More anti-lockdown protests in China sparked by deadly fire

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Protests against China’s restrictive COVID-19 measures appeared to rage in a number of cities on Saturday night, in demonstrations of public defiance fueled by anger over a deadly fire in the western Xinjiang region.

Many of the protests could not be immediately confirmed, but in Shanghai police used pepper spray to stop around 300 protesters who had gathered on Middle Urumqi Road at midnight and were holding flowers, candles and signs reading ‘Urumqi, November 24 , “brought the deceased RIP” to commemorate the 10 deaths caused by a fire at a residential building in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang.

A protester, who gave only his family name, Zhao, said one of his friends was beaten by police and two friends were pepper sprayed. He said the police stamped his feet when he tried to stop them from taking his friend away. He lost his shoes in the process and left the protest barefoot.

According to Zhao, the protesters have been shouting slogans including “Xi Jinping, resign, Communist Party, resign”, “unlock Xinjiang, unlock China”, “don’t want PCR (tests), want freedom” and “freedom of the press”.

Around 100 police officers lined up and prevented some protesters from gathering or leaving, and buses with more police officers arrived later, Zhao said.

Another protester, who gave only his family name, Xu, said there was a larger crowd of thousands of protesters, but the police stood on the street and let the protesters pass on the sidewalk.

Posts about the protest were immediately deleted from China’s social media, as the Chinese Communist Party usually does to quell criticism.

Earlier Saturday, authorities in the Xinjiang region opened up some neighborhoods in Urumqi after residents held extraordinary late-night demonstrations against the city’s draconian “zero-COVID” lockdown that had lasted for more than three months. Many claimed that obstacles caused by antivirus measures made the fire worse. It took rescue workers three hours to put out the fire, but officials denied the allegations and said there were no barricades in the building and residents were allowed to exit.

During Xinjiang’s lockdown, the doors of some residents in other parts of the city were physically closed, including one who spoke to The Associated Press, who declined to be named for fear of retribution. Many in Urumqi believe such brute force tactics may have prevented residents from fleeing Thursday’s fire and that the official death toll was too low.

Anger boiled over after Urumqi city officials held a press conference about the fire, in which they appeared to blame the deaths on residents of the tower block.

“Some residents’ ability to save themselves was too weak,” said Li Wensheng, chief of the Urumqi Fire Department.

Police cracked down on dissenting voices and announced the arrest of a 24-year-old woman for posting “false information” about the death toll on the internet.

Late on Friday, the people of Ürümqi marched largely peacefully into the cold winter night in thick, puffy winter jackets.

Videos of protests showed people holding the Chinese flag and shouting “Open, open”. They quickly spread on Chinese social media despite heavy censorship. In some scenes, people yelled and shoved at rows of men in the white full-body hazmat suits worn by local government employees and pandemic prevention volunteers, according to the videos.

By Saturday, most had been erased by the censors. The Associated Press could not independently verify all the videos, but two Urumqi residents, who declined to be named for fear of retribution, said large-scale protests broke out on Friday night. One of them said he had friends who attended.

The AP pinpointed the locations of two of the videos of the protests in different parts of Urumqi. In one video, police in face masks and hospital gowns confronted screaming protesters. In another, a protester speaks to a crowd about his demands. It is unclear how big the protests were.

The demonstrations, as well as online public anger, are the latest signs of growing frustration with China’s intensive approach to combating COVID-19. It is the only major country in the world still fighting the pandemic through mass testing and lockdowns.

Given China’s vast security apparatus, protests are risky anywhere in the country, but they are exceptional in Xinjiang, which has been the target of a crackdown on security forces for years. Large numbers of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities were swept into a vast network of camps and prisons, a fact that continues to terrify the region to this day.

Most of the protesters visible in the videos were Han Chinese. A Uyghur woman living in Urumqi said this is because, despite their anger, Uyghurs are too afraid to take to the streets.

“Han Chinese know that if they speak out against the lockdown, they will not be punished,” she said, declining to be named for fear of reprisals against her family. “Uyghurs are different. If we dare to say such things, we will be taken to prison or to camps.”

In a video that the AP could not independently verify, Yang Fasen, Urumqi’s top official, told angry protesters he would open low-risk areas in the city the next morning.

That promise was fulfilled the next day when Urumqi authorities announced that residents of low-risk areas would be allowed to move freely within their neighborhoods. Nevertheless, many other parts of the city remain closed.

Officials also triumphantly declared on Saturday that they had essentially achieved “social zero COVID,” meaning there was no longer community spread and that new infections would only be detected in people already under health surveillance, for example for people in a central quarantine facility.

Social media users greeted the news with disbelief and sarcasm. “Only China can reach this speed,” one user wrote on Weibo.

On Chinese social media, where trending topics are manipulated by censorship, the “zero-COVID” announcement was the #1 trending hashtag on both Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, and Douyin, the Chinese edition of TikTok. 1. The apartment fire and protests became a lightning rod for public anger as millions shared posts questioning China’s pandemic controls or mocking the country’s rigid propaganda and harsh censorship controls.

The public has turned against China’s zero-COVID policy

The explosion of criticism marks a sharp turn in public opinion. At the start of the pandemic, China’s approach to combating COVID-19 was welcomed by its own citizens as minimizing deaths at a time when other countries were suffering devastating waves of infection. China’s leader Xi Jinping had touted the approach as an example of the Chinese system’s superiority over the West and particularly the US, which has politicized the use of face masks and struggled to enact sweeping lockdowns.

But support for “zero-COVID” has plummeted in recent months as tragedies sparked public anger. Last week, the Zhengzhou city government in central Henan province apologized for the death of a 4-month-old baby. She died after being quarantined at a hotel in Zhengzhou and receiving belated medical attention while suffering from vomiting and diarrhea.

The government has doubled down on its policies, even as it relaxes some measures like reducing quarantine times. The central government has repeatedly said it will stick to “zero-COVID”.

Many in Xinjiang have been in lockdown since August. Most have been confined to their homes and some have reported dire conditions, including patchy food deliveries, which have left residents starving. As of Friday, the city reported 220 new cases, the vast majority of which were asymptomatic.

The Uyghur woman in Urumqi said she had been locked in her apartment since August 8 and was not even allowed to open her window. On Friday, residents in her neighborhood defied the order, opening their windows and protesting loudly. She joined.

“No more bans! No more bans!” they shouted.

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