Rare protests broke out in the western region of Xinjiang in China’s far west, with crowds shouting at guards in hazmat suits after a deadly fire sparked anger over their long COVID-19 confinement, as that infections across the country set another record.
Crowds chanted “End the lockdown!”, raising their fists in the air as they walked down a street, according to videos circulating on Chinese social media late Friday. Reuters verified that the images were posted from the Xinjiang capital Urumqi.
The videos showed people in a square singing China’s national anthem with its lyrics “Stand up, you who refuse to be slaves!” while others shouted that they wanted to get out of the confinements.
China has placed the vast Xinjiang region under one of the country’s longest lockdowns, with many of Urumqi’s 4 million residents barred from leaving their homes for up to 100 days. The city reported about 100 new cases each of the past two days.
Xinjiang is home to 10 million Uyghurs. Human rights groups and Western governments have long accused Beijing of abuses against the mainly Muslim ethnic minority, including forced labor in internment camps. China strongly rejects such claims.
The Urumqi protests followed a fire at a high-rise building that killed 10 people on Thursday night.
Authorities have said residents of the building were able to get downstairs, but videos of the efforts of emergency teams, shared on Chinese social media, led many internet users to assume that residents were unable to escape in time because the building was partially closed.
Urumqi officials abruptly held a news conference early Saturday, denying that COVID measures had hampered the escape and rescue, but said they would investigate further. One said residents could have escaped faster if they had a better understanding of fire safety.
‘BLAME THE VICTIM’
Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said such a “blame the victim” attitude would make people more angry. “Public confidence will just sink further,” he told Reuters.
Users of China’s Weibo platform described the incident as a tragedy that stemmed from China’s insistence on sticking to its zero-COVID policy and something that could happen to anyone. Some lamented its similarities to the deadly September crash of a COVID quarantine bus.
“Isn’t there something we can reflect on to make some changes?” read an essay that went viral on WeChat on Friday, questioning the official narrative about the Urumqi apartment fire.
China defends President Xi Jinping’s signature zero-COVID policy as a lifeline and necessary to avoid overwhelming the health system. Officials vowed to continue with it despite mounting public rejection and its mounting cost in the world’s second-largest economy.
While the country recently modified its measures, shortened lockdowns and took other targeted measures, this, coupled with rising cases, has caused widespread confusion and uncertainty in big cities, including Beijing, where many residents are cooped up at home. .
China recorded 34,909 local cases daily, low by global standards but the third straight record, with infections spreading across numerous cities, prompting widespread lockdowns and other restrictions on movement and business.
Shanghai, China’s most populous city and financial center, on Saturday tightened testing requirements to enter cultural venues such as museums and libraries, requiring people to present a negative COVID test taken within 48 hours, against the previous 72 hours.
Beijing’s Chaoyang Park, popular with runners and hikers, closed again after briefly reopening.