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

November 26 (Reuters) – Rare protests erupted in China’s far western Xinjiang region, with crowds shouting at guards in hazmat suits after a deadly fire sparked anger over their prolonged lockdown of COVID-19 as nationwide infections set another record.

Crowds chanted “End the lockdown!”, raising their fists in the air as they marched down a street, according to videos posted on Chinese social media on Friday night. Reuters confirmed that the images were posted from Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.

Videos showed people in a square singing the Chinese national anthem with its lyrics, “Arise, those who refuse to be slaves!” while others shouted that they wanted to be freed from blockages.

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

Xinjiang is home to 10 million Uyghurs. Rights groups and Western governments have long accused Beijing of abuses against the mainly Muslim ethnic minority, including forced labor in internment camps. China firmly rejects such allegations.

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

Authorities said residents of the building were able to descend, but videos of the efforts of emergency crews, shared on Chinese social media, led many netizens to assume that residents could not escape in time because the building was partially locked.

Urumqi officials abruptly held a press conference in the early hours of Saturday, denying that COVID measures had hampered the escape and rescue, but saying they would investigate further. One said residents could have escaped faster had they understood fire safety better.

‘BLAME THE VICTIM’

Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said such a “blame the victim” attitude would make people angrier. “Public confidence will just drop,” he told Reuters.

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

“Isn’t there something we can reflect on to make changes,” said an essay that went viral on WeChat on Friday, challenging the official narrative of the apartment fire. ‘Urumqi.

China champions President Xi Jinping’s zero COVID policy as life-saving and necessary to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system. Officials have vowed to continue despite growing public resistance and its growing impact on the world’s second-largest economy.

While the country has recently changed its measures, shortening quarantines and taking other targeted measures, this, coupled with the rise in cases, has caused widespread confusion and uncertainty in major cities, including Beijing, where many many residents are locked in their homes.

China has recorded 34,909 daily local cases, low by global standards but the third straight record, with infections spreading across many cities, prompting widespread lockdowns and other restrictions on movement and business.

Shanghai, China’s most populous city and financial hub, on Saturday tightened testing requirements to enter cultural venues such as museums and libraries, requiring people to present a negative COVID test taken within 48 hours, against 72 hours earlier.

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

Reporting by Yew Lun Tian; Editing by William Mallard

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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