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World News

More anti-COVID protests in China sparked by deadly fire

Taipei, Taiwan-

Protests against China’s restrictive COVID-19 measures appeared to erupt in a number of cities on Saturday night, in demonstrations of public defiance stoked by anger over a deadly fire in the western region of Xinjiang.

Many of the protests could not immediately be confirmed, but in Shanghai police used pepper spray to arrest around 300 protesters who had gathered on Middle Urumqi Road at midnight, bringing flowers, candles and placards reading “Urumqi, November 24, those who died rest in peace” to commemorate the 10 deaths caused by a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.

A protester who gave only his last name, Zhao, said one of his friends was beaten by police and two friends were sprayed with pepper spray. He said police stomped on his feet as he tried to stop them from taking his friend away. He lost his shoes in the process and left the protest barefoot.

Zhao said protesters shouted slogans such as “Xi Jinping, quit, Communist Party, quit”, “Unlock Xinjiang, unlock China”, “don’t want PCR (tests), want freedom” and “the freedom of press”.

About 100 police stood line by line, preventing some protesters from gathering or leaving, and buses carrying more police arrived later, Zhao said.

Another protester, who gave only his surname Xu, said there was a larger crowd of thousands of protesters, but police stood in the road and let protesters pass on sidewalk.

Posts about the protest were immediately deleted on Chinese social media, as the Chinese Communist Party routinely does to suppress criticism.

Earlier Saturday, authorities in the Xinjiang region opened up parts of Urumqi after residents staged extraordinary late-night protests against the city’s draconian “zero-COVID-19” lockdown that had lasted more than three months. Many claimed that the obstacles caused by the anti-virus measures made the fire worse. It took rescuers three hours to extinguish the blaze, but officials denied the allegations, saying there were no barricades in the building and residents were allowed to leave.

During Xinjiang’s lockdown, some residents elsewhere in the city had their doors physically chained, including one who spoke to The Associated Press who declined to be named for fear of reprisals. Many in Urumqi believe such brute force tactics may have prevented residents from escaping in Thursday’s blaze and that the official death toll was an understatement.

Anger boiled over after Urumqi city officials held a press conference on the fire in which they appeared to blame residents of the apartment tower for the deaths.

“Some residents’ ability to save themselves was too weak,” said Urumqi fire chief Li Wensheng.

Police have cracked down on dissenting voices, announcing the arrest of a 24-year-old woman for spreading “false information” about the death toll online.

Late Friday, residents of Urumqi marched largely peacefully in large, billowing winter jackets in the cold winter night.

Videos of the protests showed people holding the Chinese flag and shouting “Open, open”. They quickly spread on Chinese social media despite heavy censorship. In some scenes, people shouted and pushed at rows of men in the white hazmat suits worn by local government workers and pandemic prevention volunteers, the videos show.

By Saturday, most had been deleted by censors. The Associated Press could not independently verify all of the videos, but two Urumqi residents who declined to be named for fear of reprisals said large-scale protests took place Friday night. One of them said he had friends who participated.

The AP identified the locations of two of the videos of the protests in different parts of Urumqi. In one video, police wearing face masks and hospital gowns clashed with screaming protesters. In another, a protester speaks to a crowd about his demands. It is unclear how widespread the protests were.

The protests, along with public anger online, are the latest signs of growing frustration with China’s intense approach to controlling COVID-19. It is the only major country in the world still fighting the pandemic through mass testing and lockdowns.

Given China’s vast security apparatus, protests are risky across the country, but extraordinary in Xinjiang, which has been the target of a brutal security crackdown for years. Large numbers of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities were dragged into a vast network of camps and prisons, instilling the fear that grips the region to this day.

Most of the protesters seen in the videos were Han Chinese. A Uighur woman living in Urumqi said it was because Uighurs were too scared to take to the streets despite their rage.

“Han Chinese people know they will not be punished if they speak out against the lockdown,” she said, declining to be named for fear of reprisals against her family. “Uyghurs are different. If we dare to say such things, we will be taken to prison or to camps.”

In a video, which the AP could not independently verify, senior Urumqi official Yang Fasen told angry protesters that he would open the city’s low-risk areas the next morning.

That promise was kept the following day, when authorities in Urumqi announced that residents of low-risk areas would be allowed to move freely through their neighborhoods. Yet many other neighborhoods remain under lockdown.

Officials also triumphantly declared on Saturday that they had essentially reached “societal zero COVID-19”, meaning there was no more community spread and new infections were only being detected in people already under sanitary supervision, such as those in a centralized quarantine facility. .

Social media users greeted the news with disbelief and sarcasm. “Only China can reach this speed,” wrote one user on Weibo.

On Chinese social media, where trending topics are manipulated by censors, the “zero-COVID-19” ad was the number 1 trending hashtag on both Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, and Douyin, the edition Chinese from Tiktok. The apartment fire and protests became a lightning rod for public anger as millions shared posts questioning China’s pandemic controls or mocking the country’s rigid propaganda and strict censorship controls.

The explosion of criticism marks a sharp turn in public opinion. Early in the pandemic, China’s approach to controlling COVID-19 was hailed by its own citizens as minimizing deaths at a time when other countries were suffering devastating waves of infections. Chinese leader Xi Jinping had held up this approach as an example of the superiority of the Chinese system over the West and especially the United States, which had politicized the use of face masks and had difficulty in putting in place measures. widespread lockdowns.

But support for “zero-COVID” has crumbled in recent months as tragedies have sparked public anger. Last week, the city government of Zhengzhou in central Henan Province apologized for the death of a 4-month-old baby. She died after delaying medical treatment while suffering from vomiting and diarrhea in quarantine at a hotel in Zhengzhou.

The government has doubled down on its policy while relaxing some measures, such as shortening quarantine times. The central government has repeatedly said it will stick to “zero COVID-19”.

Many in Xinjiang have been locked down since August. Most have not been allowed to leave their homes, and some have reported harsh living conditions, including spotty food deliveries that have left residents hungry. On Friday, the city reported 220 new cases, the vast majority of which were asymptomatic.

The Uyghur woman from Urumqi said she had been trapped in her apartment since August 8 and had not even been allowed to open her window. On Friday, residents of his neighborhood defied the order, opening their windows and shouting in protest. She joined.

“No more confinements! No more confinements!” they shouted.


Kang reported from Beijing.

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