Authorities in China’s western Xinjiang region opened some neighborhoods in the capital Urumqi on Saturday after residents staged extraordinary late-night protests against the city’s draconian “zero-COVID” lockdown that had lasted more than three months.
Protests in public defiance were fueled by anger over a fire at an apartment complex that had claimed 10 lives, according to the official toll, as rescuers took three hours to put out the blaze – a delay that many attribute the measures to the obstacles caused by the anti-virus.
The protests, along with public anger online, are the latest signs of growing frustration with China’s intense approach to controlling COVID-19. It is the only major country in the world still fighting the pandemic through mass testing and lockdowns.
During Xinjiang’s lockdown, some residents elsewhere in the city had their doors physically chained, including one who spoke to The Associated Press who declined to be named for fear of reprisals. Many in Urumqi believe such brute force tactics may have prevented residents from escaping in Friday’s blaze and that the official death toll was an understatement.
Officials denied the charges, saying there were no barricades in the building and residents were allowed to leave. Anger boiled over after Urumqi city officials held a press conference on the fire in which they appeared to blame residents of the apartment tower for the deaths.
“Some residents’ ability to save themselves was too weak,” said Urumqi fire chief Li Wensheng.
Residents of Urumqi largely marched peacefully in large, puffy winter jackets in the cold winter night.
Videos of the protests showed people holding the Chinese flag and shouting “Open, open”. They quickly spread on Chinese social networks despite heavy censorship. In some scenes, people shouted and pushed rows of men dressed in white hazmat suits. worn by local government employees and pandemic prevention volunteers, according to the videos.
By Saturday, most had been deleted by censors. The Associated Press could not independently verify all of the videos, but two Urumqi residents who declined to be named for fear of reprisals said large-scale protests took place Friday night. One of them said he had friends who participated.
The AP identified the locations of two of the videos of the protests in different parts of Urumqi. In one video, police wearing face masks and hospital gowns clashed with screaming protesters. In another, a protester speaks to a crowd about his demands. It is unclear how widespread the protests were.
In a video, which the AP could not independently verify, senior Urumqi official Yang Fasen told angry protesters that he would open the city’s low-risk areas the next morning.
That promise was fulfilled the following day, when authorities in Urumqi announced that residents of low-risk areas would be allowed to move freely through their neighborhoods. Yet many other neighborhoods remain under lockdown.
Officials also triumphantly declared on Saturday that they had essentially reached ‘societal COVID zero’, meaning there was no more community spread and new infections were only being detected in people already under surveillance. sanitary facilities, such as those in a centralized quarantine facility.
Social media users greeted the news with disbelief and sarcasm. “Only China can reach this speed,” wrote one user on Weibo.
On Chinese social media, where trending topics are manipulated by censors, the “zero-COVID” ad 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 mocking the country’s rigid propaganda and strict censorship controls.
The explosion of criticism marks a sharp turn in public opinion. Early in the pandemic, China’s approach to controlling COVID-19 was hailed by its own citizens as minimizing deaths at a time when other countries were suffering devastating waves of infections. Chinese leader Xi Jinping had held up this approach as an example of the superiority of the Chinese system over the West and especially the United States, which had politicized the use of face masks and had difficulty in putting in place measures. widespread lockdowns.
But support for ‘zero-COVID’ has crumbled in recent months as tragedies have sparked public anger. Last week, the city government of Zhengzhou in central Henan Province apologized for the death of a 4-month-old baby. She died after delaying medical treatment while suffering from vomiting and diarrhea in quarantine at a hotel in Zhengzhou.
The government has doubled down on its policy while relaxing some measures, such as shortening quarantine times. The central government has repeatedly said it will stick to “zero COVID”.
Meanwhile, in Beijing, health authorities on Saturday reported 2,454 new cases of COVID-19 in the past 15 hours. Much of the city is also under lockdown.
In many residential complexes in Beijing’s northeast suburbs, residents have banded together to oppose moves by local authorities and unelected residents’ associations to lock doors and force neighbors into malls. quarantine.
Police responded but no violence was known. In the Yutianxia community on Saturday, an hour-long standoff between police, residents and the Communist Party district resulted in an agreement allowing neighbors of three people who tested positive to quarantine in their homes rather than be taken to a government facility.
Many in Urumqi have been locked up since August, more than three months. They were not allowed out of their homes, confined to apartments in high-rise towers. On Friday, the city reported 220 new cases, the vast majority of which were asymptomatic.
A Uyghur woman who declined 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 of his neighborhood defied the order, opening their windows and shouting in protest. She joined.
“No more containment! No more confinements!” they cried.
Kang reported from Beijing.
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