Protest against Covid-19 lockdown after fire kills 10 in Xinjiang
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Protest against Covid-19 lockdown after fire kills 10 in Xinjiang

In this file photo taken on June 4, 2019, people walk past a screen showing images of China's President Xi Jinping in Kashgar in China's western Xinjiang region. (Photo: AFP)
In this file photo taken on June 4, 2019, people walk past a screen showing images of China's President Xi Jinping in Kashgar in China's western Xinjiang region. (Photo: AFP)

A deadly fire in an apartment building in China’s far western region of Xinjiang set off an outpouring of anger online and street protest in the region’s capital Friday, with residents calling for the lifting of lockdowns that have confined many to their homes for more than three months.

Chinese commenters on social media shared reports and footage of the blaze that killed 10 people and injured nine in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, demanding to know if Covid-19 restrictions had hampered the rescue or prevented residents from escaping their apartments or the building.

Late Friday, videos circulated widely on the Chinese internet showing throngs of residents in Urumqi marching to a government building and chanting “end lockdowns,” the latest sign of mounting frustration with Beijing’s exceptionally stringent pandemic measures. Many of the videos were later removed from China’s heavily censored social media platforms.

The fire was ignited by a power strip that caught fire in a bedroom on the 15th floor of a residential building in Urumqi on Thursday evening, the city’s fire department said. It later rose to engulf the two floors above, the department said.

Firefighters sent to the Jixiangyuan neighbourhood took three hours to extinguish the blaze, reports said. Authorities said that the dead and injured, who were taken to the hospital, had inhaled toxic fumes.

Much of Xinjiang, a region of 25 million people, has been under lockdown for more than 100 days as part of authorities’ heavy-handed response to Covid-19 outbreaks. In some cases, the lockdowns have left residents in dire straits, with trouble securing food and other necessities, such as medication and menstruation supplies.

State media accounts said the neighbourhood where the fire occurred was a “low-risk management” area, a category of lockdown that allows residents to leave their compounds if they self-monitor and avoid large gatherings.

But many Chinese internet users were sceptical of the official account. They shared what appeared to be screenshots of conversations between the government and residents of the Jixiangyuan community indicating that the compound had recently been placed under a stricter level of lockdown, which could have made it harder for residents to get to safety.

Chinese commenters also pointed to video footage of what appeared to be attempts at putting out the fire as evidence that a lockdown had stalled the effort. The footage showed pressurised water from a fire hose spraying just out of reach of the burning building, suggesting that fire trucks were unable to get closer to the building. Some users said cars that had been parked in the area could not be moved because their batteries were dead from having not been used for so long because of the lockdown.

In a sign of the government’s concern about rising public anger, officials organised a late-night news conference Friday to explain how firefighters responded to the blaze. Memtimin Qadir, the city’s mayor, speaking at the same briefing, apologised to the city’s residents.

Li Wensheng, head of Urumqi’s Fire Rescue Detachment, acknowledged that firetrucks had been obstructed by parked cars in the neighbourhood. He said fire doors in the apartment building had been open and some residents had been unable to save themselves because they were not familiar with safety exits.

The various accounts were difficult to parse. Xinjiang is an ethnically divided region that has been under an intense government crackdown aimed at Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslim minorities. Residents, particularly those of Uyghur descent, often face reprisals for speaking with the foreign media.

But the descriptions of residents possibly sealed into their homes or compounds fit a broader pattern of how such lockdowns have been enforced in many parts of the country. Makeshift barricades and bolted doors have become a key feature of efforts to prevent people who might have been exposed to the virus from leaving their homes and buildings.

Reached by phone Friday, an officer at a nearby police station in Urumqi said they had no comment and referred reporters to official notices. Other neighbourhood workers reached by phone also refused to comment.

Uyghur activists outside China who have sought to draw attention to the lengthy confinement of people in Xinjiang said the tragedy pointed to the failure of the authorities to protect the residents.

“People are not allowed to go outside easily without permission from the government,” said Tahir Imin, a Uyghur academic based in Washington, D.C. “My frustration is that the government is handling it very badly. They’ve showed that they don’t care about the lives of the Uyghur people. How is the Fire Department unable to control this in three hours in a country like China with all its facilities and equipment and people?”

Online, Chinese internet users expressed anger and sadness, sharing articles with titles such as “Last night’s fire in Urumqi is the nightmare of all of Xinjiang’s people.” They circulated black-and-white images calling for a moment of silence to “express deep condolences to the 10 compatriots who died in the Urumqi fire.” Some residents offered their apartments to families who had lost their homes to the fire.

Questions about the cost of China’s zero-tolerance approach to fighting Covid are posing a challenge for China’s leader, Xi Jinping, as he enters his precedent-defying third term in power. Anger over lockdowns, as well as a widespread fear of the virus, have prompted large protests in the past two weeks by thousands of workers in the southern city of Guangzhou and at Apple’s largest iPhone factory, in Zhengzhou, in central China.

China has been grappling with a rise in coronavirus outbreaks, with cases around the country surging to record highs — though still low by global standards. The tally Friday neared 32,700 cases, of which close to 1,000 were recorded in Xinjiang.

The Urumqi fire was the second major tragedy to be reported this week. On Monday, a fire in a factory operated by an industrial equipment manufacturer in Henan province killed 38 people, in one of the deadliest fires in several years.

“In recent years, it’s become rare for fire accidents to cause more than 10 deaths,” said Cai Weida, a lawyer and expert on fire safety in China.

Cai said that considering the small scale of the fire, the Fire Department’s response had been unusually slow. He attributed delays to a lack of space for fire trucks to manoeuvre, the unique challenges of a high-rise fire and “road barriers.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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