27 Nov 2022

China Xinjiang: Urumqi rocked by Covid lockdown protests after deadly fire

3:41 pm on 27 November 2022
A guard is seen through a fence closing an area in lockdown in the Changning district, after new Covid-19 cases were reported in Shanghai, on October 8, 2022. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP)

China is seeing record-high number of Covid-19 cases. Photo: AFP

By James FitzGerald and Sophie Williams

Videos shared on social media in China have appeared to show fresh protests against Covid restrictions, after an apartment block fire killed 10 people.

People in Urumqi were seen confronting officials, breaking down a barrier and shouting "end the Covid lockdown".

Infections have hit new highs in China in spite of a tough zero-Covid policy.

According to Reuters, China reported a record high of 39,791 new cases of Covid on Saturday.

Just over 3700 of the cases were sypomatic and 36,082 were asymptomatic.

China recorded 35,183 cases the day earlier.

Authorities in Urumqi have now promised to phase out restrictions - though deny that these stopped people escaping Thursday's fire.

Restrictions have been in place in the city - capital of the western Xinjiang region - since early August.

The BBC was told by one resident in the aftermath of the incident that people living in the fire-hit compound had been largely prevented from leaving their homes.

That has been disputed by Chinese state media. However, Urumqi authorities did issue an unusual apology late on Friday - vowing to punish anyone who had deserted their duty.

Footage shared on Friday night showed residents, many of them in face masks, gathering after dark on the city streets.

They were seen chanting, pumping their firsts and arguing with officials. The location was verified by the Reuters news agency.

One demonstrator shouted through a megaphone, and in another clip, a crowd broke through a barrier policed by city workers wearing protective gear.

Live streams monitored by the BBC on Friday night also appeared to show protesters gathered on the steps of a city government building.

The internet was heavily censored in China, and references to the Urumqi protests had largely been taken down by Saturday morning.

Local media said Thursday's deadly blaze at the Urumqi apartment block - which also injured nine people - appeared to have been caused by a fault with an electrical extension.

Online posts have suggested that firefighting efforts were hindered by Covid restrictions.

This has been denied by city officials, who sought to blame parked vehicles for stopping firefighters' access to the burning building.

In a press conference on Saturday morning, they announced a phased easing of lockdown conditions in parts of Urumqi deemed low-risk.

They did not refer to the demonstrations, but said that Covid cases in the community had been largely cleared and that "order" would be restored to the lives of the city's residents.

Large-scale, disruptive protests were rare in China, although there had been mounting public dissent aimed at Beijing's zero-Covid strategy.

Other protests were also been reported in cities such as Xi'an, Chongqing and Nanjing on Saturday. Many of them were reported at universities.

The demonstrations have gained a lot of support on social media site Weibo, where those taking part have been referred to as "brave".

Others on Weibo have shared their frustration at the incident in Urumqi and the government's zero Covid stance.

"The unlimited trust we gave the government at the beginning did not change their conscience. The life, safety and basic demands of the people are deaf to them," one person wrote.

The zero-Covid strategy was the last policy of its kind among the world's major economies, and was partly due to China's relatively low vaccination levels and an effort to protect elderly people.

Snap lockdowns have caused anger across the country - and Covid restrictions more broadly have triggered recent violent protests from Zhengzhou to Guangzhou.

In spite of the stringent measures, China's case numbers this week hit all-time records since the pandemic began.

The Xinjiang region was home to many Uyghurs, against whom the Chinese government has been accused of committing numerous human rights abuses - something it denies.

- BBC, with Reuters

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