November 26 (Reuters) – Rare protests broke out in China’s far western Xinjiang region, with crowds shouting at guards in hazmat suits after a deadly fire, sparking anger over a prolonged COVID-19 lockdown as infections hit another record high across the country.
In a video shared on Chinese social media on Friday night, crowds chanted “End the lockdown!” and pumped their fists in the air as they walked down the street. Reuters confirmed that the footage was released from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
Videos showed people in the square singing the Chinese national anthem with the song: “Arise, those who refuse to be slaves!” while others shouted that they wanted to be released from the lockdown.
China has locked down the vast region of Xinjiang in one of the country’s longest lockdowns, with many of Urumqi’s 4 million residents banned from leaving their homes for up to 100 days. The city has reported about 100 new cases in the past two days.
Xinjiang is home to 10 million Uyghurs. Rights groups and Western governments have long accused Beijing of abuses against the predominantly Muslim ethnic minority, including forced labor in internment camps. China strongly rejects such claims.
Protests erupted in Urumqi on Thursday night after a fire in a high-rise building killed 10 people.
Authorities said residents of the building managed to get down, but videos of emergency crews’ efforts shared on Chinese social media led many netizens to speculate that residents could not escape in time because the building was partially locked.
Officials in Urumqi held a surprise news conference in the early hours of Saturday, denying that the COVID measures had hindered the escape and rescue, but said they would investigate further. One said residents would have been able to escape sooner if they had a better understanding of fire safety.
“blame the victim”
Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said that this “blame the victim” approach will make people angry. “Public confidence will just drop,” he told Reuters.
Users on China’s Weibo platform described the incident as a tragedy due to China’s insistence on a zero-covid policy and something that could happen to anyone. Some lamented that it was similar to the deadly COVID quarantine bus crash in September.
“Isn’t there something we can think about to make some changes,” said an essay that went viral on WeChat on Friday, questioning the official account of the Urumqi apartment fire.
China defends the zero-covid policy signed by President Xi Jinping as life-saving and necessary to prevent the health care system from collapsing. Officials have vowed to press ahead, despite mounting public opposition and mounting casualties in the world’s second-largest economy.
While the country has recently adjusted its measures, shortened quarantines and taken other targeted steps, that, along with rising case rates, has caused widespread confusion and uncertainty in major cities, including Beijing, where many residents are confined to their homes.
China reported 34,909 daily local cases, a low number by global standards but the third consecutive record high, and infections are spreading across many cities, prompting widespread lockdowns and other restrictions on movement and business.
Shanghai, China’s most populous city and financial center, tightened testing requirements to enter cultural sites such as museums and libraries on Saturday, requiring people to present a negative COVID test within 48 hours, up from 72 hours previously.
Beijing’s Chaoyang Park, popular with joggers and picnickers, has been temporarily closed again.
Yew Lun Tian reports; Edited by William Mallard
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