Nov 26 (Reuters) – Rare protests erupted in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, with crowds shouting at security guards after a deadly fire sparked anger over their extended COVID-19 lockdown, as infections nationwide set a new record .
Crowds chanted “End the lockdown!”, pumping their fists in the air as they walked down a street, according to videos circulated on Chinese social media Friday night. Reuters has verified that the images were published from the Xinjiang capital Urumqi.
Videos showed people in a square singing China’s national anthem that read, “Arise, those who refuse to be slaves!” while others shouted to be released from the lockdowns.
China has placed the vast Xinjiang region under one of the country’s longest lockdowns, with many of Urumqi’s 4 million residents banned from leaving their homes for 100 days. The city reported about 100 new cases each in the past two days.
Xinjiang is home to 10 million Uighurs. Rights groups and Western governments have long accused Beijing of abuses against its predominantly Muslim ethnic minority, including forced labor in internment camps. China strongly rejects such claims.
The Urumqi protests followed a fire at a high-rise building there that left 10 dead on Thursday night.
Authorities have said residents of the building were able to get down, but videos of the emergency services’ efforts shared on Chinese social media led many internet users to suspect that residents could not escape in time because the building was partially sealed.
Urumqi officials abruptly held a press conference in the early hours of Saturday, denying that COVID measures had hindered escape and rescue, but said they would investigate further. One said residents could have escaped faster if they had a better understanding of fire safety.
‘ACLAMINATE THE VICTIM’
Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said such a “blame-the-victim” attitude would make people angrier. “Public confidence is only going to get lower,” he told Reuters.
Users on China’s Weibo platform described the incident as a tragedy stemming from China’s insistence on sticking to its zero COVID policy and something that could happen to anyone. Some lamented the similarities to September’s deadly crash of a COVID quarantine bus.
“Isn’t there something we can think about making some changes,” said an essay that went viral on WeChat on Friday, questioning the official story about the Urumqi apartment fire.
China defends President Xi Jinping’s signature zero-COVID policy as lifesaving and necessary to avoid overwhelming its healthcare system. Officials have vowed to push through with it, despite growing public pushback and the mounting toll from the world’s second-largest economy.
While the country has recently adjusted its measures, shortened quarantines and other targeted measures, this, coupled with rising cases, has caused widespread confusion and uncertainty in major cities, including Beijing, where many residents are confined to their homes.
China recorded 34,909 local cases daily, low by global standards but the third record in a row, with infections spreading to countless cities, leading to widespread lockdowns and other restrictions on movement and business.
Shanghai, China’s most populous city and financial center, on Saturday tightened testing requirements for entering cultural venues such as museums and libraries, requiring people to present a negative COVID test taken within 48 hours, instead of 72 hours earlier .
Beijing’s Chaoyang Park, popular with runners and picnickers, closed again after a brief reopening.
Reporting by Yew Lun Tian; Edited by William Mallard
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