Deadly fire in Xinjiang sparks protests across China against strict COVID lockdowns – H Talk Asia

UPDATED AT 8:25 PM EST ON 11/26/2022

Angry protests raged overnight in the capital of western China’s Xinjiang region and spread to other cities in China on Saturday, as crowds blamed the strict COVID-19 lockdown measures for delaying the government’s response to a deadly apartment fire prompted to promise to gradually ease restrictions while cracking down on opposition to state policies, according to local sources and media reports.

The Urumqi protests, which also erupted in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities, were sparked by a fire Thursday night at an apartment building in Urumqi’s Jixiangyuan district that killed at least 10 people, but also reflected growing frustration at the uncompromising The country’s zero-COVID resisted restrictions, a policy closely linked to President and Communist Party chief Xi Jinping.

Citizen videos circulating online showed residents of the burning apartment screaming, urging authorities to open exits they said were closed amid tight COVID-19 restrictions that have been in place for more than 100 days and have caused widespread distress .

RFA Uyghur called police stations near the scene of the fire in Urumqi and received varying death tolls from the fire.

“Nine burned. More than a dozen died from asphyxiation, for a total of about 26,” said a police officer from Ittipaq (Tuanjie in Chinese) Road Station.

“The number of deaths could be more than 40,” said a police officer from Janubiy (Xinhua) Road Police Station. “I was told many were hospitalized with serious injuries. We don’t have time to count the number of deaths.”

‘Down with the party!’

Eva Rammeloo, China correspondent for Dutch daily Trouw, tweeted Videos of protests on Shanghai’s Urumqi Avenue on Saturday night, where crowds could be seen and heard chanting “Down with the party! Down with Xi Jinping! Liberate Xinjiang!” shouted.

Police split the crowd in two and arrested several people, Rammeloo wrote.

Other videos showed coordinated chants, with a protester shouting “Chinese Communist Party.” and the others yell, “Get down!” In response.

Reuters news agency reported that videos taken in Urumqi on Friday night showed fist-pumping crowds chanting “End the lockdown!” while others sang China’s national anthem, which lyricized “Rise those who refuse to be slaves!” .

AFP said it verified videos showing hundreds of people gathering outside Urumqi Municipal Government offices at night and chanting “Unlock lockdowns!” while others marched east of the city and berated authorities in white hazmat suits.

People protest against COVID-19 measures in Urumqi city, Xinjiang, China, 25 November 2022. Video obtained from Reuters

According to local residents, fire engines rushing to the scene were prevented from reaching the blaze by parked cars and metal fencing as part of the COVID-19 lockdown preventing people from leaving their buildings and neighborhoods, leaving the blazes nearly burning could three hours before it was deleted.

Firefighters failed to clear the obstructions and attempted to spray water on the building remotely, but the hoses could not reach floors 14 through 19 of the 21-story building where the fire was burning, sources told RFA Uyghur.

According to posts on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, similar demonstrations against COVID-19 policies have been taking place in other parts of Xinjiang, including Korla and Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture.

Han Chinese protest

Most of the demonstrators seen in the Urumqi protest videos were not Uyghurs, but mostly Han Chinese.

This was because “Han Chinese know they will not be punished if they speak out against the lockdown,” the Associated Press quoted an unnamed Uyghur woman as saying.

“Uyghurs are different. If we dare to say such things, we will be taken to jail or camps,” the AP women said, declining to be identified to protect their family.

In response to Friday night’s protests, the Standing Committee of the Communist Party of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region convened a meeting led by Party Secretary Ma Xingrui on Saturday and issued a statement declaring success in controlling the epidemic and a called for a crackdown on opposition to COVID policies.

“Urumqi’s epidemic prevention and control work has achieved great incremental results, and the social situation has been substantially clarified. At the same time, the risk of the epidemic has not been completely eliminated and the transmission chain has not been completely blocked, a slight slack leads to a rebound,” the statement said.

