Wed, 01 Feb 2023

Beijing [China], November 26 (ANI): A fire in a residential high-rise in Urumqi, where many residents have been under lockdown, set off public anger and questions about China's zero-Covid policy.

Chang Che, a freelance writer covering Chinese technology and society and Amy Chang Chien covering news in mainland China and Taiwan, writing in The New York Post (NYT) said that the protest erupted after the fire killed 10 persons in the region, with residents calling for the lifting of lockdowns that have confined many to their homes for more than three months.

Chinese commenters on social media shared reports and footage of the blaze that killed 10 people and injured nine in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, demanding to know if Covid restrictions had hampered the rescue or prevented residents from escaping their apartments or the building.

Late Friday, videos circulated widely on the Chinese internet showing throngs of residents in Urumqi marching to a government building and chanting "end lockdowns," the latest sign of mounting frustration with Beijing's exceptionally stringent pandemic measures, reported Chang and Amy.

Many of the videos were later removed from China's heavily censored social media platforms.

The fire was ignited by a power strip that caught fire in a bedroom on the 15th floor of a residential building in Urumqi on Thursday evening, the city's Fire Department said. It later rose to engulf the two floors above, the department said.

Much of Xinjiang, a region of 25 million people, has been under lockdown for more than 100 days as part of the authorities' heavy-handed response to Covid outbreaks.

In some cases, the lockdowns have left residents in dire straits, with trouble securing food and other necessities, like medication and menstruation supplies, reported NYT.

State media accounts said that the neighbourhood where the fire occurred was a "low-risk management" area, a category of lockdown that allows residents to leave their compounds provided they self-monitor and avoid large gatherings. But many Chinese internet users were sceptical of the official account, said Chang and Amy.

They shared what appeared to be screenshots of conversations between the government and residents of the Jixiangyuan community indicating that the compound had recently been placed under a stricter level of lockdown, which could have made it harder for residents to get to safety.

Chinese commenters also pointed to video footage of what appeared to be an attempt at putting out the fire as evidence that a lockdown had stalled the effort.

The footage showed pressurized water from a fire hose spraying just out of reach of the burning building, suggesting that fire trucks were unable to get closer to the building.

Some users said that cars that had been parked in the area could not be moved because their batteries were dead from having not been used for so long because of the lockdown, reported NYT.

Xinjiang is an ethnically divided region that has been under an intense government crackdown aimed at Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslim minorities. Residents, particularly those of Uyghur descent, often face reprisals for speaking with the foreign media.

But the descriptions of residents possibly sealed into their homes or compounds fit a broader pattern of how such lockdowns have been enforced in many parts of the country.

Makeshift barricades and bolted doors have become a key feature of efforts to prevent people who might have been exposed to the virus from leaving their homes and buildings, said Chang and Amy.

Uyghur activists outside China who have sought to draw attention to the long confinement of people in Xinjiang said the tragedy pointed to the failure of the authorities to protect the residents.

"People are not allowed to go outside easily without permission from the government," said Tahir Imin, an Uyghur academic based in Washington.

"My frustration is that the government is handling it very badly. They've shown that they don't care about the lives of the Uyghur people. How is the Fire Department unable to control this in three hours in a country like China with all its facilities and equipment and people?"Online, Chinese internet users expressed anger and sadness, sharing articles with titles such as "Last night's fire in Urumqi is the nightmare of all of Xinjiang's people."They circulated black-and-white images calling for a moment of silence to "express deep condolences to the 10 compatriots who died in the Urumqi fire." Some residents offered their apartments to families who had lost their homes to the fire, reported NYT.

Questions about the cost of China's zero-tolerance approach to fighting Covid are posing a challenge for China's leader, Xi Jinping, as he enters his precedent-defying third term in power.

Anger over lockdowns, as well as a widespread fear of the virus, have prompted large protests in the past two weeks by thousands of workers in the southern city of Guangzhou and at Apple's largest iPhone factory, in Zhengzhou, in central China.

China has been grappling with a rise in Covid outbreaks, with cases around the country surging to record highs -- though still low by global standards. The tally on Friday neared 32,700 cases, of which close to 1,000 were recorded in Xinjiang. (ANI)

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