Their deaths in a fire triggered China’s biggest protests in generations, but few people seemed to know the victims were Uighur families torn apart by Beijing’s crackdown in Xinjiang.
On Nov. 24, 10 people died in an apartment block blaze in Urumqi, the northwestern region’s capital, with many around China blaming a grinding COVID-19 lockdown for scuppering rescue efforts.
The news unleashed long-simmering resentment over Beijing’s health curbs, setting off widespread demonstrations that helped tip the government into reversing its strict coronavirus measures.
For the protesters, those who died in the fire were martyrs of China’s “zero COVID” policy.
However, interviews with relatives of the victims show they felt the fire was only the latest tragedy to strike their community.
Abdulhafiz Maimaitimin, a Uighur who left China in 2016 and now lives in Switzerland, lost his aunt, Qemernisahan Abdurahman, and four of her young children in the fire. Her husband and son, along with Maimaitimin’s father, were arrested by Chinese authorities in 2016 and 2017.
Maimaitimin and his family believe they were spirited into a sprawling network of detention centers where China has been accused of detaining more than 1 million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities.
“My aunt waited several years for [her loved ones] to be released, but died without seeing them again,” 27-year-old Maimaitimin said.
After allegations by Washington and others of genocide, a UN report in August said that torture claims were credible and that the detentions might constitute crimes against humanity.
Beijing says the facilities are voluntary vocational schools designed to eliminate extremist thought.
The mainly Uighur area of Urumqi where the fire erupted appeared to have been under strict COVID-19 curbs since August.
“Perhaps if my aunt’s husband and son had been there, they could have used their strength to save them, but maybe not, since the door was locked from the outside,” Maimaitimin said.
Other residents and relatives of the deceased have made similar claims and alleged that lockdown barricades slowed the emergency response.
Authorities have denied the accusations.
Memmetli Abbas, a Uighur living in Turkey, said his daughter and granddaughter only escaped by alerting a local official who let them out.
However, the pair were later “questioned with regard to the fire”, he said. “I don’t know where they are.”
Abbas said his family’s grievances also predate the blaze. His oldest son has been in prison since 2017 after returning from a trip overseas, and his nephew was taken away to a camp the same year, he said.
“I don’t know why he’s being held, but I believe he’s there because he’s Uighur and he’s Muslim,” he said.
The deaths ignited fury in Urumqi and inspired action in other cities.
Notably, protesters in Shanghai gathered at Wulumuqi Road — named after Urumqi in Mandarin — as the wave of rallies peaked on the weekend of Nov. 26 and 27.
Silent vigils, calls for solidarity and anti-lockdown slogans expanded into demands for freedom of speech and even Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) resignation.
“We are all Xinjiang people,” demonstrators in Beijing chanted.
However, awareness of the victims’ ethnic background remained limited in a country where the government strictly controls the press and censors social media.
The protests were fueled largely by frustration over “zero COVID,” rather than solidarity with the Uighurs as such, experts said.
“It’s an attempt to avoid [a disaster] happening to them next, rather than an attempt to show ... empathy or understanding with Uighurs,” said David Tobin, a lecturer in East Asian Studies at the UK’s University of Sheffield.
The demonstrations did not appear to address the “racialized dimension” of health restrictions in Xinjiang, he said.
He cited an enhanced security presence, heavier-handed measures, and a lack of essential supplies in Uighur areas under “zero COVID” as examples of the even heavier tactics deployed there.
Meanwhile, years of persecution deterred ethnic minority citizens from joining the protests themselves, Turkey-based Uighur activist Jevlan Shirmemmet said.
“Why do you think no Uighurs took part in the Urumqi demonstrations?” he asked. “Because they can’t go out. They’re either too scared or ... they’ll be branded as terrorists if they do.”
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