Deadly Xinjiang fires prompt backlash over China’s ‘Covid-Zero’ policy

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Delays in emergency response to a deadly fire have sparked protests in Xinjiang to end months of lockdowns., Northwest China is a tightly controlled region, and has sparked a nationwide outcry over restrictions prescribed by the country’s “zero Covid” policy.

A fire ripped through the upper floors of a high-rise apartment building in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi on Thursday evening, killing 10 people, including three children, and leaving nine hospitalized for smoke inhalation, officials said. According to preliminary investigations, the fire started due to an electrical pole in the bedroom of one of the apartments.

Videos shared on Chinese social media sites showed fire trucks parked at a distance from the building and spraying non-flammable water, leading some to question. Did pandemic restrictions on movement prevent trucks from approaching or coming at sufficient speed?

On Friday night, Urumqi residents gathered outside the local government building carrying China’s national flag and chanting for the lifting of the lockdowns, according to videos 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 and promised an investigation into the cause of the fire at a press conference Friday evening. Li Wensheng, head of the fire rescue brigade, denied that coronavirus restrictions were hampering the response, instead blaming a narrow lane filled with parked cars for blocking access for fire trucks.

“Some residents’ ability to protect themselves was too weak … and they failed to escape,” Li said. He also denied claims online that residents were not allowed to leave or that fire escape doors were locked.

The official response sparked outrage online, with many blaming the government’s continued draconian Covid policy. Critics said it was inappropriate for authorities to blame the victims and argued that vehicles were abandoned on the streets due to centralized quarantine rules.

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On Saturday, authorities in Urumqi eased restrictions in some neighborhoods considered low-risk, The Associated Press reported. reported. But other parts of the city remained under lockdown. Meanwhile, in Beijing, several residential complexes 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 the number of reported cases was crushed soon after, prompting many major cities to lock millions into their homes. Hoping for a gradual reopening. China reported 34,909 local coronavirus cases on Saturday.

Netizens have posted videos of residents in Beijing, Chongqing and elsewhere arguing with local authorities over the lockdown measures. Violent clashes broke out between police and workers at the world’s largest iPhone factory in the central city of Zhengzhou on Wednesday, as workers at a Foxconn factory became frustrated over lockout conditions and the failure of producers to meet contract terms.

Workers walk out of world’s largest iPhone factory in China due to virus restrictions

Urumqi fire continued a Bus accident In September, 27 people who were taken to the quarantine center died. In April, a sudden lockdown in China’s most populous city, Shanghai. It sparked online and offline protests. Reports of suicides and deaths related to the restrictions, including a 3-year-old child who died after his parents were unable to take him to hospital, have further angered frustrated residents.

Online criticism of the Urumqi fire briefly overwhelmed censors. Li WenliangA Wuhan doctor tried to raise the alarm about an unknown coronavirus in late 2019, but was reprimanded by police.

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In a comment reposted online, one user wrote: “I’m the one who jumped off the building, I’m the one on the overturned bus, I’m the one who left Foxconn on foot, I’m the one who froze to death. Road, I was without income for months, couldn’t buy a vegetable loaf, and I died in a fire. Although none of these people are me, next time it could be me.

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Demonstrations like Friday’s are rare in Xinjiang, where authorities began a security crackdown in 2017 that forced the region’s more than a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other majority Muslim people into “re-education” programs. Xinjiang has undergone some of the country’s strictest and longest-running anti-coronavirus measures. Locked in their homes for weeks Without enough food.

During the pandemic, many facilities were previously used for what the Chinese government calls “vocational education and training.” are regenerated into isolated centers. United Nations August ended Human rights violations in the region may amount to crimes against humanity.

Chinese officials have shown they want to move on from the crackdown by replacing a regional party leader in December and promoting tourism. But Xinjiang remains one of the strictest police stations in the world. Exiled Uyghur activists say the campaign of forced assimilation is still a long way off.

National health officials are adamant that the only way to prevent serious cases and deaths from rising is their strategy to cut off transmission as soon as possible and isolate all positive cases. They fear that a Lack of natural immunity Already strained hospitals will be overwhelmed with patients among the elderly and other vulnerable groups.

Critics of the policy are more concerned about the collateral damage of the government’s uphill battle against the most pervasive variables: medical care. Patients are denied or delayed due to a negative coronavirus test; Mental trauma Staying home alone for too long; An economic toll that hits poor families hard.

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Online, many mocked the Xinjiang government for not being able to get the story straight about the local coronavirus situation. On Saturday, Urumqi officials announced that the coronavirus was not spreading among the general public, while adding that 273 buildings in the city were at high risk of the virus spreading.

Beneath state media articles reporting that Urumqi has “reached zero Covid in the community”, the most common comments are questions from confused readers about how it could have happened so quickly. A user simply typed 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. Regardless of the role of China’s Covid policy in the fire, the root cause of public discontent is that the months-long lockdown is “truly unacceptable to the people,” he wrote on WeChat.

An Urumqi resident who lives in a low-risk area, speaking 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 travel between districts. “In some neighborhoods all you can do is go outside for an hour,” the man said, using the Chinese term for when inmates are allowed outside to exercise.

Lirik Li in Seoul and Vic Xiang and Bei-Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.

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