“It is necessary to do solid work during the epidemic prevention period to maintain stability, illegal and criminal acts such as spreading rumors, inciting riots and violently resisting epidemic prevention and control measures in accordance with the laws and regulations strictly enforce and resolutely uphold the order of epidemic prevention and control,” the statement added.

Three-level relaxation

The Urumqi municipal government held a press conference early Saturday and announced a three-stage easing of the lockdown in the city, home to 4.7 million people and subject to the longest and harshest lockdowns implemented under the unpopular zero-COVID policy imposed by the Chinese Communist Party.

Sui Rong, Urumqi’s propaganda minister, said relaxations would begin in low-risk areas to allow residents to leave their homes and go downstairs. However, residents must still prove their reason for leaving their buildings and maintain social distancing, wear masks and avoid gathering in groups, local media quoted Sui as saying.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said the fire was caused by a row of sockets in the bedroom of one of the apartments.

CCTV said Urumqi Mayor Maimaitiming Kade made a rare apology for the fire at Saturday’s briefing.

However, Kade dismissed claims by residents and commenters on social media that COVID-19 strictures contributed to the tragedy, saying the doors of the burning building were not locked.

Urumqi Fire Chief Li Wensheng blamed indiscriminate parking of private cars for obstructing the fire truck’s access to the blaze, CCTV reported.

Firefighters spray water on a fire at a residential building in Urumqi, China's Xinjiang region, November 24, 2022. The fire killed and injured dozens of people.  Photo credit: Associated Press Screenshot from the video
Firefighters spray water on a fire at a residential building in Urumqi, China’s Xinjiang region, November 24, 2022. The fire killed and injured dozens of people. Photo credit: Associated Press Screenshot from the video

Nanjing protest

Far from Xinjiang in the eastern city of Nanjing, citizen videos seen by RFA Mandarin showed students gathering at the Nanjing Institute of Communication to mourn and pay attention to the victims of the fire and those left behind.

Another video shows a man who looks like a school official holding a loudspeaker and telling the students, “You will pay for everything you did today.”

The threat angered the students, who yelled back, “You too must pay the price” and “This country is paying the price.”

RFA was not able to immediately verify the videos, but similar clips were shared showing similar gatherings in Shanghai and western Sichuan Province.

“Total disregard for the suffering of the Ughurs”

The 12 million Uyghurs have been the subject of harsh government campaigns, including a mass incarceration program that has affected up to 1.8 million people, which China says is necessary to combat extremism and terrorism.

The United States and the legislatures of some Western countries have declared China’s oppression of the Uyghurs, including arbitrary detention and forced labor, to be genocide and crimes against humanity. In late August, the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner released a report on conditions in Xinjiang, concluding that the repression “may constitute international crimes, particularly crimes against humanity.”

The World Uyghur Congress, a Germany-based advocacy group, condemned the authorities’ response in a statement that also included details of Thursday’s deadly fire and victims.

“Since August, Uyghurs in East Turkestan have endured these lockdowns without access to food or medical care. Social media accounts have been inundated with videos of people dying due to utter neglect by the authorities and total disregard for the suffering of Uyghurs,” it said, using the Uyghur preferred name for Xinjiang.

Among the dead was a family of three: the mother Qemernisahan Abdurahman and her children Nehdiye and Imran. The father, Eli Memetniyaz, and her elder son, Eliyas Eli, are both serving sentences of 12 and 10 years respectively, the statement said.

“The Uyghur community is extremely dismayed after receiving the devastating news of numerous families who have lost their lives in the fire,” said Dolkun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress.

“The fact is that the Chinese government has absolutely no mercy and the local authorities are completely ignoring the needs and demands of the Uyghur people, so they did not act immediately to put out the fire,” he said.

China’s major cities, led by Chongqing and Guangzhou, are battling mounting outbreaks, as are many provinces.

China’s National Health Commission said Saturday it had reported 35,183 new COVID-19 infections the previous day.
compared to 32,943 new cases a day earlier.

UPDATES with estimates of fire deaths reported by Urumqi Police.

Written by Paul Eckert.