Huge COVID protests erupt in China’s Xinjiang after deadly fire

Nov 26 (Reuters) – Rare protests erupted in China’s far western Xinjiang region, with crowds shouting at security guards in hazmat suits after a deadly fire sparked anger over their long-running Covid-19 lockdown as nationwide infections mounted another record.

According to videos shared on Chinese social media late Friday, crowds of people chanted “End the lockdown!”, pumping 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 lyrics “Rise up, those who refuse to be slaves!” while others shouted that they wanted to be released from the lockdown.

China has placed the vast Xinjiang region under some of the country’s longest lockdowns, with many of Urumqi’s 4 million residents barred from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days. The city reported about 100 new cases each of the past two days.

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10 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang. Rights groups and Western governments have long accused Beijing of abuses against the mainly Muslim ethnic minority, including forced labor in internment camps. China strongly rejects such claims.

The Urumqi protests followed a fire at a high-rise building that killed 10 people on Thursday night.

Authorities have said that the building’s residents were able to get down, but videos of emergency crews’ efforts circulating on Chinese social media led many netizens to believe that residents were unable to escape in time because the building was partially sealed off.

Officials in Urumqi held an abrupt news conference in the early hours of Saturday, denying that COVID measures had impeded the escape and rescue, but said they would continue to investigate. One said residents could have escaped sooner if they had better understood fire safety.

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‘blame the VICTIM’

Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said such a “blaming the victim” attitude would make people angrier. “Public confidence is just going to sink lower,” he told Reuters.

Users on China’s Weibo platform described the incident as a tragedy born out of China’s insistence on sticking to its zero COVID policy and something that could happen to anyone. Some lamented its similarity to the deadly COVID quarantine bus crash in September.

“Isn’t there something we can think about to make a change,” said an essay that went viral on WeChat on Friday, questioning the official narrative of the Urumqi apartment fire.

China is defending President Xi Jinping’s signature zero-covid policy as life-saving and necessary to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed. Officials have vowed to push ahead despite growing public pushback and its growing impact on the world’s second-largest economy.

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While the country has recently adjusted its measures by shortening quarantines and taking other targeted measures, this, along with the rising number of cases, has caused widespread confusion and uncertainty in major cities, including Beijing, where many residents are confined to their homes.

China recorded 34,909 daily local cases, low by global standards but the third record in a row, and infections spread to many cities, prompting widespread lockdowns and other restrictions on movement and business.

Shanghai, China’s most populous city and financial center, on Saturday tightened screening requirements to enter cultural sites such as museums and libraries, requiring people to show a negative Covid test taken within 48 hours, up from 72 hours previously.

Beijing’s Chaoyang Park, popular with joggers and picnickers, has closed again after briefly reopening.

Yew Lun Tian reports; Edited by William Mallard

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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