Protests in Xinjiang calling for lockdown measures to end after deadly fire

The Urumqi protests followed a fire in a high-rise building there that killed 10 on Thursday night. PHOTOS: REUTERS, WEIBO

BEIJING - Protests erupted in Xinjiang on Friday night following a deadly fire at a housing complex that killed 10 and injured nine others on Thursday, as local officials sought to calm angry residents who have questioned whether pandemic lockdowns have delayed rescuers.

At one protest, hundreds gathered near an office building in Urumqi, the autonomous region’s capital, about a 15-minute drive from where the fire took place, according to videos on Chinese social media circulated on Friday night.

Protesters chanted “end the lockdown” as they pumped their fists into the air.

The videos, which censors have quickly removed but were seen by The Sunday Times, also showed people walking down streets and shouting that they wanted to be released from pandemic measures, which have been in place for three months.

Officials at a press conference late on Friday night blamed the high number of cars parked in the compound for the delay in rescue, resulting in the fire being put out about three hours after it started at 7.50pm.

A joint investigation team has also been set up to further look into the cause of the fire, Urumqi Mayor Mamtimin Hadir said.

Initial investigations revealed that a plugboard in a bedroom on the 15th floor of a residential block is the probable cause of the fire.

Netizens suggested on microblogging site Weibo that the death toll of the fire might have been lower if not for lockdown measures.

They pointed to video footage posted by state-run media showing fire trucks waiting as pandemic-related road barriers were removed.

They also said that the parked electric vehicles that blocked a narrow pathway for the fire trucks to enter the residential compound were hard to remove because the cars had lost power during the long lockdown.

Xinjiang, a vast region in north-western China, has been placed under an extended lockdown after Covid-19 clusters started spreading in August, with many of Urumqi’s four million residents being ordered to stay home for at least 100 days so far.

On Saturday, Xinjiang reported 21 new Covid-19 infections for Friday and 946 asymptomatic cases.

No local transmission was detected, and officials said the restrictions in Urumqi will be removed in phases for the city to be managed as a low-risk area.

The lifting of the restrictions a day after the protests on Friday night has led netizens to wonder if it was too much of a coincidence.

“Zero transmissions overnight? Does the pandemic actually exist? Are we in a major scam?” said a Weibo post.

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The protests in Xinjiang are the latest demonstrations in China, as residents grow weary of strict restrictions that have included lockdowns and mass testing to fight the pandemic, which is currently in its third year.

China is the world’s last country to insist on a strict zero-Covid-19 policy.

In Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of central Henan, workers at Foxconn Technology Group threw sticks and bricks at anti-riot police and smashed Covid-19 testing kiosks with steel bars, chairs and fire extinguishers, according to media reports on Tuesday.

China on Saturday reported 35,183 new Covid-19 infections for Friday – a new high for the third consecutive day – as the country continued to battle a surge in new cases, including in its capital city.

The National Health Commission said that of the latest tally of cases, 3,474 patients were symptomatic, while the remaining 31,709 did not display any signs of being infected.

Beijing reported 2,454 new cases as at 3pm on Saturday, with officials saying at a regular press conference that more streets and towns in the capital have infections.

Shops largely remained shut, with restaurants being allowed to provide only delivery and take-out services.

Videos shared on social messaging app WeChat showed Beijing residents, who had been placed under lockdowns, arguing with their neighbourhood committees about the legality of the latest measures and calling to be let out.

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