Authorities in the Xinjiang region in western Chinasome of the neighborhoods in Urumqi, the capital, opened on Saturday after residents demonstrated overnight against the lockdown in the city, which had been in place for more than three months.
The public demonstrations were fueled by anger over a fire at an apartment complex that killed 10 people, according to the official death toll, as it took emergency workers three hours to extinguish the flames, a delay many attribute to the obstacles caused by measures against coronavirus.
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The demonstrations, as well as public outrage online, are the latest signs of mounting frustration over China’s “zero COVID” strategy. It is the only large country in the world still fighting the pandemic with mass testing and lockdowns.
During Xinjiang’s lockdown, some residents of the city have had their doors physically locked with chains, including one who spoke to The Associated Press who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation. Many in Urumqi believe such brute force tactics may have prevented residents from escaping Friday’s fire and that the actual death toll is higher.
Officials denied the accusations, saying there were no barricades in the building and that residents were allowed to leave. Police cracked down on dissenting voices and announced the arrest of a 24-year-old woman for spreading “false information” online about the death toll.
In #zhengzhou, China, factory workers at the Foxconn iPhone plant protest over delayed pay & terrible working conditions. Both have resulted because of China’s strict Covid-19 lockdowns. Take a look as Chinese police flee from protesters:pic.twitter.com/WbV7UgZjmq
—Steve Hanke (@steve_hanke) November 24, 2022
Tension boiled over after Urumqi municipal officials held a press conference on the fire in which residents of the apartment tower were reportedly blamed for the deaths.
“The ability of some residents to save themselves was very poor,” said Li Wensheng, head of the Urumqi fire department.
For the most part, people in Urumqi marched peacefully in large white padded jackets in the cold winter night.
Videos of the protests show people holding the Chinese flag and shouting: “Open up, open up.” The videos spread rapidly on Chinese social media despite heavy censorship. In some scenes, people are seen shouting and pushing through lines of men dressed in the white protective suits worn by government workers and pandemic prevention volunteers.
By Saturday, most of the videos had been removed by censors. The Associated Press was unable to independently verify all of the videos, but two Urumqi residents who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals said large protests raged late Friday. One of them said that friends of his participated.
The AP determined that the location of two of the protest videos belonged to different parts of Urumqi. In one of the videos, police wearing masks and hospital gowns face screaming protesters. In another, a protester speaks to the crowd about his demands. The extent of the protests is unclear.
Given China’s vast security apparatus, protests are risky anywhere in the country, but they are extraordinary in Xinjiang, which for years has been the target of a brutal crackdown. Large numbers of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities have been dragged into a vast network of camps and prisons.
CHINA – The people of Guangzhou refuse to enter Covid quarantine and tear down barriers.
Now you know what those thousands of quarantine camps are for! To control their people not a mostly harmless virus.
—Bernie’s Tweets (@BernieSpofforth) November 14, 2022
Most of the protesters featured in the videos were Han Chinese. An Uyghur woman living in Urumqi said this was because the Uyghurs were too scared to go out into the streets despite their annoyance.
“The Han Chinese know that they will not be punished if they speak out against the blockade,” she said, declining to be named for fear of reprisals against her family. “Uyghurs are different. If we dare to say such things, they will take us to jail or to the fields.”
In a video, which the AP could not independently verify, Urumqi’s top official, Yang Fasen, told angry protesters that he would open low-risk areas of the city the next morning.
That promise was fulfilled the next day, when the Urumqi authorities announced that residents of low-risk areas would be able to move freely through their neighborhoods. However, many other neighborhoods remain closed.