibly have happened so quickly. One user simply wrote six question marks.
Even Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times newspaper, said official statements are not enough to quell public anger and that the local government should ease restrictions. Regardless of the role China’s Covid policies may have played in the blaze, the main source of public discontent was that a multi-month lockdown is “really beyond what people can accept,” he wrote on WeChat.
A resident of Urumqi in a low-risk area, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said people roam freely around their compound but do not go to work, drive on the road or move between districts could. “In some neighborhoods, you can only go out for an hour,” the person said, using a Chinese term for when prisoners are allowed to exercise outside.
Lyric Li in Seoul and Vic Chiang and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.