A deadly fire in China’s northwest Xinjiang region has spurred an outpouring of anger at the country’s “zero COVID-19” policy, as Beijing fights growing public fatigue over its approach to containing the virus.
Ten people were killed and nine injured when the blaze ripped through a residential building in the regional capital of Urumqi on Thursday, Xinhua news agency reported.
Online posts circulating on Chinese and overseas social media platforms since Friday have said that lengthy COVID-19 lockdowns in the city hampered rescue attempts.
Some videos appeared to show crowds of people taking to the streets of Urumqi to protest against the measures.
The action comes against a backdrop of mounting public frustration over the Chinese government’s zero-tolerance approach to the COVID-19 pandemic and follows sporadic protests in other cities.
China is the last major economy wedded to a “zero COVID-19” strategy, with authorities wielding snap lockdowns, lengthy quarantines and mass testing in response to new outbreaks.
Footage showed hundreds of people massing outside the Urumqi City Government offices during the night, chanting: “Lift lockdowns.”
In another clip, dozens of people are seen marching through a neighborhood in the east of the city, shouting the same slogan before facing off with a line of officials wearing hazmat suits.
Journalists verified the videos by geolocating local landmarks, but were unable to specify when exactly the protests occurred.
A wave of anger simmered on social media on Friday amid claims that parked electric vehicles left without power during lengthy lockdowns blocked fire engines from entering a narrow road to the burning building.
“I’m also the one throwing myself off the roof, trapped in an overturned [quarantine] bus, breaking out of isolation at the Foxconn [Technology Group, 富士康科技集團] factory,” read one comment referencing several recent incidents blamed on “zero COVID-19” rules.
Chinese authorities censor online content deemed politically sensitive and appeared to have scrubbed many posts and hashtags relating to the fire by yesterday morning.
Urumqi police said on social media on Friday that they had detained a woman surnamed Su for “spreading online rumors” relating to the number of casualties from the blaze.
An initial investigation showed the blaze to have been caused by a board of electric sockets in the family bedroom of one of the apartments, state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) reported.
Rescue attempts were complicated by “a lack of parking spaces and a large number of private vehicles parked on both sides” of a narrow road to the building, city fire and rescue official Li Wensheng (李文勝) told reporters on Friday, CCTV reported.
Urumqi Mayor Maimaitiming Kade offered a formal apology for the blaze at the briefing, the broadcaster said.
However, officials also pushed back against some of the online allegations, denying that residents’ doors had been clamped shut with iron wiring.
COVID-19 controls have confined some communities in Urumqi — a city of 4 million people — to their homes for weeks on end.
In the wake of the protests, officials yesterday said that the city “had basically reduced social transmissions to zero” and would “restore the normal order of life for residents in low-risk areas in a staged and orderly manner.”
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