After Protests, China Relaxes Lockdown in City

Anger over fatal fire leads to demonstrations in Xinjiang
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 26, 2022 2:25 PM CST
Xinjiang Restrictions Eased After Fire, Demonstrations
Residents line up for COVID-19 tests Saturday in Beijing.   (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Authorities in China's western Xinjiang region opened up some neighborhoods in the capital of Urumqi on Saturday after residents held extraordinary late-night demonstrations against the city's draconian "zero-COVID" lockdown that had lasted more than three months. The displays of public defiance were fanned by anger over a fire in an apartment compound that had killed 10, according to the official death toll, as emergency workers took three hours to extinguish the blaze—a delay many attributed to obstacles caused by anti-virus measures. The demonstrations, as well as public anger online, are the latest signs of building frustration with China's intense approach to controlling COVID-19, the AP reports.

China is the only major country in the world that still is fighting the pandemic through mass testing and lockdowns. During Xinjiang's lockdown, some residents elsewhere in the city have had their doors chained shut. Many people in Urumqi believe that such brute-force tactics may have prevented residents from escaping Friday's fire and that the official death toll was an undercount. Officials denied the accusations, saying that there were no barricades in the building and that residents were permitted to leave. Police clamped down on dissenting voices, announcing the arrest of a 24-year-old woman for spreading "untrue information" about the death toll online.

Anger boiled over after Urumqi officials held a press conference in which they seemed to shift responsibility for the deaths to the apartment tower's residents. "Some residents' ability to rescue themselves was too weak," said Li Wensheng, head of Urumqi’s fire department. People largely marched peacefully in the cold winter night. Videos of protests featured people holding the Chinese flag and shouting, "Open up, open up." They spread rapidly on social media despite heavy censorship. In some scenes, people shouted and pushed against rows of men in the white whole-body hazmat suits that local government workers and pandemic-prevention volunteers wear. By Saturday, most had been deleted by censors and could not be independently verified.

(Read more China stories.)

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