Fire that killed 10 kindles anti-COVID lockdown protests in China’s Shanghai

Residents in Shanghai’s Wulumuqi Road raised slogans against the Chinese government to lift stringent COVID lockdowns across the country which have been in place for the third straight year of the pandemic

Residents offer flowers and light candles for those who were killed in a massive fire in an apartment in Urumqi city at the Middle Wulumuqi Road in Shanghai. Photo: Twitter

Murmurs of discontentment over stringent COVID-induced lockdowns in China for the third straight year amplified into a full-blown protest on Sunday (November 27) morning, as residents across several cities, angry over the death of 10 people in a massive fire in Urumqi, demanded a rollback of restrictions.

As many as 10 people were killed when a fire swept through a high-rise building in Xinjiang capital Urumqi on Thursday (November 24). The incident drew flak from several quarters with residents blaming the deaths on the strict COVID lockdown. Many said that several occupants of the building were trapped inside and couldn’t escape in time as it was partially locked.

Officials of the city, however, have refuted these charges.

Also read: China’s daily Covid cases tally hits record high despite strict curbs

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Protests were seen at Shanghai’s Middle Wulumuqi Road, borrowed from Urumqi, late on Saturday night.

Protesters raised slogans like “Lift lockdown for Urumqi, lift lockdown for Xinjiang, lift lockdown for all of China!,” “Down with the Chinese Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping, free Urumqi, “Unlock Xinjiang, unlock China,” and “Do not want PCR (tests), want freedom”,” demanding a withdrawal of COVID-19 curbs.

Reports said people initially came with flowers, candles and signs reading “Urumqi, November 24, those who died rest in peace,” to pay tribute to those killed in the fire and the vigil soon took the form of a protest.

Reports said posts about the brewing protest were immediately deleted from China’s social media. While police couldn’t immediately quell the protest at Urumqi Road, they reportedly used pepper spray on 300 of the protesters to keep them from advancing or gathering.

A protester told Associated Press that one of his friends was beaten up by police and two others were pepper sprayed while he himself was manhandled.

According to the protester, a platoon of almost 100 policemen was deployed to manage the demonstrators and prevent them from gathering or leaving.

Earlier on Saturday, authorities in Xinjiang had relaxed lockdown in a few neighbourhoods of Urumqi following late-night demonstrations by residents.

Even as residents struggle to cope with strict lockdowns in the third straight year of the pandemic, the situation is headed to worse with China seeing a severe surge in infections over the past few weeks.

The country on Saturday reported a record single-day count of 39,791 COVID cases, higher than 35,183 recorded the day before.

Residents take to streets as authorities shrug off blame

Anger boiled over after Urumqi city officials held a press conference about Thursday’s fire in which they appeared to shift responsibility for the deaths onto the apartment tower’s residents.

“Some resident’s ability to rescue themselves was too weak,” Li Wensheng, head of Urumqi’s fire department told AP.

Police clamped down on dissenting voices, announcing the arrest of a 24-year-old woman for spreading untrue information about the death toll online.

Late on Friday, people in Urumqi marched largely peacefully in big puffy winter jackets in the cold winter night.

Videos of protests featured people holding the Chinese flag and shouting “Open up, open up”. They spread rapidly on Chinese social media despite heavy censorship. In some scenes, people shouted and pushed against rows of men in the white whole-body hazmat suits that local government workers and pandemic-prevention volunteers wear, according to the videos.

By Saturday, most had been deleted by censors. AP could not independently verify all the videos, but two Urumqi residents who declined to be named out of fear of retribution said large-scale protests occurred Friday night. One of them said he had friends who participated.

The AP pinpointed the locations of two of the videos of the protests in different parts of Urumqi. In one video, police in face masks and hospital gowns faced off against shouting protesters. In another, one protester is speaking to a crowd about their demands. It is unclear how widespread the protests were.

Also read: China reports 10,000 new virus cases, capital closes parks

The demonstrations, as well as public anger online, are the latest signs of building frustration with China’s intense approach to controlling COVID-19. It’s the only major country in the world that still is fighting the pandemic through mass testing and lockdowns.

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 security crackdown. A huge number of Uyghurs and other largely Muslim minorities have been swept into a vast network of camps and prisons, instilling fear that grips the region to this day.

Most of the protesters visible in the videos were Han Chinese. A Uyghur woman living in Urumqi said it was because Uyghurs were too scared to take to the streets despite their rage.

Han Chinese people know they will not be punished if they speak against the lockdown, she said, declining to be named for fear of retaliation against her family. “Uyghurs are different. If we dare say such things, we will be taken to prison or to the camps.”

In one video, which the AP could not independently verify, Urumqi’s top official, Yang Fasen, told angry protesters he would open up low-risk areas of the city the following morning.

That promise was realised the next day, as Urumqi authorities announced that residents of low risk areas would be allowed to move freely within their neighbourhoods. Still, many other neighbourhoods remain under lockdown.

Officials also triumphantly declared on Saturday that they had basically achieved societal “zero-COVID”, meaning that there was no more community spread and that new infections were being detected only in people already under health monitoring, such as those in a centralised quarantine facility.

Social media users greeted the news with disbelief and sarcasm. “Only China can achieve this speed,” wrote one user on Weibo.

On Chinese social media, where trending topics are manipulated by censors, the “zero-COVID” announcement was the No. 1 trending hashtag on both Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, and Douyin, the Chinese edition of TikTok. The apartment fire and protests became a lightning rod for public anger, as millions shared posts questioning China’s pandemic controls or mocking the country’s stiff propaganda and harsh censorship controls.

The explosion of criticism marks a sharp turn in public opinion. Early on in the pandemic, China’s approach to controlling COVID-19 was hailed by its own citizens as minimising deaths at a time when other countries were suffering devastating waves of infections.

China’s leader Xi Jinping had held up the approach as an example of the superiority of the Chinese system in comparison to the West and especially the US, which had politicised the use of face masks and had difficulties enacting widespread lockdowns.

But support for zero-COVID has cratered in recent months, as tragedies sparked public anger. Last week, the Zhengzhou city government in the central province of Henan apologised for the death of a four-month old baby. She died after a delay in receiving medical attention while suffering vomiting and diarrhea in quarantine at a hotel in Zhengzhou.

The government has doubled down its policy even as it loosens some measures, such as shortening quarantine times. The central government has repeatedly said it will stick to zero COVID.

Many in Xinjiang have been locked down since August. Most have not been allowed to leave their homes, and some have reported dire conditions, including spotty food deliveries that have caused residents to go hungry. On Friday, the city reported 220 new cases, the vast majority of which were asymptomatic.

The Uyghur woman in Urumqi said she had been trapped in her apartment since August 8, and was not even allowed to open her window. On Friday, residents in her neighbourhood defied the order, opening their windows and shouting in protest. She joined in.

“No more lockdowns! No more lockdowns!” they screamed.

(With inputs from agencies)

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