Videos shared on Chinese social media platforms showed fire trucks parked a distance from the building and spraying water that did not reach the flames, raising questions about whether pandemic restrictions on movement had prevented the trucks to get closer or to arrive fast enough.
On Friday evening, residents of Urumqi carrying the Chinese national flag gathered outside a local government building chanting for the lifting of lockdowns, according to widely circulated videos on social media app WeChat. The Washington Post could not immediately verify the authenticity of the clips.
The city’s mayor apologized and promised an investigation into the cause of the fire during a press conference on Friday evening. Li Wensheng, fire brigade chief, denied coronavirus restrictions had hampered the response, instead blaming a narrow lane full of parked cars for obstructing access for fire trucks.
“Some residents’ ability to save themselves was too weak…and they failed to escape,” Li said. He also disputed claims made online that residents didn’t were not allowed to leave or that the emergency doors were locked.
The official response has only sparked outrage online, with many continuing to blame the government’s tough covid policy. Critics said it was inappropriate for authorities to blame the victims and argued that centralized quarantine rules had resulted in vehicles being abandoned on the streets.
Frustrations over arbitrary and mishandled coronavirus restrictions have turned into protests across China in recent days. Authorities announced earlier this month that testing and quarantine requirements would be relaxed. But a record number of cases soon after prompted many major cities to confine millions of people to their homes, dashing hopes of a gradual reopening. China reported 34,909 local cases of the coronavirus on Saturday.
Netizens posted videos of residents in Beijing, Chongqing and elsewhere arguing with local officials over lockdown measures. Violent clashes between police and workers at the world’s largest iPhone factory erupted in the central city of Zhengzhou on Wednesday because workers at the Foxconn factory were unhappy with lockdown conditions and the non- presumed compliance with the terms of the contract by the manufacturer.
The Urumqi fire follows a bus accident in September in which 27 people died while being taken to a quarantine centre. In April, a sudden lockdown in Shanghai’s most populous city fueled protests online and offline. Reports of suicides and deaths linked to the restrictions, including a 3-year-old child who died after his parents were unable to get him to hospital, further infuriated exhausted residents.
Online criticism of the Urumqi fire appeared to briefly overwhelm censors, as it did after the death of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who tried to raise the alarm in late 2019 about the coronavirus then unknown, but was reprimanded by the police.
In a comment that was just reposted online, one netizen wrote, “I was the one who jumped off the building, I was the one on the overturned bus, I was the one who walked from Foxconn, it was me who froze to death on the road, I was the one who had no income for months and couldn’t afford a veggie bun, and that’s me who died in the fire. Even if none of it was me, next time it could very well be me.
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Demonstrations such as Friday’s demonstrations are rare in Xinjiang, where authorities in 2017 launched a security crackdown that forced more than a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other mostly Muslim people from the region , to “re-education” programs. Xinjiang has endured some of the toughest and longest-lasting anti-coronavirus measures in the country, with residents reporting being locked in their homes for weeks without enough food.
During the pandemic, a number of facilities previously used for what the Chinese government called “vocational education and training” were repurposed as quarantine centers. The United Nations concluded in August that human rights violations in the region could constitute crimes against humanity.
Chinese officials have indicated they want to abandon the crackdown, replace the regional party leader in December and encourage tourism. But Xinjiang continues to be one of the most strictly monitored places in the world. Exiled Uyghur activists argue that the campaign of forced assimilation is far from over.
National health authorities remain adamant that their strategy of cutting off transmission as soon as possible and quarantining all positive cases is the only way to prevent an increase in severe cases and deaths. They fear a lack of natural immunity could hit the elderly and other vulnerable groups, overwhelming already strained hospitals.
Critics of the policy are more concerned about collateral damage from the government’s uphill battle against more transmissible variants: Medical care be denied or delayed because patients did not test negative for coronavirus. Mental health trauma from too much time confined to home alone. An economic balance that hits the poorest families the hardest.
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Online, many have mocked the Xinjiang government for its failure to get its story straight on the local coronavirus situation. On Saturday, Urumqi officials said the coronavirus was no longer circulating among the general population, while saying there were 273 buildings in the city designated as high risk for transmission of the virus.
Beneath state media reports that Urumqi had “essentially achieved zero covid in society,” the most common comments were stunned questions about how it could have happened so quickly. A user simply wrote six question marks.
Even Hu Xijin, a former editor of the official Global Times newspaper, said official statements would not be enough to quell public anger and that the local government should ease restrictions. Even though China’s covid policy was not responsible for the fire, the root cause of public discontent was that being in lockdown for several months “is really beyond what people are capable of accepting. “, he wrote on WeChat.
A resident of Urumqi in a low-risk area, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said people could move freely within their compound but could not go to work, drive on the streets or move between neighborhoods. “In some wards, all you can do is go out for an hour,” the person said, using a Chinese term for when prisoners are allowed out for exercise.
Lyric Li in Seoul and Vic Chiang and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.