Deadly Xinjiang fire stokes discontent over China’s covid restrictions

Washington Post photo by Eva Dou
Residents of Kashgar, Xinjiang, in line for coronavirus testing in August 2022.

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 lockdown conditions and the manufacturer’s alleged failure to meet contract terms.

The Urumqi fire follows a bus crash in September in which 27 people died as they were being taken to a quarantine center. In April, a sudden lockdown in Shanghai, China’s most populous city, fueled online and offline protests. Reports of suicides and deaths related to restrictions, including a 3-year-old who died after his parents were unable to take him to a hospital, have further enraged exhausted residents.

Online criticism over the Urumqi fire appeared to briefly overwhelm censors, as it did after the death of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who tried to raise the alarm in late 2019 about the then-unknown coronavirus but was reprimanded by police.

In a comment reposted online, one user wrote: “I was the one who jumped off the building, I was the one in the overturned bus, I was the one who left Foxconn on foot, I was the one who froze to death on the road, I was the one with no income for months and couldn’t afford a veggie bun, and I was the one who died in the fire. Even if none of these were me, next time it could very well be me.”

Demonstrations such as Friday’s protests are rare in Xinjiang, where authorities in 2017 launched a security clampdown that forced more than a million of the region’s Uyghur, Kazakh and other mostly Muslim peoples into “reeducation” programs. Xinjiang has suffered some of the country’s harshest and longest-lasting anti-coronavirus measures, with residents reporting that they have been locked in their homes for weeks at a time without enough food.

During the pandemic, a number of facilities previously used for what the Chinese government called “vocational education and training” have been repurposed as quarantine centers. The United Nations concluded in August that human rights abuses in the region may constitute crimes against humanity.

Chinese officials have signaled that they want to move on from the crackdown, replacing the regional party leader in December and encouraging tourism. But Xinjiang continues to be one of the most strictly policed places in the world. Exiled Uyghur activists maintain that the campaign of forced assimilation is far from over.

National health authorities remain adamant that their strategy of cutting off transmission as soon as possible and quarantining all positive cases is the only way to prevent a surge in severe cases and deaths. They fear that a lack of natural immunity among the elderly and other vulnerable groups could result in already strained hospitals becoming overwhelmed with patients.

Critics of the policy are more concerned about collateral damage from the government’s uphill battle against more transmissible variants: medical care being denied or delayed because patients lack a negative coronavirus test; mental health trauma from too much time confined at home alone; an economic toll that is hitting poorer families the hardest.

Online, many mocked the Xinjiang government for being unable to get its story straight about the local coronavirus situation. On Saturday, Urumqi officials declared that the coronavirus was no longer circulating in the general population, while also saying that there were 273 buildings in the city designated as being at high risk for virus transmission.

Beneath state media articles reporting that Urumqi had “basically achieved zero covid in society,” the most common comments were questions from dumbfounded readers about how it could possibly have happened so quickly. One user simply wrote six question marks.

Even Hu Xijin, former editor in chief of the state-run Global Times newspaper, said that official statements would not be enough to quell public anger and that the local government should ease restrictions. Regardless of the role China’s covid policy may have played in the fire, the root cause of public dissatisfaction was that being under lockdown for several months “is really beyond what people are able to accept,” he wrote on WeChat.

One Urumqi resident in a low-risk area, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said that people could move freely within their compound but could not go to work, drive on the streets or move between districts. “In some neighborhoods all you can do is go out for an hour,” the person said, using a Chinese term for when prisoners are allowed outside to exercise.