Fatal Xinjiang fire prompts backlash at China’s ‘covid-zero’ policy


The delayed emergency response to a deadly fire has sparked protests calling for an end to months of lockdowns in Xinjiang, the tightly controlled region of northwestern China, and fueled a nationwide outcry over the restrictions prescribed by the country’s “zero covid” policy.

Flames engulfed the upper floors of a high-rise apartment block in downtown Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, on Thursday evening, killing 10 people, including three children, and leaving nine hospitalized with smoke inhalation, officials said. According to an initial investigation, the blaze was caused by a power strip catching fire in a bedroom of one of the apartments.

Videos shared on Chinese social media platforms showed firetrucks parked at a distance from the building and spraying water that fell short of the flames, leading some to question whether pandemic limitations on movement had prevented the trucks from getting closer or arriving fast enough.

On Friday night, Urumqi residents carrying China’s national flag gathered outside a local government building chanting for lockdowns to be lifted, according to widely circulated videos on the social media app WeChat. The Washington Post could not immediately verify the authenticity of the clips.

The city’s mayor apologized and promised an investigation into the cause of the fire at a news conference on Friday evening. Li Wensheng, head of the fire rescue brigade, denied that coronavirus restrictions impeded the response, instead blaming a narrow lane filled with parked cars for obstructing access for the firetrucks.

“Some residents’ ability to rescue themselves was too weak … and they failed to escape,” Li said. He also disputed claims made online that residents were not permitted to leave or that fire escape doors were locked.

The official response only spurred online outrage, with many continuing to blame the government’s strict covid policy. Critics said it was inappropriate for authorities to shift blame to the victims and argued that centralized quarantine rules had caused vehicles to be abandoned on the street.

On Saturday, authorities in Urumqi eased restrictions in some neighborhoods deemed low risk, the Associated Press reported. But other areas of the city remained under lockdown. Meanwhile, in Beijing, several residential compounds lifted lockdowns after residents protested the restrictions, according to Reuters.

Frustrations over mismanaged and arbitrary coronavirus restrictions have escalated into protests across China in recent days. Authorities earlier this month announced that testing and quarantine requirements would be relaxed. But a record number of cases soon after prompted many major cities to confine millions to their homes, crushing hopes of a gradual reopening. China reported 34,909 local coronavirus cases on Saturday.

Internet users have posted videos of residents in Beijing, Chongqing and elsewhere arguing with local officials over lockdown measures. Violent clashes between police and employees at the world’s largest iPhone factory broke out on Wednesday in the central city of Zhengzhou because workers at the Foxconn plant were dissatisfied with…

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