Deadly fire sparks protests in Xinjiang against China's zero-covid policy

In China, the signs of discontent against the zero covid policy continue to rise.

Thomas Osborne
Thomas Osborne
26 November 2022 Saturday 05:30
20 Reads
Deadly fire sparks protests in Xinjiang against China's zero-covid policy

In China, the signs of discontent against the zero covid policy continue to rise. The last one was registered this Friday in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region, where a fire that left ten people dead sparked massive protests against the restrictions imposed here for weeks to try to keep the pathogen at bay.

In some videos that circulated on Chinese social networks yesterday, hundreds of people are seen gathered in front of local government offices while shouting "Lift the blockades!". In another, numerous residents can be seen marching through the streets while shouting slogans like the one mentioned before facing a line of officials dressed in special protective suits.

The city of Urumqi, home to some 4 million people, has been under tight control measures since a coronavirus outbreak emerged in August. Even so, the measures applied have not been able to stop its expansion, and about 100 daily positives continue to be registered.

The fire that gave rise to the mobilizations began due to an electrical failure on the fifteenth floor of a residential building on Thursday night. The displaced firefighters took about three hours to extinguish the flames before being able to extract the bodies of the deceased and nine injured, who were taken to the hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation.

It was not long before numerous users showed their outrage at what happened on Chinese social networks such as Weibo. A video was widely circulated through them, allegedly showing a fire truck spraying the damaged building with water from a distance. Some Internet users pointed out that the parked cars that prevented them from approaching were electric vehicles with dead batteries after spending weeks without being able to be used due to confinement.

In other posts, netizens compared what happened to the death of 27 people in a bus accident last September in Guizhou province while being transferred to a quarantine center at dawn. “History repeats itself once again, and it is ordinary people who pay the price,” read one comment. Others were angry that the victims had spent the last 100 days of their lives confined to their homes due to the zero covid policy.

In a press conference called on Friday night, the local authorities assured that the truck had difficulties reaching the building because the road that led to it was occupied by parked vehicles, although without giving further details. They also pointed out that the block had been classified as a "low risk area" on the 12th, so its residents had been able to leave in stages starting on the 20th.

In addition, they affirmed that the spread of the fire was due to the fact that the fire door of the plant where the electrical fault that triggered the fire occurred was open, and that some of the residents were unable to flee because they were not familiar with the emergency exits.

Following the fire and the ensuing wave of outrage, the Urumqi government announced Saturday morning that the city has succeeded in curbing community-wide transmission of the virus and that it will "gradually restore order to the lives of citizens in the areas of low risk". Of course, they qualified that there are still areas considered "high risk" of contagion, which for now will remain closed.

Doubts about the future of the zero covid policy pose a major challenge for central authorities. Given the damage caused to its economy, in recent weeks Beijing has been betting on a more selective approach in the number and scope of the restrictions. However, the recent increase in cases nationwide - this Saturday it reported more than 35,000 cases, the third consecutive daily record - suggests that they could once again resort to the mass confinements applied in the past in cities such as Wuhan or Shanghai.

After almost three years of restrictions and isolation, the discontent and boredom of the population is increasingly noticeable. Recent demonstrations by migrant workers in Tibet or Guangzhou, where imposed controls prevent them from earning a living or returning to their homes in other provinces, were followed this week by violent protests by workers at the Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou, the largest iPhone assembler in the world, due to labor disputes and the conditions of his confinement.

In another notorious episode, a resident of megacity Chongqing delivered a fiery speech criticizing his residential complex block for anti-virus measures. "Without freedom I prefer to die!" He shouted before the cheering crowd, which hailed him as a "hero" and protected him from the agents who tried to arrest him, according to the CNN channel.