Huge COVID protests erupt in China’s Xinjiang after deadly fire

Nov 26 (Reuters) – Rare protests have erupted in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, with crowds shouting at guards in hazmat suits after a deadly fire sparked anger over their ongoing COVID-19 lockdown as nationwide infections set another record .

According to videos circulating on Chinese social media on Friday night, crowds chanted “End the lockdown!” and pumped their fists in the air as they walked down a street. Reuters confirmed that the footage was released from the Xinjiang capital Urumqi.

Videos showed people in a square singing China’s national anthem, which has the lyrics “Arise who refuse to be slaves!” while others shouted that they wanted to be released from lockdown.

China has placed the vast region of Xinjiang under some of the country’s longest lockdowns, with many of Urumqi’s 4 million residents prevented from leaving their homes for up to 100 days. The city has reported about 100 new cases in each of the past two days.

10 million Uyghurs live in Xinjiang. Human rights groups and Western governments have long accused Beijing of abuses against the predominantly Muslim ethnic minority, including forced labor in detention camps. China firmly denies such claims.

The protests in Ürümqi followed a fire in a high-rise building there that killed ten people on Thursday evening.

Authorities said residents of the building could have gone down the stairs, but videos of rescue workers’ efforts shared on Chinese social media led many netizens to suspect residents were unable to escape in time because the building was partially locked down.

Urumqi officials abruptly held a press conference in the early hours of Saturday and denied that the COVID measures had hampered escape and rescue but said they would conduct further investigations. One said residents could have escaped faster if they had a better understanding of fire safety.


Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said such a blame-the-victim attitude would make people even angrier. “Public confidence will only go lower,” he told Reuters.

Users of China’s Weibo platform described the incident as a tragedy born of China’s insistence on sticking to its zero-COVID policy and something that could happen to anyone. Some lamented its similarities to the deadly crash of a COVID quarantine bus in September.

“Isn’t there something we can think about to make some changes,” read an essay that went viral on WeChat on Friday, challenging the official narrative of the Urumqi apartment fire.

China is defending President Xi Jinping’s signature zero-COVID policy as life-saving and necessary to prevent health-care system overload. Officials have vowed to go ahead with it despite growing public opposition and the mounting strain on the world’s second largest economy.

While the country has recently streamlined measures, shortened quarantines and taken other targeted steps, this, coupled with rising cases in major cities, including Beijing, where many residents are confined at home, has led to widespread confusion and uncertainty.

China recorded 34,909 daily local cases, low by global standards but the third straight record, with infections spreading to numerous cities and leading to widespread lockdowns and other restrictions on movement and business activities.

Shanghai, China’s most populous city and financial hub, on Saturday tightened testing requirements for entry into cultural venues like museums and libraries, requiring people to present a negative COVID test taken within 48 hours, up from 72 hours earlier.

Chaoyang Park in Beijing, popular with runners and picnickers, was closed after a brief reopening.

Reporting by Yew Lun Tian; Adaptation by William Mallard

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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