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Deadly fire in Xinjiang prompts angry protests over China’s strict COVID lockdowns

Angry protests raged overnight in the capital of China’s western Xinjiang region, as residents blamed tight COVID-19 lockdown measures for delaying a response to a deadly apartment fire, prompting the government to promise to ease the restrictions gradually, according to local sources and media reports.

The protests in Urumqi–which also erupted in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities–were triggered by a fire Thursday night in a residential building in Urumqi’s Jixiangyuan district that killed at least 10 people.

Citizen videos that circulated on the Internet showed screaming residents demanding authorities open exits they said were closed under strict COVID-19 restrictions that have been in place for more than 100 days.

Reuters news agency reported that videos verified as taken in Urumqi showed fist-pumping crowds chanting, “End the lockdown!” while others were singing China’s national anthem with its lyric, “Rise up, those who refuse to be slaves!”

AFP said it had verified videos showing hundreds of people gathered outside the Urumqi city government offices during the night, chanting: “Lift lockdowns!” while others marched chanted east of the city and berated authorities wearing white protective suits.

People protest COVID-19 measures in Urumqi city, Xinjiang, China, on Nov. 25, 2022. Video obtained by Reuters
People protest COVID-19 measures in Urumqi city, Xinjiang, China, on Nov. 25, 2022. Video obtained by Reuters

According to the residents, fire trucks that rushed to the scene were prevented from reaching the fire by parked cars and metal fences preventing people from coming out of their buildings and neighborhoods as part of the COVID-19 blockade, allowing the fire to burn for nearly three hours before it was extinguished.

Firemen didn’t clear the obstructions and tried to spray water on the building from a distance, but the hoses could not reach floors 14-19 of the 21 story building, where the fire was burning, sources told RFA Uyghur.

In response to the Friday night protests, the Urumqi city government held a news 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, imposed under the Chinese Communist Party’s unpopular zero-COVID policy.

Sui Rong, Urumqi’s Minister of Propaganda, said easing would begin in low-risk areas to allow residents to leave their apartments and go downstairs. But residents would still be required to show proof of their reason to leave their buildings and have to maintain social distance, wear masks and avoid gathering in groups, local media quoted Sui as saying.

China’s state broadcaster CCTV said the fire was caused by a board of electric sockets in the bedroom of one of the apartments.

CCTV said Urumqi Mayor Maimaitiming Kade had issued a rare formal apology for the blaze at Saturday’s briefing.

But Kade rejected assertions by residents and commenters on social media that COVID-19 strictures had contributed to the tragedy, saying the doors of the burning building were not locked.

Urumqi fire chief Li Wensheng blamed haphazard parking by private cars for impeding firetruck’s access to the blaze, CCTV reported.

Firefighters spray water on a fire on a residential building in Urumqi in China's Xinjiang region, Nov. 24, 2022. The blaze killed and injured dozens of people. Credit: Associated Press screenshot from video
Firefighters spray water on a fire on a residential building in Urumqi in China’s Xinjiang region, Nov. 24, 2022. The blaze killed and injured dozens of people. Credit: Associated Press screenshot from video

Nanjing protest

Far away 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 call attention to victims of the fire and bereaved families.

Another video shows a man who appeared to be a school official holding a loudspeaker and telling the students, “You will pay for everything you have done today.”

The threat angered the students, who shouted back: “You have to pay the price too,” and “This country is paying the price.”

RFA was unable to verify the videos immediately, but similar clips were shared showing similar gatherings in Shanghai and in western Sichuan province.

‘Total disregard for Ughurs’ suffering’

The 12 million Uyghurs have been subject to harsh government campaigns, including a mass incarceration program that affected as many as 1.8 million people, that China says are necessary to fight extremism and terrorism.

The United States and the parliaments of some Western countries declared China’s repression of the Uyghurs, including arbitrary detainment and forced labor, amounted to genocide and crimes against humanity. In late August, the United Nations human rights chief issued a report on conditions in Xinjiang and concluded that the repression “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

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

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

Among those who died were a family of three: the mother, Qemernisahan Abdurahman, and her children, Nehdiye and Imran. The father, Eli Memetniyaz, and their older son, Eliyas Eli, are both serving 12 and 10 years prison sentences, respectively, the statement said.

“The Uyghur community is extremely distressed after hearing the horrific news of numerous families losing 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, therefore they have not promptly acted to extinguish the blaze,” he said.

Written by Paul Eckert.

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