Deadly Xinjiang fire sparks backlash over China’s ‘Covid-19’ policy


A delayed emergency response to a deadly fire has sparked protests calling for an end to months of lockdown in XinjiangAnd the The tightly controlled region in northwest China, sparking a nationwide protest over the restrictions imposed by the country’s “zero Covid” policy.

Fire swept through the upper floors of a high-rise apartment building in downtown Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, on Thursday night, killing 10 people, including three children, and leaving nine hospitalized for smoke inhalation, officials said. According to the preliminary investigation, the fire was caused by an electric cable in the bedroom of one of the apartments.

Videos circulated on Chinese social media platforms showed fire trucks parked at a distance from the building spraying water that did not reach the flames, which prompted some to wonder. Whether pandemic restrictions on movement prevented trucks from approaching or arriving quickly enough.

On Friday night, residents of Urumqi carrying China’s national flag gathered outside a local government building chanting for the lifting of the lockdown, according to videos that went viral on social media app WeChat. The Washington Post was not immediately able to 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, head of the fire rescue brigade, denied that coronavirus restrictions had hampered the response, instead blaming a narrow lane full of parked cars for obstructing the arrival of fire engines.

“The ability of some residents to save themselves was very weak… and they failed to escape,” he told me. He also disputed allegations on the Internet that residents were not allowed to leave or that the escape gates were closed.

The official response only fueled anger online, as many continued to blame the government’s strict anti-coronavirus policy. Critics said it was inappropriate for the authorities to shift blame to the victims, and argued that centralized quarantine rules caused vehicles to be left on the street.

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On Saturday, authorities in Urumqi eased restrictions in some neighborhoods deemed low-risk, according to the Associated Press. mentioned. But other areas of the city remained closed. Meanwhile, in Beijing, several apartment complexes have lifted lockdowns after residents protested the restrictions, According to Reuters.

Frustration over arbitrary restrictions and mismanagement over the coronavirus has escalated into protests across China in recent days. Authorities announced earlier this month that testing and quarantine requirements would be relaxed. But a record number of cases soon after prompted many major cities to lock millions in their homes, crushing them. Gradual reopening hopes. China reported 34,909 cases of coronavirus on Saturday.

Netizens posted videos of residents in Beijing, Chongqing and other places arguing with local officials over lockdown measures. Violent clashes broke out between police and employees at the world’s largest iPhone factory on Wednesday in the central city of Zhengzhou because workers at the Foxconn factory were unhappy with the terms of the closure and the manufacturer’s alleged failure to fulfill contract terms.

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Urumqi fire followed A bus accident In September, 27 people died while being transported to a quarantine centre. In April, a sudden lockdown in Shanghai, the most populous city in China, Fuel protests online and off. Reports of suicides and deaths linked to the restrictions, including the death of a 3-year-old boy after his parents were unable to take him to hospital, have enraged an exhausted population.

Online criticism of the Urumqi fire appears to have briefly been overshadowed by censorship, as has the aftermath of Urumqi’s death Lee Wen LiangA Wuhan doctor who tried to sound the alarm in late 2019 about a then-unknown coronavirus but was reprimanded by the police.

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In a comment reposted online, one user wrote: “It was me who jumped off the building, It was me who got into the overturned bus, It was me who left Foxconn on foot, It was me who froze to death on the road, I was the one who had no business.” “For months I couldn’t afford a vegetable bun, and I was the one who died in the fire. Even if it wasn’t me, next time it might be me.”

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Demonstrations like Friday’s are rare in Xinjiang, where authorities in 2017 launched a security crackdown that has forced more than a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim residents of the region into “re-education” programmes. Xinjiang has suffered one of the harshest and longest-running coronavirus measures in the country, with residents reporting exposure to the virus. They were locked in their homes for weeks at a time without enough food.

During the pandemic, a number of facilities previously used for what the Chinese government called “vocational education and training” They were repurposed as quarantine centers. United nations concluded in August Human rights violations in the region may constitute crimes against humanity.

Chinese officials have indicated they want to press ahead with the crackdown, replace the regional party leader in December, and encourage tourism. But Xinjiang remains one of the most tightly controlled places in the world. Exiled Uyghur activists stress that the campaign of forced assimilation is far from over.

National health authorities remain adamant that their strategy of stopping transmission as quickly as possible and quarantining all positive cases is the only way to prevent an increase in severe cases and deaths. They fear that a Natural immune deficiency Among the elderly and other vulnerable groups it could lead to already strained hospitals being overwhelmed with patients.

Policy critics are more concerned about collateral damage from the government’s uphill battle against more transmissible variants: Medicare denials or delays because patients lack a negative coronavirus test; mental health trauma from spending too much time at home alone; It is an economic burden that most harms poor families.

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Online, many have mocked the Xinjiang government for not being able to tell its story directly about the local coronavirus situation. On Saturday, Urumqi officials announced that the coronavirus was no longer circulating among the general population, while also saying there were 273 buildings in the city that were classified as at high risk of virus transmission.

Beneath state media articles stating that Urumqi has “never reached any case of the virus in the community,” the most common comments were stunned readers’ questions about how it happened so quickly. One user wrote six question marks.

Even Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times newspaper, said official statements would not be enough to quell public anger and that the local government should ease restrictions. Whatever role China’s anti-COVID-19 policy may have played in the fire, he wrote on WeChat that the root cause of public discontent is that staying under lockdown for months “is really beyond what people can accept.”

A resident of Urumqi in a low-risk area, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said people can move freely within their compound but cannot go to work, drive on the streets or move between districts. β€œIn some neighborhoods all you can do is go out for an hour,” the person said, using a Chinese term for when prisoners are allowed out for exercise.

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

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