Xinjiang eases some restrictions after anti-lockdown protests

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Authorities in China’s western Xinjiang region opened up some neighborhoods in the capital Urumqi on Saturday after residents held extraordinary late-night demonstrations against the city’s draconian “zero-COVID” lockdown that had lasted for more than three months .

Demonstrations of public defiance were fueled by anger over a fire at an apartment complex that killed 10 people, according to the official death toll, as it took rescue workers three hours to put out the blaze – a delay many were made aware of by antivirus obstacles caused traced dimensions.

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.

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 escaping Friday’s fire and that the official death toll was too low.

Officials denied the allegations, saying there were no barricades in the building and residents were allowed out. 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.

In the cold winter night, the people of Urumqi marched largely peacefully in large, 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.

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.

Residents queue for COVID-19 tests in Beijing on Saturday.

Residents queue for COVID-19 tests in Beijing on Saturday.

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 number one trending hashtag on both Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, and Douyin, the Chinese edition of Tiktok . The apartment fire and protests became a lightning rod for public anger as millions shared posts questioning China’s pandemic controls or deriding 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”.

Meanwhile, health authorities in Beijing reported 2,454 new COVID-19 cases in the past 15 hours on Saturday. Much of the city is also locked down.

In numerous neighborhoods in Beijing’s northeastern suburbs, residents have banded together to resist action by local authorities and unelected residents’ associations, locking gates and forcing neighbors into quarantine centers.

Police responded, but no violence was known. In Yutianxia Municipality on Saturday, an hour-long confrontation between police, residents and the Communist Party neighborhood led to an agreement to quarantine neighbors of three people who tested positive at home instead of taking them to a government facility.

Many in Ürümqi have been under lockdown for more than three months since August. They were not allowed to leave their homes and were locked in high-rise apartments. As of Friday, the city reported 220 new cases, the vast majority of which were asymptomatic.

A Uyghur woman, who asked not to be named, said she had been 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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