Videos shared on Chinese social media platforms showed fire trucks parked at a distance from the building spraying water just short of reaching the flames, leading some to wonder whether pandemic restrictions on movement had prevented the trucks from closing in or arriving quickly enough.
On Friday evening, residents of Urumqi carrying the national flag of China gathered outside a local government building and called for the lockdowns to be lifted, according to widely circulated videos on the social media app WeChat. The Washington Post was unable to immediately 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 brigade’s rescue squad, denied that coronavirus restrictions hindered the response, instead blaming a narrow alley full of parked cars for obstructing access for the fire engines.
“Some of the residents’ ability to save themselves was too weak… and they couldn’t escape,” Li said. He also disputed claims made online that residents were not allowed to leave or that fire escape doors were locked.
The official response only sparked online outrage, with many continuing to blame the government’s strict covid policies. Critics said it was inappropriate for authorities to shift blame to the victims and argued that centralized quarantine rules had left vehicles on the streets.
On Saturday, authorities in Urumqi eased restrictions in some neighborhoods considered low-risk, the Associated Press reported. But other parts of the city remained in lockdown. Meanwhile, several housing complexes in Beijing have 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 soon after, a record number of cases led many major cities to keep millions of people at home, crushing hopes for a gradual reopening. China reported 34,909 local coronavirus cases on Saturday.
Internet users have posted videos of residents in Beijing, Chongqing and elsewhere arguing with local officials over lockdown measures. Violent clashes broke out in the central city of Zhengzhou on Wednesday between police and workers at the world’s largest iPhone factory as workers at the Foxconn plant expressed dissatisfaction with the closing conditions and the manufacturer’s alleged breach of contract terms.
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The Urumqi fire follows a bus crash in September that killed 27 people as they were taken to a quarantine center. In April, a sudden lockdown in Shanghai, China’s most populous city, sparked online and offline protests. Reports of suicides and disability-related deaths, including a 3-year-old who died after his parents were unable to take him to a hospital, have further increased the anger of the exhausted residents.
Online criticism of the Urumqi fire seemed to momentarily overwhelm censorship, as it did after the death of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who tried to raise the alarm about the then-unknown coronavirus in late 2019 but was reprimanded by police.
In a comment posted online, one user wrote: “I was the one who jumped off the building, I was the one in the overturned bus, I was the one who left Foxconn on foot, I was the one who froze to death on the road, I was the one who spent months had no income and couldn’t afford a vegetarian sandwich, and I was the one who died in the fire. Even if I wasn’t one of these, it could very well be me next time.
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Demonstrations like Friday’s protests are rare in Xinjiang, where authorities launched a security crackdown in 2017 that forced more than a million Uyghur, Kazakh and other predominantly Muslim peoples in the region into “re-education programs”. Xinjiang has faced some of the country’s toughest and longest-lasting anti-coronavirus measures, with residents reporting being cooped up in their homes for weeks at a time without adequate food.
During the pandemic, a number of facilities previously used for what the Chinese government called “vocational education and training” have been rebranded as quarantine centers. The United Nations concluded in August that human rights violations in the region may constitute crimes against humanity.
Chinese officials have indicated they want to continue 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 claim the campaign of forced assimilation is far from over.
National health authorities remain adamant that their strategy of cutting off transmission as soon as possible and quarantining all positive cases is the only way to prevent an increase in serious cases and deaths. They fear that a lack of natural immunity in the elderly and other vulnerable groups could lead to already overburdened hospitals becoming overwhelmed with patients.
Critics of the policy are more concerned about collateral damage from the government’s tough fight against more transmissible variants: medical care declined or delayed because patients do not have a negative coronavirus test; mental health trauma from being cooped up alone at home for too much time; an economic toll that hits poorer families hardest.
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Online, many mocked the Xinjiang government for not being able to get its story straight on the local coronavirus situation. On Saturday, Urumqi officials stated that the coronavirus was no longer circulating among the general population, while also saying there were 273 buildings in the city designated as high risk of virus transmission.
Among state media articles reporting that Urumqi had “basically achieved zero covid in society,” the most common comments were questions from stunned readers about how it could have happened so quickly. One user simply 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 relax restrictions. Regardless of the role China’s covid policies have played in the blaze, the root cause of public discontent has been that being locked down for months “really can’t accept what people can accept anymore,” he wrote on WeChat.
A resident of Urumqi in a low-risk area, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said people were able to move freely within their compound but were unable to go to work, drive on the street or move between districts could move. “In some neighborhoods you can only go out for an hour,” the person said, using a Chinese term for when inmates are allowed to exercise outside.
Lyric Li in Seoul and Vic Chiang and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.