Deadly Xinjiang fire sparks backlash against China’s ‘covid-zero’ policy


Delays in emergency response to a deadly fire spark protests demanding an end to months-long lockdown in Xinjiang, Northwest China is under strict control and has sparked a nationwide outcry over restrictions imposed by the country’s “zero covid” policy.

Flames engulfed the upper floors of a high-rise apartment building in central Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, on Thursday night, killing 10 people, including three children, and hospitalizing nine for smoke inhalation, officials said. According to preliminary investigations, the fire was started by a switchboard in one of the apartment’s bedrooms catching fire.

Video shared on Chinese social media platforms showed fire trucks parked far from the building and spraying water short of flames, prompting some to question Did the pandemic’s restrictions on movement prevent trucks from getting close or getting there fast enough.

Residents of Urumqi, holding Chinese flags, gathered outside the local government building on Friday night, chanting for an end to the lockdown, according to a video widely circulated on the social media app WeChat. The Washington Post could not immediately verify the authenticity of the clips.

The city’s mayor apologized at a news conference Friday night and promised to investigate the cause of the blaze. Li Wensheng, captain of the Fire and Rescue Brigade, denied that coronavirus restrictions had hampered the response, instead blaming a narrow lane full of parked cars for blocking the passage of fire trucks.

“Some residents’ ability to save themselves was too weak…they didn’t escape,” Li said. He also disputed online claims that residents were not allowed to leave or that fire doors were locked.

The official response only fueled outrage online, with many continuing to accuse the government of strict covid policies. Critics say it is inappropriate for authorities to place the blame on the victims and argue that centralized quarantine rules have resulted in vehicles being abandoned on the streets.

On Saturday, authorities in Urumqi eased restrictions in some neighborhoods deemed low-risk, The Associated Press reported. But the rest of the city remains on lockdown. Meanwhile, in Beijing, several residential areas were lifted from lockdown after residents protested the restrictions, according to Reuters.

Discontent over mismanaged and arbitrary coronavirus restrictions has escalated into protests across China in recent days. Authorities announced earlier this month that testing and quarantine requirements would be eased. But soon after, record numbers of cases prompted many large cities to confine millions of people to their homes, dashing hopes of a gradual reopening. China reported 34,909 local coronavirus cases on Saturday.

Internet users posted videos of residents in Beijing, Chongqing and elsewhere arguing with local officials over the lockdown measures. Violent clashes between police and employees erupted on Wednesday at the world’s largest iPhone factory in the central city of Zhengzhou, as workers at Foxconn’s factory complained about lockdown conditions and the manufacturer’s alleged failure to honor contract terms.

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The Urumqi fire followed a September bus accident in which 27 people died while being transported to a quarantine centre. The sudden lockdown of Shanghai, China’s most populous city, in April sparked online and offline protests. Reports of suicides and deaths related to the restrictions, including the death of a 3-year-old after his parents were unable to take him to hospital, further angered weary residents.

Online criticism of the Urumqi fire appeared to briefly overwhelm censors, as was the case after the death of Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang, who was reprimanded by police in late 2019 for trying to sound the alarm about the then-unknown coronavirus.

In a comment reposted online, one user wrote: “I was the one who jumped off the building, I was the one in the overturned bus, I was the one who left Foxconn on foot, I was the one who froze to death on the road. On the road, I was a couple The people who had no income every month and couldn’t afford vegetarian buns were also the people who died in the fire. Even if it wasn’t me, it might be me next time.”

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Demonstrations like Friday’s protest are rare in Xinjiang, where authorities launched a security crackdown in 2017 that forced more than a million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other mostly Muslims in the region to undergo “re-education” programs . Xinjiang has suffered some of the harshest and longest-running anti-coronavirus measures in the country, with residents reporting being locked in their homes for weeks at a time without enough food.

Many facilities previously used for what the Chinese government calls “vocational education and training” have been repurposed as quarantine centers during the pandemic. The United Nations concluded in August that human rights violations in the region may amount to crimes against humanity.

Chinese officials have said they want to end the crackdown, replace the Party of Regions leader in December and encourage tourism. But Xinjiang is still one of the places with the strictest law and order in the world. Exiled Uighur activists insist the forced assimilation campaign is far from over.

National health authorities remain adamant that their strategy of cutting off transmission as quickly as possible and isolating all positive cases is the only way to prevent a surge in severe cases and deaths. They worry that the lack of natural immunity in the elderly and other vulnerable populations could overwhelm already strained hospitals.

Critics of the policy more worried about collateral damage from government’s uphill battle against more transmissible variants: medical Denials or delays due to patients lacking a negative coronavirus test; mental health trauma from spending too much time alone at home; and economic losses that hit poor families the hardest.

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Online, many mocked the Xinjiang government’s inability to be forthright about the coronavirus situation on the ground. On Saturday, officials in Urumqi announced that the coronavirus was no longer circulating among the general population, while also saying that 273 buildings in the city had been designated as high-risk buildings for the spread of the virus.

Following state media reports that Urumqi had “essentially achieved a society free of COVID-19,” the most common comment was stunned readers questioning how this could have happened so quickly. One user simply wrote six question marks.

Even Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times, said the official statement was not enough to quell public anger and that local governments should relax restrictions. Whatever role China’s COVID-19 policy played in the fire, the root cause of public discontent was that months of lockdown “really exceeded what people could accept,” he wrote on WeChat.

A resident of Urumqi, a low-risk area who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals, said people could move freely within the compound but could not go to work, take to the streets or move across districts. “In some neighborhoods, all you can do is go out for an hour,” the person said, using the Chinese term for when inmates can exercise outside.

Lyric Li in Seoul and Vic Chiang and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.

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